What a difference a week makes. How are you feeling? I can only describe my own experience as ‘off.’ Things feel heavy, fraught, tense, uncertain, and anxious. All the talking and writing I do about tolerating uncertainty and holding space for tension feels almost comically hypocritical right now, as I grapple with my own practices. But more than that, I feel accelerated degradation of relationships all around me. Armed men march and yell at the Michigan capitol building (where a woman governor serves). More armed men gather in front of state public health director Dr. Amy Acton’s house in Ohio (not the capitol, where a man governor serves), saying there will be no violence, “for now.”
People on the ‘side’ of public health deride decisions to reopen state economies as willfully ignorant, even malicious. People on the ‘side’ of reopening economies derail stay at home orders as fascist. Perhaps these are the minority voices of each ‘side’, but they are loud, and they dominate public discourse and social media (I know, I know, moderate my intake, yada yada). Yet another false dichotomy escalates with increasing vehemence on both sides. I have mulled it for weeks and not found a good way to write about it.
Late yesterday, I found two pieces that help, written by conservatives I respect.
In the first, “What Republicans’ Kool Aid Moment Means for the Rest of Us”, Chris Ladd outlines our fatal flaw as humans, and then asks some profoundly important questions about how to resist the ultimate pitfalls of that flaw:
“Confronted with displays of cult loyalty we commonly resort to some mistaken conclusions, dismissing these people as crazy or stupid. These assumptions are born of the same logic that leads people to blame the sick for their illness, a desire to manufacture some difference between them and us, something that would leave us immune to their condition. We want to believe that there’s something uniquely broken, inferior, or even subhuman about the people in those pathetically sad images of self-destruction. Those dismissive characterizations of cultists aren’t just false, they are dangerous.
“We are not inherently rational creatures. By nature, our model of reality is not a product of careful individual inquiry, formed through a critical review of all available data, but a social construct heavily influenced by our preferences, hopes, and the collective will of our tribe. Human beings are capable of independent, rational thought premised on a body of constantly moving data, just like we are capable of juggling or riding a bike. Absent special training, critical, data-centered reasoning is so effortful, difficult and unnatural that any political order premised on the rationality of the average man will be consistently unstable.
“Even with careful training over years, a life of critical thought remains a challenging endeavor, costly to maintain and not suited to every circumstance. Riding a bike sounds easy once you’ve learned to do it but try dialing your phone or eating a sandwich while peddling and you’ll see the challenge. Careful, critical reasoning is resource-expensive. None of us engage in it as much as we think we do.
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“Once again, our nation is faced with the painful process of sorting through grave sexual assault allegations against a powerful man. Once again, the public assessment of the veracity of those claims is lining up all-too-neatly with the partisan needs of the moment. Those who object to the rush to judgment against the accused will often ask if how we’d respond if, say, Joe Biden or Brett Kavanaugh was someone you loved. What if he was your father or grandfather. Would you feel like they’d been treated fairly?
“The counter is quick. What if Tara Reade or Christine Blasey Ford was someone you loved? Can you imagine how you’d feel as they mustered up the courage to tell a dreadful story and then you watched them endure the inevitable slings and arrows of scorn, hatred, and mockery?
“But there’s a different, better construct. What would the world look like if an imperfect population that possessed imperfect knowledge loved them both?
“Due process is just, and it’s indispensable to the pursuit of justice. It is the answer to the question at the start of this newsletter—in the most fraught of claims and the most vicious of crimes—What if we loved them both? What if both accused and accuser were of equal worth? When we consider the right to bring a claim, the requirements of evidence, and even the time limits imposed on cases (given the difficulty of both defending against and proving very old allegations), we not only humbly acknowledge our inability to peer into a person’s soul to discern truth, we also acknowledge that even the mightiest man can and should be brought low when the evidence dictates.
“But protecting due process (like protecting free speech) is hard. Just as permitting bad speech is a necessity for maintaining the larger, just legal structure of free speech—individual injustices can also protect the larger, necessary structure of due process.
“Each person involved in the controversy is of equal worth, a human being created in God’s image. That means the accusers have a right to bring their claim and be heard, respectfully and fully. That means the accused have their own rights to defend themselves, and a presumption of innocence is wise. Our own extreme fallibility and inability to peer into a human soul means that we should diligently seek external evidence that corroborates or rebuts any allegation or defense.
“It is true that our culture has frequently failed women. It has failed in the obligation to treat them with respect or to fully hear or fairly consider their claims of terrible crimes. It is also true that our culture has also failed men, especially black men. There are simply too many terribly tragic tales of men dying at the hands of a mob in the face of an unsubstantiated claim of sexual misconduct. Even today, there are echoes of that awful injustice in the way in which black men are treated in campus courts.
“But the answer to historical injustice isn’t another, equal and opposite injustice. That’s the score-settling that leads to endless ideological and partisan conflict. Instead, the answer is to discern the correct standard, and hew to it as closely as we can. Conservatives should not seek ‘revenge’ for Brett Kavanaugh. Progressives should not give in to the temptation of believing a Democrat through highly-subjective judgments of ‘demeanor’ or ‘temperament.’ That’s the God’s-eye view. And human beings are terrible at playing God.”
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The essays above, while encouraging, also ring abstract and esoteric. How do we take these lofty ideals and apply them today, in our daily lives, so as not to feel so disconnected, so disparate? Because what good are ideals if we cannot live them out? We really are all in this together. What’s helping you remember that, really feel it, right now?
In our lifetime, there may be no more important moment than right now to recognize and truly honor, in our minds, hearts, and bodies, our shared humanity. I took a stab at an action plan with the list below. What would you add?
- Stop thinking ‘we’ are better than ‘them’; really try hard to see everybody as equally worthy to engage.
- Marshal our best skills at patience and generosity when ‘they’ say they’re better than ‘us.’
- Focus on shared goals and humanity— how are we all ‘us’?
- Lead by example resisting the urge to oversimplify and over generalize; look for and point out complexity and nuance. See this as a strength rather than a weakness.
- Do not fall for baiting and inciting statements meant to trigger defensiveness.
- Acknowledge and concede the flaws and faults of ‘our side’; encourage others to do the same.
- Disengage, for the moment, when ‘opponents’ as well as ‘allies’ show themselves, or we find ourselves, to be uninterested in following or unable to follow these rules of engagement. Even when our intentions are earnest, this stuff is hard. And it takes grit and perseverance to train. And almost all of us are total novices at it. So we have a LONG way to go. Try again later. And again, and again, and again.