Narrowing The Divide

Jack Sherman and I meet for lunch every Wednesday, a ritual of sorts, in recognition of a friendship dating back to our law school days in the 1960s. Last month, on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, we were joined by Greg Adams, another friend and colleague of many years. Yet, despite our friendship, I walked away from Greg without speaking when we met at a social event soon after the election, a lapse I wrote about in these pages almost two months ago.

The three of us sat together in a cozy booth, my political adversary and my best friend, and we recalled our many connections. We laughed in surprise when Greg pointed out that Jack had been his constitutional law professor back in the early 1970s. Tensions eased. At least mine did. The two men exhibited none at all right from the start. Denial is their friend?

I now knew, which was unexplored territory for us before the presidential election, that Greg and I lived in separate moral* worlds, a divide artfully described by Jonathan Haidt, a noted social psychologist whose work Greg and I both admire. Haidt suggests that our political positions are mostly unconscious moral intuitions that are formed by early family and life experience. Because of this we perceive very different threats to our democracy. But, unlike those who choose to avoid talking about it, we were at a turning point. We were either facing a permanent breech, a greatly diminished quality of friendship and a widening of the divide so evident across the land, or we could make the effort to reach out and develop empathy and understanding for our different views, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. (Although, I later learned that the enmity I felt, born of my fear of what the future holds, was not shared by Greg at all.)

“What do you see as the role of government?” That was my first question, and I offered my answer before he spoke. “For me, it’s an expanded sense of community, a way for all of us to take care of each other.” Greg’s response perfectly encapsulated our different perspective: “It’s human nature to want to control one’s own destiny. Government regulating our lives denies this, and at the same time is inherently inefficient.” He shared anecdotes, some quite humorous, to support his conclusion.

We touched on many issues: children living in poverty, the minimum wage, the threatened Muslim registry, broaching subjects about which I assumed we differed in important ways. My words were carefully chosen. Without any formal prior agreement we each took care not to be challenging. We listened well and responded calmly. Along the way, we all told funny stories, some with a partisan edge, and the mood remained light hearted. Time ran out with many important issues untouched.

Expressing empathy for victims of tragic events is easy. It’s far less easy when we feel personally threatened, when our moral matrix*, our belief system, is called into question by the left-right divide. Can a genuine friendship survive? But perhaps of broader importance, can our democracy survive if we can only shout at each other or remain silent?

We made a start that Wednesday afternoon. And on reflection, I realize how important that was. Since then we’ve had further conversations and plans are afoot to have others join us. Will this be a true coming together? The emergence of shared values? Perhaps some, for we have already discovered we share unequivocal support for free speech on college campuses and oppose the concept of a Muslim registry. And might we problem solve where we differ? There will be genuine appreciation for the effort, and respect. Of that I am sure. Just a beginning, but an important beginning.

And should we happen to meet informally, I will not look away.

*Terms used by Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind”. See also TED talk interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-_Az5nZBBM.