Divided America: Let's Be More Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A pioneer in gender equality, and also in making our country less divided

Posted Jan 25, 2019

ruth Bader Ginsburg, official SCOTUS photo
Source: ruth Bader Ginsburg, official SCOTUS photo

Few people are more lionized in our culture today than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With two new films about her life (RBG, released in May, and On the Basis of Sex, which came out in December) she is the Person of the Moment.  And rightly so.

There is virtually no one who has been as tireless and effective in gender-rights litigation as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  She has used the law to change the law.  And American society is the beneficiary.

But she is also a wonderful role model for us in still another way that I find equally important.  She provides a wonderful model for us in her willingness and ability to develop strong, personal friendships with people she philosophically disagrees with.  I am referring specifically to her long-term friendship with Antonin Scalia

It’s tempting to lump them together as similarly black-robed Supreme Court justices.  But of all the Supreme Court justices, they were the most opposed politically, judicially and philosophically. 

Ginsburg had spent the entirety of her long legal career promoting and litigating very liberal causes, especially involving gender equality. Whereas Scalia was equally committed to vigorously undermining many of those same liberal causes.

So how could they possibly ever become friends?

There are five aspects to their friendship that, I believe, were very key to making it work.  They are:

AVAILABILITY

This is a simple, obvious thing, but it’s very important.  Both Ginsburg and Scalia worked in the Supreme Court together from August 1993, until Scalia’s death in 2015.  So, they were around each other enough to be available to explore a friendship.  There are other ways of being available of course, but nothing beats physical proximity.

RESPECT

Ginsburg and Scalia both respected each other personally, and had great respect for each other as judicial thinkers.  During the twenty years they served together on the Supreme Court, they always read each other’s judicial opinions.  They invariably came to very different conclusions, but each greatly respected the cogency of the other’s reasoning and logic.

Ginsburg was full of praise for Scalia’s intellectual acumen.  “He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit,” she once wrote.  “He had that rare ability of being able to make even the most sober judge laugh!” 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

One of the most important things for Ginsburg and Scalia was that they were so open in acknowledging their political differences.  In fact, they even joked about it.

Being able to freely acknowledge political differences in a friendly way to the other party is extremely important.

In working with clients, and counseling people to communicate across political barriers, I have found that open acknowledgement to the other party is one of the hardest things for people to do. People are often very afraid to say out loud to the other party how they feel about their differences.  It seems too big and too explosive to talk about.

So they focus on other things, and studiously avoid talking about their political differences, and try to pretend as though everything’s normal, and that they’re not avoiding anything.

What happens of course, is that the thing they are most avoiding—their political difference—is the thing that everyone is most aware of.  It’s huge, but no one’s talking about it.  It’s the elephant in the living room.

This is what is so great about the example of Ginsburg and Scalia’s friendship.  They were totally up-front about the huge political chasm between them, and even joked about it! 

That way they could acknowledge it and move on. 

That’s the model we all need to follow.

SOMETHING ELSE TO FOCUS ON

Since Ginsburg and Scalia weren’t going to obsess over their political differences, they needed something else to focus on.  In their case, it happened to be opera and food.

It turned out that opera and food were great enthusiasms for both of them. Ginsburg’s husband was a gourmet cook and provided many memorable feasts for Ginsburg and Scalia to share.

They could have had a very good, solid friendship without food and opera. But the presence of food and opera made a good friendship extraordinary.

THE FRIENDSHIP OF GINSBURG AND SCALIA: A MODEL FOR ALL OF US.

Every wonderful friendship is unique unto itself, and Ginsburg and Scalia’s was no exception.

But there were some basic elements that made their friendship work, despite their great political differences.  The two big ones were: genuine mutual respect, and being able to freely and openly acknowledge their differences.

These are elements that any of us could easily duplicate and use to build our own friendships across political and ideological barriers.  And in our exponentially dividing country, nothing is more crucially important. 

Ginsburg and Scalia have proved it’s possible. 

The next step is up to us.

© 2019 David Evans