More than anything, the recent election highlighted that we are a nation divided. Regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the anger, hostility, and frustration in America are alarmingly high. Each one of us can look around and point a finger at those who are pointing a finger at us. We blame the media, or a party or a demographic. We look at them with disgust and disbelief. They are blaming us too.
Yet no matter how much we shout or wring our hands, no matter how reasonable we think we are, there are roughly 60 million people who passionately believe something different. We can wave facts and statistics in the air to prove our point. We can accuse “them” of being reckless or of not understanding history. Yet no matter how much data we have at our fingertips, there will always be other theories that explain that evidence just as well. Scientists and philosophers call this the Duhem-Quine Thesis. Theories are underdetermined by evidence.
While there are nasty and deplorable people on both sides of the divide, there are also tens-of-millions of everyday folks who simply believe something different. They are our neighbors and friends and family. They include good, hardworking people who, in so many other domains of life, are reasonable and kind. It is not that they lack the right facts. There is no politician-savior who will rescue any of us. If we are going to heal as a nation, and it is important that we do, we need to set aside our egos and have the courage to look inward. (Really, this is a message to everyone—Democrat, Republican, independent, whomever.)
Recognize Our Own Shortcomings
If roughly half of the nation disagrees with us, and we can accept that they are not all evil or ignorant, then there must be some basis for their beliefs. There must be something about what we believe that rings hollow or falls short for them. Do we have the courage to look at our own principles and assumptions and see the thin spots? We do not need to abandon our beliefs or agree with the other. There is no need for self-flagellation or to post our own shortcomings on Facebook. But in the still quiet moments, can we look at our own policies and programs and positions and say, “Yes, I understand how reasonable people could have their misgivings.” The first step to healing, as individuals and as a country, is holding open the possibility for understanding.
As long as people have banded together in tribes, there have been disagreements about the most fundamental of principles. History has, no doubt, had more than its share of massacres and war. But that is not the whole of the human experiment. More often than not, in a less dramatic fashion, people have found ways to get along and even enrich one another’s lives, while disagreeing. There would not be any nations or cultures or communities left if this were not true. The wholly perplexing, incomprehensible, and foreign beliefs of my neighbors are just different answers to the exact same human questions we are all struggling with. We all want physical and economic safety. We want the best world for our children. We want to feel that we matter. Throughout the entire history of our planet, every culture has found different ways of approaching and answering these questions.
So, while staying open to understanding does not require agreement, it does reassert and confirm a sense of humanity in the other. It is the humanity that has been left behind while we were all so busy with our insults and smugness, our anger and our fear. If we are to address the real differences between us, it is essential that we maintain a commitment to humanity.
Commitment to Humanity
This is not easy. A dedication to kindness and a refusal to inflict harm on one another, can take tremendous courage and restraint. It requires us to look at our most fundamental beliefs and admit that we too are human and flawed. Meanwhile the other may be screaming or acting as if we are ignorant. However, an invitation to understanding, empathy, and respect, gives the other a backdoor out of their own hostility. As a lawyer who has negotiated over 10,000 disputes, I have seen this over-and-over again. A steadfast devotion to benevolence creates pathways to resolution. It makes it possible to find peace, despite the things we cannot control. A commitment to humanity does not change the positions of the parties. It changes their relationship.
Be gentle with one another.
© 2016 John Albert Doyle, Jr.
References and Further Readings:
Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
Doyle, John Sean. Being Human: A Chapbook of Selected Essays. A Love Letter. Raleigh: Rainstick, 2015.
Nagler, Michael N. Is There No Other Way?: The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills, 2001. Print.
Hands by Marjan Lazarevski/Flickr, generously made available via a Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license, Retrieved November 12, 2016
A Village © 2016 by John Sean Doyle. All Rights Reserved.