What is it about political disagreements that make them so hard to resolve? Why can’t we talk them over calmly and make decisions that take everyone’s interests into account? What’s so intractable about these conflicts?
Let’s take a look at a few topics dear to the hearts of Americans. See if you can discern a pattern.
Gun control: One side thinks criminals and tyrannies are way too dangerous for unarmed people to handle. The other side thinks guns are way too dangerous for armed people to handle.
Environment: One side fears for the health of the planet. The other side fears for the health of the economy.
Immigration: One side feels swamped by foreigners seeking entitlements. The other side welcomes a flood of diversity.
Sex education: One side wants kids to learn their parents’ values. The other side wants kids to learn the hygienic values of condoms.
Gay rights: One side wants a Heaven of equal treatment for all. The other side thinks we’re going to Hell in a handbasket.
Stem-cell research: One side wants to save the souls within embryos. The other side wants to save the lives of people with incurable diseases.
Drug use: One side wants to lock up all those disgusting addicts. The other side is worried that the “land of the free” has become the most incarcerated nation on earth.
Capital punishment: One side thinks we should sit down with murderers and reason with them. The other side thinks we should sit murderers’ butts down on the electric chair and cook them.
Church and state: One side wants the government out of our places of worship. The other side wants to worship in our places of government.
. . . Okay, time’s up! Pencils down! Have we noticed any patterns? Let’s see, you in the front with your hand in the air.
“You really like puns and wordplay.”
Correct. Anybody else? In the back?
“The sides look really far apart on these issues.”
Agreed. Any other observations? You, in the middle.
“Um, each side has a totally different viewpoint. I mean, it’s as if they’re talking past each other.”
Precisely! You get an “A”.
If you look closely at each issue, you’ll see that the values defended are completely different. Not opposites, but different, like apples and oranges. For example, with the environment, ecologists are concerned about pollution and global warming, whereas their opponents are worried over business health and job growth. With capital punishment, the anti forces want to rehabilitate capital felons, but the pro forces want to remove entirely the risk bad guys represent to their families and communities. And gay-rights activists want to be free to pursue their personal lives as they see fit, just like everybody else, whereas their opponents sincerely believe that open homosexuality will destroy the very fabric of the country.
Americans have fought tough battles in the past, of course. The Civil War was waged between forces that wanted to end slavery and forces that wanted to protect the freedom of states. Prohibitionists despised alcohol, thinking it immoral, but imbibers believed in the conviviality of a few rounds of beer. And The Vietnam War fomented massive outcries between people who, on the one hand, feared that the Communists were steamrolling across Southeast Asia toward total global domination, and those who believed a military-industrial cabal had contrived to profit by sending American youth to die on foreign soil.
In every case, the people on each side tend to get their backs up. One side will mutter, “Those bastards don’t give a damn about decency! They’re selfish. They should be stopped!”
And of course the other side will say the same thing.
One side will cry, “The survival of our nation is at stake! We must stop these evil efforts to ruin us all!”
And of course the other side will say the same thing.
One side will intone, “We won’t take this lying down. They’ll have to fight to stop us!”
And, *sigh*, the other side will say the same thing.
Each group, then, tends to view the other as depraved, selfish, and contemptible. This is tragically ironic, since the people they loathe are, in fact, their fellow citizens, not invaders from Mars. Something is seriously wrong when so many people are so angry with their neighbors.
Neither group will stop to consider that their opponents might actually have valid interests at risk or a viewpoint worth discussing. To hesitate — to give the other side the benefit of the doubt — would seem treasonous to the cause.
So we don’t get anywhere.
But maybe, just maybe, there are solutions to these problems that might satisfy nearly everyone. Naturally, hardliners will be unlikely to listen to suggestions that would spoil their dreams of victory and vengeance. I mean, if we actually solved these problems, that would take away all the fun! So there’s not much point, at the outset, in presenting solutions to the radicals of each camp.
YOU, on the other hand, dear reader, are a reasonable sort of person who takes pride in being fair-minded. You, no doubt, would be delighted to consider thoughtful answers to these vexing dilemmas.
…Uh, wouldn’t you?
If so, stay tuned. In the next blog I’ll perform an amazing political magic trick and solve every one of the above dilemmas! I know, sounds impossible, but it’s true.
Ahem. It’s also true that I can get pretty arrogant. So take what follows with a few grains of salt. Decide for yourself if any of my upcoming ideas have merit. Don’t let me hornswoggle you into believing something ridiculous.
But I won’t be alone: onstage with me will be none other than Albert Einstein, who spoke famously about dilemmas, and who has agreed to be my magician’s assistant.