I’m part of a discussion elist for progressive Jews, and like a zillion other online groups, we’ve been posting messages about the Terry Schiavo case (may she rest in peace). Over the weeks of its unfolding, people have sent eloquent expositions of their own widely divergent views to the list, from those who feel the morally and ethically correct stance is grounded in compassion for the parents and who supported their campaign to keep their daughter’s body alive, to those who empathize with the husband’s account of his wife’s wishes and believed the greater mercy was to allow her body to die once the conscious parts of her brain were irretrievably gone.
I understand that every word of this characterization is open to contention. Some would argue with the implicit acceptance of doctors’ account that the cognitive part of the brain has been destroyed and replaced with spinal fluid, or assert the possibility of a miracle despite that diagnosis. Some would argue that the campaign to keep Terry Schiavo’s body alive expressed political opportunism, not compassion. So let’s start by stipulating that everything is contested, and go on from there.
Note: This essay is a bit longer than most of those I post, but I hope you will find it repays reading.
What has struck me about our online discussion is that it appears none of us succeeded in the slightest in persuading others to change their views. Although there was some give and take, some effort to respond to specific arguments, the bulk of the discussion comprised people restating principles and observations they clearly found self-evidently true.
For that reason, this very difficult discussion perfectly illustrates the problem of dialogue in a time of polarized thinking (perhaps in almost any time). Consider this: in an exchange with one thoughtful correspondent, I expressed my own opinion more or less as follows, “My reasons, which I believe you reject, are that Terry Schiavo’s brain is almost entirely gone, based on expert medical testimony I credit, and given that, in her place, I would want my husband to prevent my parents from using my body as a puppet for a public cause. I would want my husband to help me rest and prevent politicians and religious leaders from making use of me in the media. The indignity and shame of this, to me, cannot be separated from the question of life: what life? Life for what? Speaking entirely for myself, if, God forbid, I was in this situation without having a living will, and in some way my soul were able to witness what was happening, it would feel a terrible violation of my integrity and values to be made use of in this way. Anticipating such a terrible circumstance, I would want to be released from bondage.”
We corresponded at length. One of his points that has stuck in my mind is this: “Do you really think this is the intent of her parents? I don’t think they are using her as a puppet.” Of course, he is right. It seems evident Terry Schiavo’s parents wanted their daughter to live. But my own perception is that in pursuit of that aim, they allowed others to use her, sometimes for low purposes.
To my friend, intentions are very important, giving meaning to action. As we carried on our correspondence, he extended his point to President Bush and his opponents: “I think that most folks have good intentions most of the time. So when I disagreed with Bush about the war I never doubted his reality map or his intent. I just disagreed with his assessment. But my attitude made all the difference in the world. My friends were thrashing around with theories like “It’s all about the oil,” or “He’s paying off his debt to Halliburton,” or “He’s stupid,” etc., etc.
“In the meantime,” my friend continued, “I just took him at his word. I saw in him an idealist coming from a messianic perspective whose intent was to see democracy spread. So just as I was revulsed by the Ken Starr gang against Clinton a decade earlier I was revulsed by the Michael Moore gang against Bush. Even though I agreed with much of Moore his apporoach was based on distrust. So was Ken Starr’s.”
In contrast, to me, the primary question is almost never one of intentions, but of actions. I replied as follows: “I think you have Bush’s self-defined intent correctly, so far as I can see. But within that, he holds a number of views I find antithetical to the actual practice of democracy. For example, he espouses economic theories that turn on increasing wealth for holders of wealth (e.g., the tax cuts), on the principle that will put more money into circulation and trickle down, the idea of ‘the opportunity society.’ In practice, though, Reagan’s and Bush’s policies along these lines have resulted in a huge redistribution of wealth, so that the U.S., which was once the most equal on the planet, is now the most unequal, with the greatest increase in poverty in any industrialized nation. Those conditions suppress the voices and concerns of the poor, so that the essential equality of information and the means of survival that underpin real functioning democracy are not in place.
“In other words,” I continued, “I don’t question Bush’s right to define his intentions (nor your right nor mine), but in my understanding, it is my responsibility to judge his acts as our elected leader, not his intentions….” As Dorothy Day put it, “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” Or you may prefer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.”
The Terry Schiavo debate illustrates how people make very different discriminations about what is primary and what should be disregarded as “side-effects,” what considerations should take priority. Linguistics professor George Lakoff’s writing about politics is germane here. He divides American political thinking into two camps, adherents of a “strict father” construction, who believe things are best with a strong authority at the helm and clear rules emanating from that authority; and “nurturing parent” people who believe the primary values are equality, negotiation and flexibility. Each side’s reality map is so different, it’s very hard to convincingly explain it to the other, or to know how to handle the differences. What seems safe and best to one side seems like chaos or excessive control to the other. These fundamental values precede and underpin thinking on specific issues, which then often devolves into lining up facts to fit the paradigm. (Since life gives us so many competing facts and coexisting beliefs, there are always enough props around to stage any tableau of figure and ground — of what to focus on and what to ignore — that we like.)
I don’t want to try to fit Lakoff’s specific paradigm to the particulars of the Terry Schiavo case. What seems more significant to me (there I go again, composing my own version of figure and ground) is the fact that, as in Lakoff’s system, each competing perspective on the Terry Schiavo case seems entirely self-evident and crystal-clear to those who hold it. So much of what matters to us as citizens and moral beings now seems mired in conflicts that appear to be intractable because they incorporate two differing views that are self-evidently true to their holders and just as clearly not true to those who hold the other view. Pro-choice versus pro-life; trickle-down economics and the opportunity society versus economic democracy and the social safety net; fundamentalist literalism versus liberal interpretation and adaptation…
This is our commons now, our public space for dialogue and discourse: to a remarkable degree, people have coalesced into groups that understand what is primary very differently, that see their own views as self-evidently true, and are entirely unpersuaded by opposing views. I have to admit that a lot of my own thinking fits that profile, just as does the thinking of most people I encounter.
So what do we do about it? Right now, I see four options, all of which are highly imperfect and/or extremely difficult to implement. First, we can retreat to a position of extreme relativism (how’s that for an oxymoron?) in which, recognizing the intractability of our disagreements, we throw up our hands and say nothing is worth the energy it takes to struggle over. Unsurprisingly, I hate that option, because it leaves the field to bullies who don’t mind drawing blood, preferably the other guy’s.
Second, we can adapt the aphorism of former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to domestic affairs, saying that all politics are a continuation of war by other means. Practically, this is how many issues are decided: whichever side gathers the most troops (i.e., the most votes, dollars, minutes of airtime) wins. I advocate this myself when I say that the challenge for Democrats in the next election is to mobilize those who agree with liberal values; defeat in 2004 came precisely because — for reasons of personality, or epidemic cynicism, or fatigue with the corruption and greed of electoral politics — the campaign did not persuade enough of those already in substantial agreement that it was worth the effort to vote. While this position is pragmatic, it is also debilitating, foreshadowing a future of perpetual battle, as in Matthew Arnold’s beautiful poem “Dover Beach,” “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Third, we can push our faith in genuine dialogue as far as it will take us. In theory, it will take us all the way, but in practice, our reach often exceeds our grasp. During the above email exchange with my friend, wanting to explore the clash of self-evident views more closely, off the list (in a private email), I told my friend that when he repeated his same arguments without reference to the replies posted by other list members (including myself), it felt like he wasn’t listening. He said the point was well taken. Later, he wrote a heartfelt message to the group calling for compassionate listening and true dialogue, for practicing genuine respect despite profound disagreement. I replied asking if the respect he had extended to others was generally returned in kind — as I’d often found myself willing to respect others’ individual choices so long as they weren’t forced on me, but on issues like abortion or medical marijuana, that willingness was not always reciprocated. He replied, on the list, that this was probably because I had not taken “the high road first. You have to do the compassionate listening first.”
My friend is more a pen-pal than a neighbor, so he had no way of knowing how much of my work has been to design and facilitate dialogue of this type — including among other disputes those between timber companies and environmentalists in northern California, filmmakers of color and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Israelis and American Jews on mideast politics (a tape by Ruth Broyde-Sharone of the latter, \Disputation As A Form of Worship\, is available from filmsthatmatter.com). It’s just that his faith in his dialogic practice is so absolute and self-evident, he couldn’t conceive of it not working if done with the right intention. But my experience is that such intentions are necessary — essential — but not always sufficient to bridge the gap between differing convictions deemed self-evident by those who espouse them.
Fourth — what is fourth? I can only point to the container it should fill, because its contents have not yet taken shape. If it is true (as I believe on my good days) that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift, a cultural sea-change, then some of us are not merely a contending force but a leading wedge. In this framework, the conflicts that divide us are not intractable, it is just that we have not yet discovered the new light in which they will be seen and re-understood. Philosopher Ken Wilber says that each valid new paradigm must transcend its predecessor, subsuming whatever is solid and worthy of being carried forward, and discarding what is too narrow or parochial to be of help.
I love the way former Unesco Director-General Amadou Mahtar M’bow said this in 1979, speaking of developing nations whose choice was sometimes perceived as between two unacceptable and irreconcilable alternatives: a nostalgic return to the past or an embrace of colonial values. M’bow said the challenge was “making original selections between cultural values which it is vital to safeguard and develop — because they contain the deep-lying secrets of our collective dynamism — and the elements which it is henceforth necessary to abandon — because they put a brake on our facility for critical reflection and innovation.”
The only insight I can share here is that as issues become more personal, more based in first-person truth rather than jousting contests between generalizations, the poles of opinion may start to converge. If the Cheneys didn’t have a gay daughter, for instance, there’s a great likelihood they’d be leading the homophobe chorus. I have absolutely no idea how to make this work, how to bring our debates down to a human scale — or indeed whether this is how the shift will actually come about. The one thing I know is that we have to keep talking about it until the new light shines.