Against the backdrop of this fall’s divisive presidential election, Fordham Law Professors Russell Pearce and Olivier Sylvain joined leading religion and public policy thinkers at an event discussing how American citizens can recognize and respect each other’s shared humanity in spite of partisan differences.
Pearce, the Edward & Marilyn Bellet Chair in Legal Ethics, Morality, and Religion, highlighted ways that lawyers can facilitate positive conversations with clients that promote mutual and societal interests. Sylvain, an information law expert, provided an overview of the positive and negative effects of our shared online network.
The professors shared their insights during a September 19 event titled “Dialogue Across Difference in a Polarized America: Should Americans Confront Public Disputes with Relationship or Hate.” Fordham Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyer’s Work and Fordham University’s Department of Theology co-sponsored the event.
Fordham University Professor Marcia Pally’s latest book, Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality, served as the intellectual impetus for the evening’s discussion.
Lawyers are, at their core, civic teachers who educate the public on their rights and responsibilities in accordance with the law, Pearce explained. However, in recent decades, their assumed role of shepherding the public good has transformed into one where the driving motivation of some in the profession is what they can get away with.
“Lawyers have helped create this mess, and we have a responsibility, therefore, to clean it up,” Pearce said of the current public discord.
The polarization that exists between supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart Donald Trump inevitably leads to demonization of the other side, Pearce added. In this environment, it is easy to move from hating one’s idea to hating the person who has or supports the idea, and to view them as that idea rather than a human being, he explained.
Lawyers, in contrast, must make renewed efforts to view their clients in a relational context in order to find greater satisfaction and success in their work. Pearce, a nationally renowned legal ethics scholar, co-authored a 2014 paper on the topic titled “What’s Love Got to Do with Lawyers? Thoughts on Relationality, Love, and Lawyers’ Work.”
“Even rainmakers of law firms who might worship at the idol of the market will be open to some of this conversation because they realize their success is based on relationships,” Pearce said.
Whereas other panelists weighed the import of Pally’s scholarship through a theological lens, Sylvain addressed its conclusions as they relate to technology’s impact on our daily discourse.
“There’s a heated question about what the concept of human nature is in the context of a networked world,” Sylvain said. “Is it bringing us together or tearing us apart?”
The answer, Sylvain noted, comes in bits and pieces, as the law struggles to balance, for instance, protecting historically disadvantaged people from cyberbullying while providing social media platforms a certain degree of immunity, so as not to hamper innovation. Recent revelations that users of the housing rental platform Airbnb discriminated based on race also raise doubts about the abilities of new technologies to overcome deeply embedded bias.
“Indeed the networks reveal we have much more in common than is different, but it doesn’t erase our difference,” Sylvain said. “To the contrary, it sometimes seems to exaggerate and proliferate difference in ways that perpetuate disadvantage.”
In addition to Pearce and Sylvain, other panelists included Fordham University Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou, co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center; Harvard University Professor Harvey Cox; and Georgetown University Professor and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. New York Law School Professor Nadine Strossen moderated.