Pick Your Fights--Let Things Go When You Can

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

November 2018

If we try collaboration first, but fail, then we have a choice. We can fight--or we can let it go. If we can live our way...and let "them" live theirs, it is likely better for everyone than is confrontation--especially if that confrontation is likely to be protracted, damaging, or costly. 

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WHY: Although we urge people to "try collaboration first," collaboration will not always work. The two sides may simply be too far apart in their wishes, or their desires might actually be win-lose -- meaning it is impossible to have it both ways at the same time. 

This is particularly common with fundamental moral differences.  It is not possible to have abortion be legal and illegal at the same time (although one can compromise on when abortion is legal or not, or on programs to prevent its need through sex education.) But if one takes an all-or-nothing approach, there is no middle ground.  The same is true for gay marriage. Or valuing diversity--or homogeneity. 

But that doesn't mean we have to fight about all these things all the time.  We need to decide: what is worth fighting?  What is not? If we can't agree to a middle ground, is it possible to take a tolerant, "live and let live" approach--letting some people live one way and others another? Can we co-exist with the other side? 

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HOW: This suggestion and questions -- we realize -- are going to raise a lot of eyebrows.  They may even arouse a lot of anger and disagreement. But we think they are important to consider. They are consistent with the peacemaking and peacebuilding work we do with others--we urge our clients to be tolerant of differences, and figure out ways to co-exist with the groups they had been fighting. Shouldn't the same advice apply to us, here in the U.S.?

If one looks within the family or within other interpersonal relationships, we do this all the time.  I used to teach a conflict skills class for undergraduates.  My students wrote essays about the intractable conflicts they had with their roommates.  The ultimate solution--when nothing else could be worked out -- was for one person to move out. Likewise, irreconcilable differences in marriage result in divorce.  While perhaps not ideal, few Americans think divorce is immoral.  People realize that sometimes partners have to separate to allow both people to live as they want to live. Separation is the key to tolerance when co-existence within the household proves impossible.  

Why can't we do that at the national level? In a sense, we already are.  America is becoming increasingly homogeneous by geography.  The coasts and the large cities tend to be liberal and Democratic; the heartland and rural areas tend to be conservative and Republican  (see Bishop, The Big Sort).  Although the lack of political diversity causes us to miss out on the opportunity to get to know "the other" (as we advocate is valuable in several other "Things YOU Can Do" posts), it does potentially allow us to take a tolerance approach to fundamental value differences. This approach could limit the serious political conflicts that are currently threatening the survival of the country overall.

For example--when abortion was made legal nationwide with Roe v. Wade in 1973, it set off a firestorm of opposition in many parts of the country that was a major contributor to the political polarization we see today. day.  If Roe v. Wade had been decided differently--if the Supreme Court had decided that states could make their own decisions about abortion--then it seems possible that it would be relatively easy to get an abortion in liberal areas and much harder in conservative ones.  But people who needed an abortion could travel to a place they could get one, and if they couldn't afford to do so, charities could be set up to allow that to happen. If enough people ended up having to travel to get an abortion, it would seem over time that there would be pressure, locally, to liberalize the state laws.  And if there wasn't such pressure, then maybe the people of that state really believe strongly that abortion is immoral, and they should be allowed to uphold those beliefs.  (Since people only change values slowly if at all, legal insistence on immediate value changes tends to only backfire anyway--as is commonly said "you can't legislate morality.")

I am suspecting my liberal friends may be reading this with horror, but if so, I suggest we try a role-switching exercise.  We now (in late 2018) have an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.  It seems likely that it is going to pass some very conservative legislation.  Let's say, just for illustration, that the court reverses Roe V. Wade, as so many conservatives hope it will do. But instead of going back to the way things were -- indeed, letting the states decide, what if the Supreme Court outlaws abortion nationwide--the flip side of allowing it nationwide that Roe v. Wade accomplished in 1973.  Will liberals be persuaded that the Court was right and that abortion really is immoral after all?  Will they willingly change their beliefs to accommodate the new law?  I highly doubt it!  So why do liberals expect conservatives to change when they (liberals) won't?

Now it may be that liberals decide that the issue is SO IMPORTANT that they cannot tolerate others acting or thinking differently.  It may not be acceptable to let some states prohibit abortion or gay marriage while others allow it.  If you believe that, then you need to continue to confront the other side, but we suggest you read on about "constructive confrontation" so that you can design your confrontations to do more good than harm. 

But if you can accept the fact that good people can legitimately believe that abortion (or gay marriage or any other moral issue) is wrong, then, it seems to us that they should be allowed to act on those beliefs.  For what it is worth (and I think it is worth a lot), participants in Essential Partners (formerly Public Conversations Project) dialogues on abortion very often came to understand that good people can legitimately believe both ways. Dialogue participants time and again come to understand how the other side can come to their views honorably, and while they don't change their own views, dialogue participants most often learn to respect the other side as people--honorable, likable, even lovable people. And one way of honoring those people is to let them live out their values, while you live out yours.

An interesting variation of this is described in a Foreign Policy article by Eric Kaufmann entitled How to Compromise with Populism. In it, he calls for something he terms "multivocalism," which is a way of including many ethnicities and contradictory cultural beliefs in one nation without defining one culture as good and another bad.  But unlike "multi-culturalism" it does this in a way that, he argues, does not challenge the white-majority view of theirs being the "central" culture. Rather, it uses strategic ambiguity to allows many different groups to think that their version of "the American Creed" is the right one. "What's needed is a new, flexible form of nationalism, one that permits immigrant groups and white conservatives to connect to the nation in their own way. ....cowboys, country music and pickup trucks mean more for the national identity of Donald Trump voters than Hillary Clinton voters, whose Americanism is more closely tied to the idea of America as a diverse mix of people." (Kaufmann)  That's another approach to tolerance -- and avoids fights over whose America this is.


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