That’s a question I’m being asked more and more, as the dismally partisan, sectarian and one-sided impeachment proceedings play out in Congress; as crisis after crisis (our all-too-porous borders, homelessness, the economy, etc.) grabs the headlines; as people feel more and more powerless to actually change the rot that they see all around them in our society. “What can I, personally, do to change it?”
I think there are several things one can do: but they all have to begin with accepting the situation as it is, and ourselves as we are. It’s no good saying, “Things should be this way” when they’re not. It’s no good saying, “I won’t stand for that!” when the cold, hard reality is that you have no choice but to stand for that, because it’s out of your control. It’s all very well to talk wildly about shooting those who won’t change/move/adapt/adjust/comply/whatever, but the reality is that they’ll shoot back; the legal system will come after you as the perpetrator of a crime; and your facile, simplistic “solution” isn’t worth the air you’ve just wasted on expressing it.
Reality, folks. We’ve got to be rooted in and founded on reality if we’re to make a difference . . . and far too many people today are not.
I submit the first step is for each of us to accept that I, as an individual, am flawed. I don’t have everything right; I’m not the shining example I present myself as being; I have feet of clay. We can approach this in the light of an ethical or moral framework, or a religious one, or a philosophical perspective – whatever background we choose. Whatever that may be, we have to come to the realization that the problem begins with me. I have to get myself at least basically in order, before I can expect to help others do the same with the problem(s) confronting us.
The second step is to accept that not all problems are within our power to solve. Reinhold Niebuhr’s so-called ‘Serenity Prayer‘ reads, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” That’s a good start. Many of the problems our society faces cannot be solved by any one person, or even by a decent-sized group of people. Many of them are caused and/or worsened by people with opposing ideologies, facing off over an issue and refusing to compromise.
The southern border is a good example. Those who value law and order (including yours truly) protest their wholesale violation on the border. Those who prioritize humanitarian considerations over law and order regard the law-and-order crowd as evil, hate-filled, unfeeling, uncaring. That’s not about to change, and no matter how much we may try to impose a solution from one perspective or the other, there will always be those who try to undermine our “solution” and/or replace it with their own version – which we’ll do our best to undermine in our turn. Homelessness, drug addiction, the right to keep and bear arms, whatever problem you like – the same dilemma arises. The irresistible force meets the immovable object, and neither will give way.
So what do we do about such issues? I submit there are four practical things any individual can do:
- Educate oneself about the issues involved, and make sure one has an accurate and sufficiently detailed understanding of the reality of the situation. “Going off half-cocked” doesn’t only apply to firearms.
- Ally oneself with those of like mind, and seek to be a leavening, uplifting influence in that alliance. Look to raise everyone’s understanding to the highest common factor, rather than let it degenerate to the lowest common denominator. Individuals and groups should strive to be better balanced, better educated, better intentioned, and better qualified than their opposition.
- Seek to educate, rather than intimidate or dominate. Sure, there will be those on both sides who use histrionics, emotion and pressure to try to get their way; but there will also be those who are open to persuasion. Seek them out. Look for opportunities to present the facts of the matter, rather than one’s opinion, and let those facts speak for themselves. (And, when they present the facts as they see them, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Who knows? They might have at least some right on their side, too!)
- Stand firm on the essential principles underlying the issue, but compromise in less important matters where necessary. This means being flexible in areas where that can be done without violating those issues. You want strict law and order enforced at the border? OK – but what about helping genuine refugees? They’re out there. What about temporary worker visas, to help farmers get in their crops, something they say they can’t do without migrant labor? To get what we want in one area, we’ll have to compromise in others. Why not do that?
I can already hear some of my readers complaining, “But, Peter, you’re being utopian! The real world isn’t like that! We’ve tried all that, and it hasn’t worked – so it’s time to get as hard-line as our opponents, and stop them in their tracks!” To that I can only answer, “Are you sure you’ve tried that?” I’ve seen plenty of intransigence, aggression, power plays and demagoguery from individuals and groups on both sides. We’re too prone to jump to absolutes. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!” “If you won’t take up arms to defend these absolutes, you’re no friend of freedom!”
How many of you remember this famous statement?
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Who defines “extremism”, “liberty”, “vice”, “moderation”, “justice” and “virtue”? If we arrogate to ourselves the right to define such things, what if our opponents do the same?
Finally, let me say that my biggest fear is those who too quickly jump to conclusions, or are too ready to “go to the mattresses” and fight it out. Friends, I’ve seen the result of that in at least seven nations. I was there in the middle of it in three of them, and I saw the aftermath in four of them. I daresay I’ve seen, with my own two eyes, literally thousands of dead bodies, maimed victims, physically and mentally injured and scarred survivors. When extremes collide, there may be a ‘victor’, but both sides in an internal conflict are usually so deeply wounded by their clash that the nation as a whole never recovers, or takes generations to do so. Examples:
- I said in 1994, when South Africa held its first truly democratic election, that it would take at least two generations for that country to work through the problems apartheid left behind, and heal from those wounds. It’s now just entered the second of those generations – and it’s a mess. I see no reason to change my forecast.
- In Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of Tutsi tribespeople were slaughtered by Hutus (also in 1994), the country is still torn by the hatred and dissent engendered by the massacres. Hundreds of thousands of its citizens still live in refugee camps in the Congo, rather than return home.
- Look at East and West Germany, now united, but with a distinct regional identity where the two former countries had been – and residual bitterness in the East about the way in which the more affluent West “took over”.
- For that matter, look at those who perpetuate the “Lost Cause” myth about the American Civil War, and still try to insist that slavery was not the prime cause of that conflict. There are so many facts and historical references that the truth is incontrovertible – but they still try to argue. They won’t give up their dream of what they think Southern society was like.
There are some things on which I will take a firmly principled stand. For example, I will not submit to anyone seeking to take away my right to keep and bear arms. That’s not negotiable. However, as the Supreme Court has pointed out more than once, regulation of such a right is entirely legal, so long as it doesn’t become so draconian as to infringe on the right itself. That’s a gray area, and I’ll do well to remember that, and not jump to absolutist conclusions (or actions) unless and until that’s fully justified. The same goes for all the rest of the Bill of Rights, and for the fundamental moral code I have chosen to follow. I will not allow someone to force me to violate that, even if they pass a law to that effect; and, yes, that’s a position I will defend by any means necessary. However, I have to accept that those who disagree with me also have the same right to their own positions. I can’t impose mine on them, and they can’t impose theirs on me. It’s a two-way street.
During my active days as a pastor, I was often asked to counsel couples having difficulties in their marriage. A frequent complaint from one or both parties was, “I’m not getting what I expected/needed/wanted out of my marriage.” My instant response was always, “Well, what are you putting into your marriage?” The Biblical standards are tried and tested. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
One can’t help but notice that most political discourse these days seems to ignore those basic human realities. That’s tragic in many ways . . . but we don’t have to let the intransigence of others define our response. We can, and should, try to be better than that. If we behave no better than those whose behavior we despise, what does that say about us? So, when it comes to political discourse, what are we putting into the debate? If our remarks, attitudes and actions are as hard-line, inflammatory and extremist as the worst of our political foes, how can we claim the moral high ground? We’ve made ourselves no better than they are.
Tragically, the pressures on our overcrowded, debt-ridden, pressurized society are leading to more and more rigidity and extremism on all sides. The acronym TINVOWOOT is heard more and more often, and many have already made the decision to resist, rather than try to contribute to a democratic solution. I fear the consequences of such radicalization, because I’ve seen them before: and therefore I’ll work as hard as I can to be a voice of reason, as long as that’s possible. I have little confidence that those of us trying to do that will succeed in changing anyone’s mind . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try.
I’m sure I haven’t satisfied many of my readers with this essay. I’m sorry about that; but I can only give you my perspective on life, the universe and everything, as conditioned by many years of (sometimes pretty brutal) experience, and my moral outlook. I hope it gives you food for thought, if nothing else.