Friday, May 7, 2010

Dialogue across the Divide?

Since I started writing about empathy between liberals and conservatives, (April 2; April 3; April 9) I have been thinking about facilitating dialogues between the two groups. As a first step I wanted to meet people who identify as conservative. This past Monday I had the good fortune of meeting Peeter, who identifies as a “dye in the wool” conservative, and who is a sympathizer of the Tea Party movement. Whether or not this meeting will lead to the dialogue I am wishing to establish, I learned a lot, I was surprised, and my heart was touched. Out of care and respect, I showed Peeter this entry before posting it. I am heartened by what he wrote back: “The whole point of us living in this country and society of ours all together is that we accept the inherent differences in our humanity, and deal with them in a civilized manner.”

A particularly poignant moment was when I looked in Peeter’s eyes and saw just how deeply sacred human life is for him. So deep, in fact, that for him it supersedes freedom, another cherished core value of his, when no strategy exists for upholding both at once. This is the basis of his opposition to abortions. What can I say? I felt deeply connected to him in those moments even though I support women’s choice to have an abortion. I had an abortion myself, and what I was left with was just a depth of anguish about how complex, painful, and impossible the dilemma is. I want women to have the choice, and at the same time I completely see that an abortion is the end of a life that could be. I want to live in a world where abortions aren’t necessary. What would it take to create good options for women?

Peeter expressed a concern about having people depend on the government for their basic needs. I wanted to understand fully what values informed this view. It’s one thing to know in theory that all opinions, views, and strategies stem for shared human needs and values. It’s a whole other thing to experience this in a moment of conversation with someone whose views are very different from my own. One value that informs Peeter’s desire to eliminate dependence on government was his wish for people to take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. Of course I want that, too. I could easily resonate with this wish even though I mix this value with the desire for compassion, so everyone is supported no matter what.

Peeter also expressed a deep faith in the capacity of human beings to take care of themselves and of each other, including those in need, in the absence of government legislation, monitoring, and bureaucracy. This part was completely surprising to me, and goes contrary to my previous semi-unconscious bias, which was that conservatives had a much more negative view of human beings than liberals. Not so for Peeter. Do I have this much faith? I am not so sure. I know I am nervous about leaving the needy without societal guarantees because I am not trusting that all people could overcome their habits of scarcity and greed.

As we were winding down our conversation I asked Peeter if he would join me in trying to organize the dialogue I so want to have. Peeter was doubtful about it. He didn’t see what would the point. Conflict and differences, he thought, were unavoidable. No dialogue would bring people together, he thought. Did he feel heard by me? Yes, he did. He liked me, and would be happy to meet with me again. Still, he didn’t see that mutual understanding between conservatives and liberals could lead to anything. This got me thinking. I have more faith than he does in dialogue. He has more faith than I do in people’s ability to care for each other. Am I limited in not trusting that, or is he naïve? Is he limited in not trusting dialogue, or am I naïve? Who is to say?

by Miki Kashtan