We live in a scary time.
Our society has been promoting a culture that prioritizes tradeoffs of short-term, individual interests over long-term societal interests, and for a long time it seemed like a good idea. People did well. It felt like progress.
But what we didn’t recognize was that there is a certain momentum that comes from aggregated individual decisions to choose the immediate and selfish thing over the greater good, and as that momentum of culture intersected with public policy and business decisions that agreed with those decisions, the pace of change has gotten faster and faster and the gravitational pull of that change has become harder and harder to reverse. So now that the numbers are beginning unarguable that the change at hand is significant and destructive to the very things we hold dearest, experts are fretting that we may be very close to the point of no return. In fact, a lot of them think that point is already past.
That’s scary enough, but up until now, there has been at least some hope that we can get our country’s leaders to recognize the problems, implement changes and turn the ship around. It may be that we got into this mess through decisions that weren’t made by government, but the state wields a lot of power, and we were perhaps naively optimistic that it could stop the bleeding and put us on the right track.
But now, now it’s clear that the federal government will not be our calvary riding in to rescue us. And that recognition adds a level of gloom to the situation.
Our only hope, and it’s not a bright one, is that we can fix this problem ourselves, not relying on the Feds to save us with policy but circling the wagons of those who understand the nature of the threat at hand and changing our behavior while pressuring others to do the same. Lacking confidence in our leaders to lead, now our hope is that they’ll just stay out of the way.
Does this sound familiar? Did it have you nodding your head?
If you’re progressive, you probably think I’m writing about climate change.
If you’re a social conservative, you probably think I’m writing about the dismantling of the traditional family.
In the aftermath of the news that the US would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, I heard this line of argument a lot, and it reminded me of what many cultural conservatives have been saying ever since the Obergfell decision legalizing gay marriage. And it made me wonder if there was a hope buried in this common script of gloom and doom.
I don’t mean to argue for the equivalence of these issues or the moral superiority of one over the other here. What I want to point out is that we spend a lot of time thinking about people who think differently than us as inscrutable, at best, and malevolent, at worst. To which I offer this:
If the argument outlined above resonated with you on an issue – either one of the ones I mentioned or on something else – can you consider that a potential key to understanding people you don’t agree with? When you engage with someone who has a different view than yours on a big issue, you can choose to discover the underlying narrative that fuels their passion. And if it’s a fearful one, like this is, you can, if you choose, take a step back and recognize it as one that you have felt, albeit on a separate issue.
That won’t obligate you to change your views on the issue and agree with them. But it will allow you to see them as someone who has hopes and fears that maybe based on a different set of facts and a different set of values, but share the same humanity and a concern for our common future.
The goal isn’t to get to agreement here. The goal is to develop empathy for the person you disagree with. If you can say, “I think I can relate to the concern you have, even if I don’t agree with the particulars,” you can open the door to a respectful, empathic sharing of perspectives rather than just name-calling.