The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.


Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Orientalism—A Fourth Set of Thoughts (Othering and Bulverism)

Orientalism_Cover 4I’ve benefited immensely from my read of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, and lately I’ve been blogging through a few reflections on the implications and impact of that work. Today I want to think about Othering, Bulverism, and the danger of labelling.

‘Othering’ is a formal concept where I employ an identifying metric in my encounters with an ‘other’ in such a way that I both highlight the differences and reinforce my sense of self. In the encounter between my self and an other, the other is used as a foil for my own identity, and in the process I often fail to see him or her as a real person, with real narrative, and with real information to bring to a relational engagement. Today I want to reflect on how defining a process such as ‘othering’ is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time.

First, it is helpful because it does indeed describe many of the historic, and ongoing, interactions between the West and other cultures. One doesn’t have to search far to find evidence of Western reductionism, selfishness, and fetishization of non-Western ‘others.’ Orientalism has allowed the West to compartmentalize, and then no longer see, a group—by rendering them invisible, they can be ignored, reduced in narrative, and made simple. In short, Orientalism has been a disposition that makes discrimination possible. In this, as a label it is helpful as a diagnostic tool to mark, identify, and seek to redress these abuses.

At the same time, I think it can also be unhelpful. One of the hallmarks of modern discourse is labelling—if I can effectively and evocatively label a situation, or a wrong, then I can summarily defeat it. Think of the power of big labels such as “racism,” “abuse,” and “intolerance.” Think also of the power of lesser labels, such as “Becky,” “Wypipo,” “millennial,” or “snowflake.” If I can successfully label you, then I can summarily dismiss you. Partly, this appears to be nothing more than a turning of the tables—where once, the West in power labelled and dismissed non-Western others, now non-Western others are able to label and dismiss the West.

specialsnowflake meme

I was reminded, here, of something C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock (also published as Undeceptions), specifically about just and unjust arguments. His description is worth quoting in full:

Lewis_UndeceptionsIn the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In other words, the application of a preconditioned label—racist, liberal, Trump-supporter, snowflake, millennial, Baby Boomer, etc.—is sufficient argument enough. No more needs to be said, and no listening needs to happen. The argument, by virtue of the label, is rendered complete.

Crucial in Said’s account of Orientalism is his appeal to a kind of listening as a tonic for the abuses of the past—toward this goal, he utilizes the label of ‘othering’ as a diagnostic tool, but he does this in order to make an appeal for better communication and understanding between the East and West. In his own words, he argues that “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency and outright war.” (Orientalism, xiv, emphasis added) When labels are simply a power-play, then they can no longer facilitate this process.

In view of this, I am reminded of Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:22,

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell

Note that in this passage Jesus is giving instructions for how we are to behave when our brother has something against us (he says this explicitly in verse 23). We, in other words, are the offender in this passage. But our response is illuminating—first, we become angry with our brother for bringing a charge against us, then we call him a name (“good-for-nothing”), and finally we ascribe to him a label, “fool.” Labelling, in this passage, is the process of hardening our hearts to the claim of our brothers or sisters. It diminishes and reduces the complexity of the person. It is the antithesis of listening, and in Jesus’ instruction it is equated, in the end, to murder.

Sermon on the Mount_

It probably didn’t look like this.

Does that mean that no one is ever a fool? Of course not. There are scads of them. Just as there are scads of genuine snowflakes and racists in the world. But when we misuse those labels in petty power plays and in a context devoid of genuine listening, we put ourselves on what, according to Jesus, is a highly dangerous trajectory.