Sunday, August 03, 2008

Reasonable People Can Disagree

I suppose it is in keeping with my own commitment to a certain kind of American pragmatism that I am interested in discussions with others whose political and other views differ from mine. I have an interest in dialogue for its own sake, a conversation to move forward a certain kind of social and political understanding in which differences become a matter of negotiation through mutual understanding and respect. Part of that understanding and respect is rooted in an acceptance not just of limits, but of fallibility as well. No one has access to the keys to the Universe. No one has insight in to the mind of God. No one has the corner on wisdom, knowledge, morality, and correct judgment. One of the beautiful things about the American political system as it has developed over the past 119 years is a desire, no matter how vital an issue, to keep talking. Our lives play out our beliefs, and even the most dedicated reformer, the hardest working entrepreneur, the most self-satisfied CEO, and the most humble clergy person are all also American citizens. We live out our pragmatism by continually talking; we try to share our perspective with others in the hope that such will create a shared vocabulary in order to induce others to work with us.

On the other hand, there is the nagging suspicion that some do not accept the idea that even on matters of great import there is room for disagreement. For thirty years, on matters of abortion, of the place of religion in the public sphere, and a host of other issues, we have been bombarded with a rhetorical onslaught of absolutist rhetoric that not only shuts down meaningful debate and work towards compromise, but betrays what is the heart of American politics - public discourse. The introduction of absolutes in to our public debates is the end of politics. We enter a non-political realm in which those who do not accept the position being offered are not considered worthy fellow-members of society. Differences become a matter not of the complexity and joy of human diversity, but of moral perversion.

Recently, in a discussion on abortion at another website, I was the subject of a long polemical attack by someone who stated, unequivocally, that those who are pro-choice on abortion desire the murder of infants. Not only had I made my own position on abortion - a pretty minimalist pro-choice position, I might add - abundantly clear, I also made it clear that, of all the great troubles facing our land, I didn't even see abortion as being on the political, social, or cultural radar screen. For the most part, the American people have accepted the kind of regulated regime that exists right now, in which for all practical purposes, most areas of the country are shut out of having the option of abortion (the vast majority of counties in the US do not have an abortion provider, and the average distance of travel for someone who does not live near one is well over fifty miles).

The personal invective leveled at me was quite substantial. The person who did this at least had the consistency to speak out of a belief that, abortion being murder, those who accept the practice are aiding and abetting murder. We are moral monsters, in other words.

Our "exchange" is almost a case study in the way the introduction of any kind of absolutes - be they moral, religious, or what have you - in to our political debates in fact destroys those very debates. It is the end of American politics. Dare I say it is even un-American. The roots of our politics are in dialogue, in compromise, in listening to another, and seeking common ground. It is rooted in the wonderful humanistic idea that different people can hold different beliefs, even very strongly-held beliefs, and still be fully human, fully moral agents with which one can deal and dialogue. When a person sees no room for moral nuance, or can accept that a person can differ from him or her on a matter of great personal import and still be a person worthy of respect, that person is no longer willing to participate in the democratic process. Our politics is always about giving away one thing to get another. No one gets everything they want - the art of political negotiation is figuring out how to finagle more of what I want and less of what you want, knowing full well you are trying to do the same with me - so the introduction of any kind of absolutist position, rooted in extra-legal, extra-Constitutional grounds, destroys the political process, because by definition, there can be no compromise on issues rooted in the acceptance of moral absolutes.

This is where, ultimately, the comparison between the pro-life movement and the Civil Rights movement fails. Despite all the high-flown rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the end, his position, and that of the hundreds and thousands of local activists and others who did the grunt work towards equal rights for African-Americans, was rooted not in the Bible but in the American Constitution. It was a movement with roots in the Church, to be sure, and fueled by a certain religious passion. The political heart, however, was not a Christian belief in the sanctity of human life, but a (small "d") democratic belief in the (small "r") republican values that include the dignity of all human beings. There was no compromise available on the issue of Civil Rights not because it was an absolutist position in the way, say, a pro-life person views abortion as murder. There was no compromise because the structural racism that existed then and exists now is a betrayal of our Constitution. Our polity is warped by a social and legal structure that denies part of our Constitution.

On the other hand, to take another example, the debate over same-sex marriage, by bringing in religious arguments, also runs the risk of ending any serious political dialogue. While those who oppose same-sex marriage also often rely on historical arguments, these at least have the virtue of being proved or disproved. When one hears, "God made marriage between a man and a woman," all opportunity for understanding and dialogue come to an end. Politics stops at that point. Reasonable people can argue the merits of legal recognition of same-sex unions on a par with marriage (and there are gay rights activists who view the emphasis on gay marriage as a distraction from other issues). It becomes impossible to reach a political agreement when one side insists that any agreement would betray a moral abosolute.

It is possible to view others who hold political opinions and beliefs far different from one's own as fully human moral agents, worthy of respect, dialogue partners in the democratic experiment. Once one stakes out a position rooted in the belief that compromise is impossible, however, one no longer becomes a (small "d") democrat, but a tyrant, demanding acquiescence to a certain moral standard that is arbitrary, betraying the very heart of our political system.

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