Jeff Naylor was the planned speaker at Semi-Programmed Meeting for worship on April 21, 2013.
A few years back, I came across a publication for teenagers about relationships. I’d like to start this morning by reading a few excerpts from it:
“I was grateful for the confidence I had that guys I dated were interested in me because of who I was and not what I had to offer physically.”
“What Women Really Want… If you eventually want a wife, build a reputation as a real man, not a player… A woman who wants to get married is looking for a well-balanced, mature man who will respect her body as well as her mind.”
“Hollywood productions don’t show the people who are infected with a viral STD… They don’t show the long-lasting emotional difficulties that having multiple boyfriends, multiple sexual encounters, and multiple break-ups can have on someone’s life… Realize that you are of great worth, and resolve to treat your body with dignity and respect…”
“If you really loved me you wouldn’t pressure me.”
This morning, I’d like us to consider the notion of common ground. I’ll be talking about a few different controversial topics, but I won’t be trying to take sides or make a point about any of them. Instead, I’ll be using them to make the case that people can find small corners of agreement even on subjects that are emotionally laden and full of baggage from a history of bruising confrontations.
I chose the passages I read because they express things that I generally agree with. They are from a publication of the Human Life Alliance, a local political group that describes itself as pro-life. I’ll admit that I had to comb hard through a 16-page publication to find these few excerpts; for every sentence that I found worthwhile, there were a dozen others that advocated stereotyped gender roles or expressed controlling opinions about what people, especially women, should do with their own bodies.
I find it so easy to focus on what I don’t agree with, to be repulsed by perceptions or attitudes that are contrary to my own. But at the base of the thinking behind this publication for teens, I recognize a little something: these other people want kids to be safe and self-confident, and to cultivate a respect for others that they carry into adulthood. I feel the same way. They and I go very different ways from this core position, but we start at a place much closer together than I first realized. When perspectives that seem wildly different have this kind of common ground, I think it’s remarkable, and I believe it’s worthy of more of our attention.
Extremism and discord can be found everywhere we look: big newspaper headlines railing about the latest conquest or thrashing in the ongoing political shoving match, TV journalists who bait their interviewees into making sensational proclamations, pundits who apparently believe that victory is achieved by talking fastest, loudest, or meanest. But if one digs a little deeper—and I have better luck in the print media than on TV—one can occasionally discover people working with, rather than attacking, each other. A few examples:
– The abortion debate rages on, but contraception is emerging to be more accepted by many people. Wider use of contraception, now covered by a variety of health plans, has the ability to significantly reduce abortions, which everyone would like to prevent.
– Two Minnesota governors, the current one and his predecessor, from two different political parties, have said they require bipartisan support for any changes to election laws, and have threatened to veto any legislation that does not have such support.
– At the national level, bipartisan dialogue and some sporadic movement has occurred on issues such as gun control—including the consideration of programs to improve mental health—and immigration reform. President Obama said, “We’ve got to get past some of the rhetoric [that] breaks down trust and is so over the top that it just shuts down all discussion.”
– A recent letter to the Star Tribune, written by an individual who favors gun control, concluded: “I say to gun owners: Acquire a gun for every family member, for every hunting purpose, for every building that you own, for every perceived threat. Then come help America reduce gun violence. We cannot save America without you.”
I can’t help but notice over the years I’ve come to worship here that Minneapolis Friends Meeting tends to attract people of a certain political persuasion. I find myself in agreement with many parts of that persuasion, so this place feels comfortable to me. But at the same time, I wonder how much can be accomplished in a community or in a society if we generally stick with the people who agree with us. We do a lot of preaching to the converted here, so to speak. A less savory expression, but perhaps equally apt: such behavior has been likened to drinking one’s own bath water.
In a book called The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the formation of what he calls “tribal moral communities,” a concept which he says draws on sociologist Christian Smith’s “networks of meaning within which human life takes place.” Haidt says, “[Smith] shows how stories, particularly ‘grand narratives,’ identify and reinforce the sacred core of each network. Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what must be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.”
Haidt describes his research into what he calls “universal psychological ‘foundations’ of morality… six clusters of moral concerns…upon which all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, [and] sanctity/degradation.” The same moral concern can be valued by different groups in different ways. For example, in the liberal progress narrative, liberty is seen as the struggle against political oppression and the pursuit of self-defined happiness; in the narrative for modern conservatism, liberty is the free market and avoiding the constraints of the federal bureaucracy. Regarding care vs. harm, Haidt explains that conservatives “are less concerned…about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together.”
Of the six moral clusters, political liberals tend to rely on the first three (care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression), Haidt says, while social conservatives use all six (including loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradationas well as the first three).
Haidt’s study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out a questionnaire: one third of the subjects did so as themselves, one third as a “typical liberal,” and one third as a “typical conservative”; the subjects were also asked to describe their own political leanings. Haidt reports that moderates and conservatives were more accurate in their predictions, whether pretending to be liberal or conservative, than liberals. He writes, “The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.” Haidt attributes the imbalance to the fact that liberals honor only half of the moral foundations that conservatives value, whereas conservatives honor all of those that liberals value. If there’s any truth to that, liberals may have a higher burden than others to understand and honor opposing perspectives.
This research is hardly the last word on the differences between political viewpoints, but it does raise some important issues. Haidt concludes: “Morality binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depends on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact, so often denied in today’s politics, that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
I have many shortcomings, including prejudice, bias, impatience, tunnel vision, and selective memory about things that matter to me the most. All humans have challenges and responsibilities in approaching the tough questions in constructive ways. But Quakers do have one thing that may help.
To explain that, I’ll turn to an individual with whom I have a number of disagreements. He is quoted as saying, “In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth… By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or her self; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.” Those words from Benedict XVI, the man formerly known as Pope.
With some similar comments, Steven Carter, a Yale law professor, described the immediate aftermath of the recent white smoke that issued from the Vatican chimney: “Contrast the endless and largely pointless chatter of the modern world with the minutes Pope Francis spent standing silently on the balcony before addressing the thousands in St. Peter’s Square and the hundreds of millions around the world. The silence was beautiful, eloquent, projecting both a sense of peace and a sense of occasion… To reason our way to reliable answers, we need time and space to think. Otherwise, we cannot really listen and reason but only react. The reason politics nowadays seems to be all about yelling is that a different politics would require time and space, and peace and quiet… If we lack the time to seek out silent spaces, we lack the time to think clearly, and thus we lack the time to do democracy well.”
Silence, listening, respect, empathy – these are the tools we need to be good people. I have to believe that the tools needed to act with integrity in the community and in the political world are no different. Our appreciation of silence as Friends may give us a small head start, but it doesn’t make us any less vulnerable than others to drinking our own bath water.
Problems that are approached together by people on all sides of an issue are likely to be considered in much richer ways than would happen with narrower viewpoints. Any changes proposed by such a diverse group are likelier to catch the attention of others, and putting any such changes into effect with broad support surely provides a firmer foundation.
As I was mulling over this topic, some queries came to mind that I’d like to share:
– What do we do about the fact that people on both sides of the gay rights issue are concerned about family, and that people on both sides of the gun rights issue are concerned about safety?
– What can we do to encourage people with very different viewpoints to discover the common ground between them, to celebrate it, and to employ it for the good of everyone?
The hymn we’ll close with today (“A Song of Peace”) is one of my very favorites, and it must be for others as well because we sing it a lot. It’s about honoring people in other places. As we sing it at the end of the hour, I’d encourage us to think about how we can honor not just the other lands that people live in, but the places where they’ve come from, and the places their minds and their hearts have led them to.