One thing about Americans: we love a moral imperative. We care what our candidates think about taxes and economic policy, but we care more about their views on abortion, birth control, gay rights, religious freedom. Whether you subscribe to the catchphrase “Family Values” or “Marriage Equality,” we all expect our political theater to provide a moral compass. It’s a defining feature of our society of which we should be justly proud.
But it’s also deafening.
All you have to do is mention that someone’s rights might be in peril, and the decibel level of American voices instantly increases. Rights have been infringed; the law must intervene; justice must be done! Yes. Exactly. The problem is, when both sides see themselves holding the banner of Right, both sides raise their voices. Loving moral imperatives has given us quite a taste for shouting matches, too.
If you watched the parade of headlines about the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, you know what I mean:
Hobby Lobby ruling shows Supreme Court gives corporations, not people, more rights (Christian Science Monitor)
Hobby Lobby Case: Religious freedom’s worth more than $35 (Fox News)
Hobby Lobby win at the Supreme Court could lead to more anti-gay laws (Huffington Post)
The Left Can’t Stop Distorting the Hobby Lobby Decision (Townhall.com)
When Americans get worked up about rights, semi-automatic verbal strafing clamors through our streets until it’s tempting to rename our parties the Crips and the Bloods. It is hardly a new phenomenon (go read the headlines from the Lincoln-Douglas debates), and every time it happens, some well-meaning voice of reason whimpers the same plea: we are all Americans, let’s find the common ground. What common ground?, I always wonder as I cover my ears.Positions so diametrically opposed cannot both be enshrined in law. We might try (Americans have a long history of convoluted compromise), but in the end, one side or the other must fall. We all know it. That’s why we care enough to shout.
…Which is the beginning–the outskirts, the hinterland–of truly common ground.
We care enough to shout.
What would happen if, instead of seeing each other as enemies to be vanquished, both sides found a way to see their fellow Americans–better yet, their fellow human beings–as people who care enough to shout? What if, no matter how ludicrous we find the other side’s supposed moral footing, we at least gave them credit for wanting to be moral? It would not make an opposing position seem any more right; the folks at Hobby Lobby still would not want to violate their religious beliefs, and the federal government still would not see sufficient grounds to excuse them from its healthcare laws. But might the timbre of public discourse change if both sides’ supporters found the courage to say, “You’re wrong, but I respect that you truly believe you are right”?
I know. You are not picturing mutual respect right now, but frozen hellfire and flying pigs. I am jaded enough that my own hypothetical scenario boggles my imagination. So forget trying to cram that sentiment into a presidential candidate’s mouth and try this instead:
What if you–yes, you–tried speaking those words? What if, the next time your old college roommate posts an article on Facebook with one of those inflammatory headlines, you resist the urge to run the debate through its same old gerbil-wheel circles and comment with, “Susie, you know I think you’re wrong, but I’ve got to hand it to you that at least you’re not shy about what you believe.” After all, what do you stand to lose except the protective armor of your own pride?
…Which leads me to the epicenter of truly common ground. It is, very simply:
Nobody is perfect.
One hundred percent. Unequivocally, it’s a description that fits every person–every nation, every party, every organization–on planet Earth. It’s an axiom we trot out frequently to excuse our mistakes. Even politicians are not afraid to use it when they need justification for some past wrong or change of heart. But what if, instead of waiting until we’re caught with a hand in the cookie jar to admit our weakness, we started all our debates that way?
My name is _____. I am not perfect. My party is not perfect. I do not have all the answers, but what I believe, I believe from my heart, and I am willing to act in the interest of justice. I am willing to learn.
Yes, the pigs outside my window are cavorting like the Blue Angels right about now. But if we do not have the courage to dream the impossible, it will never come to pass.
I am proud to be an American, to live in a land where we have the right to shout about our rights. Let us never be silent, or even soft-spoken, in the name of keeping the peace, for a peace without open discussion is not worth keeping. But I would suggest that it’s time to temper our American pride and become pioneers of another great virtue: American humility.
What might our headlines look like then?