Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Conversations Over The Fence

“I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt!”   a friend

We hear a great deal of talk these days about the divisions in our country. Political divisions; religious divisions; cultural divisions; divisions of states and nations. These divisions are mostly expressed in words: sarcasm, labels, accusations, opinions – far too often with little thoughtfulness or reasoned argument. With seemingly increasing frequency, these divisions are being expressed through physical violence. Conventional wars, imported terrorism, localized killings from the sick and self-righteous looking to “make a statement,” the rogue cop who forgot “to protect and to serve.” Even though the data says crime is down overall, our hyper-sensitive ears tell us that dangers lurk. That bullets are replacing words.

In reaction to this downward spiral, we build fences to separate us, to hide behind. Mostly these are intangible, social, or policy fences keeping us apart, not a physical “beautiful wall.” But what could happen if, instead of the verbal bombasts and finger-pointing we have been doing, we actually started having conversations across those fences. Like we used to do with our neighbors in days gone by. Where we share a dialog of information, and seek to understand a problem from the broader perspective of people whose life experiences and current situation are far different from our own. That would be a vastly different public conversation than what we have conducted over the last twenty years.

For example, take the subject of illegal immigration. For many people, this issue reduces to a simple either/or “deport ‘em” or “naturalize ‘em.” But this is not just a legal or intellectual argument we are having. This topic concerns an estimated 10-15M human beings now living in America. A border patrol officer charged with securing our borders is likely worn out trying to do a seemingly un-accomplishable job. A social worker along our southern border is likely overwhelmed trying to keep up with the caseload demands. An immigration officer is likely frustrated that people think there are no consequences in effect for being here illegally, yet his/her department has deported more illegal aliens than ever before. A farmer is likely frustrated at the inability to hire competent and willing workers to tend the fields, needed because most citizens now avoid that kind of traditional work. A tradesperson in home construction may feel that illegal immigrants take away jobs and/or depresses wages, even though buyers still demand quality of product and such immigrants often do high quality work – and pay for their own housing with their income. A child advocate is likely opposed to breaking up families and deporting dependent children due to their parents’ decision to come here. A business employer, or even an individual homeowner, may protest illegal immigration while conveniently – and hypocritically – turning a blind eye when hiring that same person. An illegal immigrant him-/herself is likely confused because, having come here for the opportunity of a better life for family members, having broken no laws since arriving, and having contributed positively to American society, no permanent acceptance of you seems possible. A humanitarian, or one driven towards “social justice,” is likely at wit’s end at the country’s inability to acknowledge its culpability in allowing this illegal immigration to occur, and its unwillingness to let past mistakes be past. A minister may be guided by a fundamental calling that, regardless of the circumstances, “people are hurting, and I am charged to ‘love my neighbor,' and I shall.” Finally, an historian will likely remind everyone that we have had illegal immigration in the past, allowed racially-motivated emotions to limit immigrants from certain areas of the globe, and heavily discriminated against virtually all new incoming people until, over time, they managed to overcome that bigotry.

A prosecutor likely believes the Law is the Law, and breaking it is just not permissible. A defense attorney likely points out that the Law has always provided not just punishment but also justice and mercy, with varying options available (incarceration, probation, suspension, clemency) for sentencing. A juror in the large courtroom of public opinion has the unenviable task of sorting out what is “right.”

The point of this narrative is not to “solve” the issue of illegal immigration in America. Rather, it is to illustrate that, behind all of the emotional yelling at each other and rigidity of our opinions, the views of right /wrong and what to do/not do look very different depending upon where one sits in their individual experience. It is as a bicycle wheel: the hub is the issue; the spokes are the perspectives. When all spokes feed into the hub and work together, the wheel is stabilized, turns, and the bike moves forward. We could easily construct a similar model of multiple perspectives about virtually all of the great issues facing us: abortion; voting rights; campaign finance; war against terrorism; gun violence; religious accommodation; gender-based rights. Our challenge is whether our conflicting perspectives have to perpetually lead us to conflict, or can be interwoven into concurrently addressing broader concerns that marks the patchwork quilt of America.

With some unfortunate exceptions, most contributors to this verbal jousting are not cruel, malicious or starry-eyed people (though some operate from a self-interest in keeping the conflict alive). People simply see issues from different angles, each of which is “true and right” within its own domain but represent only a part of the Total Perspective. But because we are not listening to each other, we never see the full scope of the tangential issues, the complexities that smother the search for simple solutions. When we discuss things across the dividing fence instead of yelling from behind it, when we start with the recognition that our neighbor’s view is worthy of a respectable listening, only then can we expand our understanding and find the solutions that seem to evade us.

Arguing stops us in our tracks and is self-defeating. True listening – which demands our humility that we do not have all the information nor the be-all answer – leads us out of the stymied morass and enriches the solution. We are never as smart, or as right, as we think we are on any issue.

“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for a half hour.”                       Garrison Keilor

©   2016   Randy Bell