The crisis of our politics has burst upon us in the two-week crescendo of discord in the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to our Supreme Court.  The loss of trust in our neighbors, and especially in our politicians, signifies the loss of politics as a conversation grounded in deliberation.  We witness this in the general response to what is a classic two-sided story.  Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accuses Judge Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her at a party during their youth.  Judge Kavanaugh insists no such event occurred.  The two accounts are mutually exclusive and the information, as we have it after their testimonies on Thursday, is too sparse to resolve the question.

This crisis is an apt mirror because our response to it implies that we must examine ourselves to move resolutely beyond its impasse.  With one shared set of data, nearly half the population contends that Judge Kavanaugh is a sexual assailant, or worse, a rapist, and nearly half the population contends that Dr. Ford is a liar and a political weapon attempting to undermine a good man.  This situation uncannily reminds one of the old Gestalt psychology question about the same image: is it a duck or a rabbit?

Bernard Lonergan, SJ, gives us two general criteria for making true, but limited, judgments about what is true and good.  The first is whether the conditions (A) for something being the case (B) are fulfilled or not: If A, then B.  So, is A evidenced?  If the image has two long ears and a nose for nibbling, then it’s a rabbit.  If it has a flat beak and rounded head, then it’s a duck.  With the Gestalt image, the role of interpretation in making sense of the facts comes to the fore.  So does the fact that we ultimately need more data than the image supplies.  As that image stands, both ‘stories’ make sense of the data of the image.  Consequently, we can all the more appreciate how, in a case like the one before the nation and Senate, the array of conditions is quite extensive: who was where, and when, and doing what?  Does this conflict with other information and testimonies?  Like curve-fitting techniques, does our explanation leave out important data?  The conditions include everything that would be required for one account to be true and the other to be false.  We spend a lot of time insisting which story is correct, and too little time considering what it would take for this story truly to be the case.

Lonergan’s second criteria for making true judgments refers to the authenticity – the character – of the one (or in this case, ones) making the judgment: in handling the matter at stake, has this person been (i) attentive to the all the relevant data, (ii) intelligent in asking further pertinent questions, (iii) reasonable in assembling and evaluating the significant evidence, and (iv) responsible in making a decision?  Concretely, have they dutifully answered all the further relevant questions about this issue?

Considering our crisis in this light, it becomes painfully clear that different groups of people have different criteria for what counts as relevant.  We can recall Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s wisdom: ‘Everyone’s entitled to [their] own opinion, but not [to their] own facts.’  Many of us think it’s a duck, many of us think it’s a rabbit, and some of us are able to see both.  Philosophers use the metaphor of a “horizon” to describe how the constellation of meanings, values, and interests, which are shaped by who and what we love, condition how we handle the situations that arise around us.  Our horizons fundamentally condition what each of us determines as relevant.  So, those on each side consider as relevant the ‘convenient’ facts and as irrelevant those that get in the way of prior agendas (these might not even come up at all for them!).  Unfortunately, while we can ask and answer further questions and change our horizons, we can never get out of having a horizon altogether.  Whatever answer we ultimately give will involve a horizon: the question is, will we let our horizons be truncated to such a point that we can no longer share the truth with our neighbor?

It’s crucial that we distinguish being ‘conditioned’ from being ‘determined.’  Statesmanship, especially, depends on the possibility of self-transcendence – moving beyond our initially narrow horizons – that is a prerequisite of genuine conversation and friendship in every situation.  And it is possible to grow in this way.  We are not locked in our echo chambers.  Our American community is currently fractured by the combination of a plurality of horizons and our general unwillingness to transcend our personal – or our party’s – horizon for a higher viewpoint of the concrete situation.  What is required of us, and particularly of our politicians, is not simply that we leap from our horizon to some uninterpreted fact of the matter just waiting to be uncovered to save us all.  Still, unlike in the case of the Gestalt image, the two answers are not commensurate.  We do need to settle which one is correct.  We do need to hear from the further relevant aspects of “[Leland] Keyser, Blasey’s parents and siblings, [Mark] Judge, [P.J.] Smyth, and definitely ‘Squi,’” as Ross Douthat has argued in “Only the Truth Can Save Us Now,” even if the ‘we’ here means ‘through the investigatory work of the FBI.’

But more than this, we need to expand our willingness to listen to each other.  We need to encounter each other with trust in our common desire for the good.  We need to take seriously the critical questions that many are raising on both sides.  And we especially need to expand our willingness both to ask and answer these further relevant questions that may present us with uncomfortable truths and to commit ourselves to the true and good courses of action that follow from whichever answer we find.

In this, we can find a proximate model in Senator Jeff Flake.  However one feels about his other policies and actions, one can admire his development towards self-transcendence on Friday, September 28, 2018.  One can imagine the inner conflict that emerged in him as he uncomfortably shifted on his feet for the five minutes that he listened to two women protesting the decision he made earlier, allowing them to broaden his horizon – to “open his eyes” a bit, as we say.  Neither should one underestimate the impact that his friend, Senator Chris Coons, made on Senator Flake’s process of deliberation, both in Senator Coons’ tearful “struggling” to make sense of Senator Flake’s decision to disregard the further ethical questions at hand and in their subsequent conversation that afternoon.  Senator Flake realized that statesmanship is not just a matter of finding the means to achieve predetermined political ends, but of expanding one’s self in order to determine true and good ends themselves in the concrete situation.  Finally, one can respect that he took a stance against his party’s (immediate) interests and followed through on his conviction to stand for the common good of our country.

 In this, then, we also learn something about what it means to be a good judge.  Later in his career, Lonergan offers us a final precept in deliberating: to be loving.  With this in mind, we (both senators and the American people) find ourselves faced with an additional question, in light of Judge Kavanaugh’s recent behavior, of whether he is sufficiently responsible and loving – juris-prudentially qualified – regardless of the accusation, to serve as a justice for our nation.

With a special eye to the impending testimony of the friends of Dr. Ford and of Judge Kavanaugh, our political crisis is a crisis of friendship and a crisis of truth and goodness.  These are issues that begin not in Washington, but at home, in our capacity to transcend our desires to hear a certain answer and in our ability to see each other with love rather than enmity.  We can begin to do this by asking ourselves challenging questions and taking full responsibility for what we might learn, because we might find that the injustice in our country stems from the injustice in our own hearts.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.