Have you noticed that we don't really talk about the issues that divide us? Oh, there's a lot of talking going on, but it's not really a conversation about the issues. When we talk with people who agree with us, we talk about how stupid or unfair or unwise the opinions of the other side are, with maybe the casual mention of one of our "talking points" mentioned in the course of degrading the other side. Or if we see a letter in the newspaper from somebody on the other side, it sounds like it's yelling at us, and calling us names. So we write a letter to the paper which yells back, and calls the other side names. We don't get many opportunities to just sit down to talk with folks from the other side of the issue.
That's really unfortunate, because the "other side" always has something I need to hear. And I think I have something they need to hear. Usually what we call "the left" is heavily focused on fairness, individual rights, personal choice, and a more or less individualized understanding of liberty. The other side, which we usually call "the right" is more focused on traditional values, community standards, issues of sanctity and authority, and a more collective sense of liberty. Both of those value sets are important, and any society built too heavily on only one of those value sets will almost certainly be significantly dysfunctional, and become more so as it moves to either extreme.
One of the unfortunate effects of our style of handling disagreements is that our public conversation has come to focus very heavily on getting laws passed for my side or your side. I realize we need laws to codify what is acceptable behavior, but laws passed because of polls or petitions or lobbying usually produce winners and losers. The issue is not settled. It is just decided for the moment. The big issues such as abortion, race, gay marriage, immigration, etc. continue to fester. It's like half time, with one team ahead. But the game's not over yet.
If we want a healthy, opportunity-rich society, we need the insights of both left and right, with the hope of minimizing the extremes of both sides. Shouting at one another or shaking our fists at one another across some kind of no-mans-land may feel good, but it produces a whole lot of anger and nonsense. Having an opinion and being informed are not the same thing. An electorate which is merely opinionated rather than informed becomes a playground for spin doctors and self-serving politicians. Any time the opportunists know we have strong opinions but minimal understanding, we're in trouble.
I'm not looking for some kind of Utopia which is all smiles and hugs and perfection. That's not a realistic option. We're always going to disagree, to see things in different ways, to consider some values more important than others. That's a good thing. But I do think we need to figure out how to have real conversations. Otherwise we move more and more into a kind of tribal mode in which everything is defined in terms of "us and them."
A lot of important stuff I have learned in my life has come from listening to people who disagreed with me. We gain understanding from one another. We both end up with a better and broader picture of the real issue at hand. Sometimes we get so totally adversarial that we can't talk to one another as equals. But we have to get past that. Without that kind of conversation we let the issue be defined from the extremes, which usually produces "solutions" that don't fit with reality. Maybe we should talk about it.
JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.