• One: Seek to understand the moral positions of others.
Americans are a diverse people with fundamentally different moral foundations. Recent psychological studies show we are born with a predisposition for being conservative or liberal, and no amount of yelling at each other on a cable network will change that.
Some of us hold as sacred the care for victims of oppression; some are dedicated to preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community; others are most concerned with the protection of individual liberty. Most of us share a concern about all these values, but feel more intensely about some than others.
And it has always been so.
We have always held competing political and moral priorities.
For almost three centuries, as David Brooks so clearly explains, we have “engaged in a series of long arguments about how to promote the American dream —arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.”
Acknowledging that what others believe is as sacred to them as what we believe is sacred to us is essential to getting past the gridlock.
“Morality binds and blinds,” writes Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the NYU School of Business. “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
Haidt believes a balanced mix of moral foundations creates healthy communities.
He argues all are needed. A society that has no respect for tradition and authority will not last. But nor will a society that ignores fairness and caring. The challenge is to show the empathy and respect a free and diverse people owes one to another.
• Two: Distinguish between what is a difference of opinion and a difference of principle.
Most disputes involve the former. Someone has broken a promise or violated our expectations or just behaved badly.
We don’t understand certain patterns of behavior and conclude the person is just bad.
We demonize what we don’t understand, and we demonize more than we should.
With some tolerance, most differences of opinion can be resolved.
A difference of fundamental principle, however, may not be appropriate for compromise. There is a time to stand on pure principle; it is just not all the time.
• Three: State your presumptions.
Presumptions are what we believe to be true based on the information we have. We presume many things about each other, about the world around us and about ourselves, much of which might not be true.
Several years ago, I had an unsettling conversation with a friend. He is African-American and I am not. Race was the subject, and our perspectives on some key issues were painfully at odds. A couple of nights later, I tuned in to a program on the History Channel. It was about a black teenager who was beaten beyond recognition and then lynched, in a residential neighborhood of Mobile, in 1981.
That is what my friend was talking about. I was presuming a shared sense of history, of law and life experiences. I do not need to agree with all his political views, but I show neither humility nor respect if I fail to acknowledge his reality, his moral foundations and the presumptions that underlie his view of life.
• Four: Be humble.
No single personal characteristic is more needed today, nor more absent in our public dialogue, than humility. Humility is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. It involves the courage to compromise.
When is the last time you heard a leader from one party say to another from the opposing party, “That is a thoughtful position, and I agree with you,” or “This is a complex issue, and I don’t have all the answers.” How refreshing and healing that would be; and accurate, because one side to a debate is never endowed with perfect knowledge.
We should strive to be a humble nation, confident but not boastful. Our greatest leaders have always recognized this. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln did not celebrate the bloody victory over the Confederacy with words of pride and glory, but instead asked a nation at war to put aside its differences “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Certainly leaders need to be smart and articulate and politically adept. But right now, I would prefer they be competent and a little less certain of how right they always are.
Will that get us past today’s debilitating partisan gridlock?
Know that for some there is no interest in finding common ground. But for the rest of us: Recognize our differences. Question your own perfect knowledge. Determine if the conflict is really fundamental. Articulate presumptions and then test them. Be humble.
Steven Merritt Seibert is a lawyer, mediator and strategy consultant. He has been secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs and a Pinellas County Commissioner. Steve is a board member of the Village Square and a co-founder of the Asteroids Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.