Dedicated to Kate Gilbert.
In days since the election being good often takes finding an antidote to the anger and hate that animate much of the losers’ horror and the winners’ hoopla. The Left – Right divide is wider than ever, and few disagree that it portends a dark fate we have chosen for ourselves.
Number me among those few. Political differences in a liberal democracy, vexing though they may be, don’t often make anyone hate or be mean to anyone.
The real danger is that the number and power of those who believe that only selfishness, mental illness, or stupidity can explain why anyone would dare to oppose them is growing along with an attendant disgust directed at those mean and sick morons who risk it. Whether that faction will overwhelm those who believe that they (to paraphrase Elie Weisel) have more in common with a sincere and tolerant adversary than they do with an ally who is neither sincere nor tolerant remains to be seen.
It doesn’t look good, and reversing the trend begins with remembering that both those attitudes are learned and that both are spread evenly among advocates of the Left and the Right.
Beyond that, Jason’s story, shared by the man’s mother, a friend of nearly 50 years, provides an entry point to anyone seeking the means to roll back the tenor of the times.It could well have been included in Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age by Gregory Wolfe.
Jason helps maintain properties owned by his parents. He told his mother about a tenant who was barely making the rent. She wanted to help and lowered the rent by $50. Sometime later she received a text from the tenant thanking her for the $150 reduction. She spoke to Jason about the need to quickly correct the misunderstanding. He confessed that since he collected the rent, he didn’t think anyone would notice that he was supplementing his mother’s discount with $100 of his own.
So who is Jason? Does he also teach Sunday school, donate blood, and adopt strays? Or maybe he enjoys a rowdy drink with the boys, cusses, and likes to fart out loud? (I’m thinking he adopts strays to have someone to blame his gas on.)
Do you imagine he leans right, believing that “that government is best that governs least, and if it would just get out of our way, we could take care of each other? Or maybe you believe he leans left, angry that government doesn’t do enough meet people’s basic needs, like, duh, providing basic housing.
How do you think he voted? As a true believer? Or did he hold his nose and pull the lever for a candidate who, in spite of his or her, well, imperfections, at least wasn’t the other one? Any chance he didn’t vote at all?
More trenchant, do you think Jason would have still helped the tenant if he knew her politics were adversarial to his own?
My own answer to the first questions is: Why should I care? The beauty of the story is that it tells us all we need to know about him. I will risk assuming that like most people Jason struggles to keep his failings from overtaking his virtues; overflows with unused potential; and makes a load of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon.
My answer to the last question is: Absolutely! Most people are kind and will use the means at hand to ease the hardships directly presented by another.
And so I claim: We are all Jason.
Now I can name readers, Left and Right, and too many teachers, who are spitting out their coffee, laughing out loud at what they assume to be either my innocence or my ignorance.
But our goodness creates our politics. It’s not the other way around. Sometime ago you and I considered a political issue but drew different conclusions about the best solution.The outcome, along with associated arguments, reinforced or refuted our opinions, and we used that data in the next decision they made. Then it happened again. Then again. And again. With time, experience, and reflection, we perceived commonalities in the choices that we thought worked best and those that didn’t. We learned those commonalities were called Conservative, Liberal, or Independent, and we labeled ourselves accordingly.
How Conservative, Liberal, or Independent we become represents the consistency of our determination of the best means to reach an end and we call it our ideology. Just because we end up way apart ideologically is no reason to hate each other. At worst it should just makes each of us think the other is wrong a lot. In no way should should it inform our judgment of each other’s kindness, integrity, sense of humor, or anything else that makes one likable or respectable.
A more welcome alternative to hating someone for ending up so far away from me politically is to be curious and welcome the tests their rebuttals bring to my own thinking. (Here’s where emptying the cup comes in.)
As long as it’s done sincerely and without condescension, engaging adversaries is a win-win proposition. We learn that we have more in common than we expected and that each has considered issues as deeply as the other. Plus, everyone gets smarter by learning how to defend ourselves persuasively, humbler by learning the limits and errors of our analyses, and friendlier by discovering that our adversaries possess many attractive traits.*
Teachers can have a huge impact in all of this. Whether students bond with each other should be a matter of personality and not politics. So, “Students will make friends with ideological adversaries,” may not work as an instructional objective. But all content areas lend themselves to resolving disputes. The more we give problems to solve that can approached from multiple directions, on multiple levels, and that require (as in the standards of mathematical practice) that students convince first themselves, then a friend, then an opponent, the more students’ better angels of sincerity and tolerance will develop.
And the more they’ll be able to say, and God-willing before it’s too late, “We are all Jason, too.”
*My model in this is my intellectual hero, the late Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley hosted Firing Line, a weekly show in which he debated his political adversaries. He was known for inviting only the best advocates of views opposing his own. Late in life he was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. She asked him about this and he said he wanted to see how his opinions stood up against the most challenging rebuttals. Buckley was also famous for becoming close personal friends with his political opponents.