I just saw the movie, “RBG”, about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was terrific, and I recommend it highly. And although I might differ from her positions on some issues, her most important ones concern gender and minority equality before the law, and she has overwhelming moral and legal strength on her side. The movie brought me back to a subject I have been mulling, the culture wars.
Why have the arguments and differences between liberals and conservatives (or better, between progressives and tea partiers), become so bitter? I find that on a very large swath of economic policies—monetary, fiscal, free markets–for the most part, people on both sides can talk to one another. But on social issues—abortion rights, homosexual and transgender issues, redistribution of wealth and income, gun control—friendships have been terminated and people won’t talk to someone with opposing views. Compromise and forward movement is impossible when this occurs.
Where else in history, or in modern times, have we seen this kind of total rejection of “the other”? We have seen it between fascism and liberal democracies, between communism and free market democracies. We have also seen it between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Jews, and between Islam and all other religions.
In each case, the opposing sides held different (and unprovable) beliefs about the nature of man, about their group’s unique right to dominance, about the existence of God and the Eternal’s relationship to mankind. Perhaps because these beliefs are unprovable, to challenge them is to challenge who a person really is. And that becomes so uncomfortable, that people just do not want to hear, debate, or reason with someone who represents that challenge to self.
It is possible, as our society has become more secular, less religious (or at least less involved with organized religion), that other ideals and beliefs have replaced those core values held by followers of organized religion, who have their own beliefs shaped by religious dogma or tradition. Regardless, it is opposing social beliefs, more than economic, that are at the root of the culture wars which have made our partisan politics so bitter and uncompromising. That last thought is not original; somewhere in my reading I came across it.
Is this an intractable problem? One way out of it is through better leadership from those at the pinnacle of our society, the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, respected business leaders, lawyers or academics. Leadership can stress those unifying elements that bring us together as a nation, and remind us of them frequently, so the differences, which will always exist, don’t overwhelm us. Another way was on display in the movie I just saw, which inspired this blog post.
On the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became best of friends with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Two brilliant lawyers and judges could not have been farther apart politically, yet they were known and acknowledged as close friends. What was the magic, the chemistry, that allowed this to happen? Clearly, they were both lawyers of the highest caliber, and developed mutual respect. They were in an environment where they were forced to work together, and to listen to each other, whether they agreed or not, and sworn to uphold the Constitution, although they certainly interpreted it differently.
We cannot force adults to listen to people with whom they disagree, or to work side by side with them. But there is an arena where we could do a better job with a large minority of the population, in college or university. From the reports and articles I read, we don’t seem to be doing a good job in this arena. University administrations need to make sure they are not creating classrooms of indoctrination, where dissent from the professor’s view is suppressed or disrespected. Speakers coming to campus should be protected, allowed to speak, and encouraged to put forth controversial views.
In another era, the military service and the draft performed some of this function. It’s possible we should consider some sort of compulsory national service. But that’s a topic for another blog posting.