Feeling Larry’s Pain

I don’t know Larry personally. He is one of many thousands living in American cities that once were the pride of the manufacturing world, but have recently been decimated by the outsourcing of jobs, leaving him jobless and his city littered with abandoned plants.

It is all too easy for academics, sitting around a seminar table discussing the pros and cons of globalization, or for politicians, debating the merits of a proposed trade agreement, to ignore the pain that Larry feels, and, therefore, not factor such a realization into their deliberations. So, although I don’t know Larry, let me imaginatively attempt to speak on his behalf.

The job that Larry lost was the same job that his father and grandfather also worked, and that he thought his son would one day work.  Larry didn’t just lose a job. He lost a way of life that was passed on through generations. Larry once had a reason to believe that this way of life was stable, likely to continue for generations to come, But that stability was displaced by disruption. And this disruption has had a devastating effect on Larry’s very sense of who he is. The story of his life has been broken. He feels the pain of no longer being sure of his personal identity and his place in the world.

So when Larry hears academics and TV pundits pontificate on the benefits of globalization, he easily responds the way we all are inclined to respond when our personal identity is threatened, by expressions of dissatisfaction that can morph into rage, including name-calling and demonization of those “experts” who have not walked in his shoes, who have not felt his pain. As sociologist John W. Hawthorne has pointed out, it is “the gap between the stories people have grown up with and the reality that they see around them” that easily leads to deep dissatisfaction

Now that Larry has had his say, so to speak, what can be done? Nostalgia is not the solution. While there is room for legitimate debate as to the advantages and disadvantages of globalization, a topic that goes far beyond the boundaries of my expertise, and how to “steer” globalization in a direction that will minimize the negative effects on Larry, it is impossible to go back to the good old days for the former citadels of American manufacturing.

Hawthorne, in a splendid unpublished paper titled “Broken Stories, Identity, and the Restoration of Civil Discourse,” suggests that the “broken stories,” of Larry and others, that were associated with particular social arrangements in the past, need to be replaced by new stories that are “rich enough” to handle the social changes that have taken place.

Of course, this is easier said than done. How does Larry forge such a richer story? Not by himself. That story can only be forged in conversation with others, including those who share his pain, those who don’t have a clue about his pain, and those who, intentionally or unintentionally, have contributed to his pain. Although it stretches the imagination, it is conceivable that such a “larger conversation” will lead to agreement as to aspects of our common humanity that can help to shape this richer story. Hawthorne dares to suggest that “when we come to recognition of commonality, the richer story is crafted.”

The above reflections have enormous implications for the political process. First, if the results of any potential political legislation can significantly impact the lives on non-politicians, which is the case for virtually all political legislation, then those who will be affected must have a voice at the table. It is simply not acceptable for those who legislate trade agreements with other countries to ignore the voices of those whose very identity will be threatened by those agreements.

A second political implication is to realize that when Larry is invited to the table, he will not be persuaded by a host of rational arguments. That is because his crisis is not intellectual but existential; it is tied to a deep identity story. Larry is dissatisfied or enraged because his very identity is being threatened. Politicians ignore that fact at their peril. In my wildest dreams, politicians will give Larry room to express his dissatisfaction and rage, and having heard Larry, will contribute positively to crafting that richer story that will reflect those common features of the humanity that they share with Larry.

Finally, these implications for the role that Larry should play in the political process can be generalized to all Americans. It is foolhardy to ride roughshod over any citizen’s sense of identity, whether that identity is formed by generations of continuous employment at the same plant, or by any other aspects of our stories, such as our particular religious or secular worldview commitments. The factors that shape our various identities need to be given a welcoming space for expression in the public square.

[For readers wishing to correspond with professor Hawthorne, he can be contacted at john.hawthorne@arbor.edu].

A Modest Goal For Public Discourse, or Not

When is a conversation “genuine?” Michael King suggests that it is when there is “a mutual quest for treasure in our own and the other’s viewpoint.”

Elaborating, King suggests that this entails making two key moves: “the first move is to make as clear as I can why I hold this position … and why you may find in it treasure to value in your own quest for truth. The second move is to see the value in the other’s view … and to grow in my own understandings by incorporating as much of the other’s perspective as I can without losing the integrity of my own convictions” (Mutual Treasure, P. 153).

This ideal for public discourse establishes a very high standard. When I am about to engage someone with whom I have major disagreements, I do not always do so with the attitude that I am going to “actively seek for treasure” in what he or she believes. I have a lot of company. Is this lofty goal attainable?

Another Mennonite scholar, Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, suggests that King may have set the bar too high when dealing with volatile and contentious issues. She asks, “Does one need to be open to changing one’s perspective or conviction about an issue?” In her view, when dealing with highly charged issues, such as homosexuality, “that readiness is the ideal, but it is rarely realistic.”

Schrock-Shenk then proposes a more modest goal that she believes is a “minimum requirement for genuine conversation”: “a readiness to change or modify one’s perspective about the person or persons holding the opposite point of view” (Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, P. 15).

Is this more modest goal for public discourse feasible? I see little evidence of it in current political debate. The rampant tendency to resort to name-calling, and even demonization, of politicians on the other side of the aisle doesn’t suggest that a result of ongoing political debate has caused many to modify their perspectives about the persons who are their political opponents.

But, closer to home, is this apparently modest goal feasible within the Christian community? When Christians engage other Christians who disagree with them on contentious issues, is there evidence that such engagement typically modifies the perspective one Christian has about the person with whom he or she disagrees? I see little broad evidence for that change in perspective, and I will conjecture as to the reason for that.

The problem, as I see it, is the prevalence of “litmus tests” among Christians relative to controversial questions, such as the following: How did God create the universe? What will be the nature of the “end times?” Is abortion ever an appropriate moral choice? What about homosexuality and gay marriage? Should a Christian ever resort to violence? Is a particular political affiliation most compatible with the Christian faith?

All of these questions are important, and should be discussed respectfully by Christians who propose different answers. But such conversations are difficult to get started or to sustain because of the up-front application of litmus tests intended to separate “us” from “them.” If you do not embrace one particular answer to one of these questions, that just proves that you have a low view of the authority of the Bible, or you are not a deeply committed Christian, if you are a Christian at all. End of conversation!

How can this problem be solved? My proposed solution is for you to get to know, on a personal level, the person with whom you disagree. Such personal knowledge will help you to understand better that person’s reasons for his or her position, which could change your perspective about that person, You may come to the realization that he or she is also a deeply committed follower of Jesus, even though you differ about the issue at hand. Lest you think this is wishful thinking, let me share with you a personal experience that caused me to change my perspective about another Christian.

My church hosted a dialogue on one of the contentious questions noted above. Although the dialogue was scheduled for two days, some were ready to go home early by applying a simple litmus test. But most of us were willing to start with the assumption that there may be alternative Christian views on the issue at hand that equally committed followers of Jesus could embrace. So the conversation proceeded, with the last session devoted to one-on-one conversations between pairs of attendees. By chance, or by design (I was later told), I was paired with a local pastor who was known to hold strong views on the issue with which I disagreed, and who was vocal about his views. How awkward would this prove to be?

It didn’t prove to be awkward at all, because we didn’t just jump into the issue at hand. Rather we started by talking about where we came from geographically (his boyhood home was in the same state as my wife’s home), about our children (his daughters were attending a Christian College in Pennsylvania with which I was familiar), and about our respective Christian pilgrimages. We then spent some time talking about the issue at hand, but I don’t think we changed each other’s basic point of view. However, our conversation changed my preconceived notions about this person, and I left our time together thankful that I had engaged another deeply committed follower of Jesus.

I learned a valuable lesson through this experience. If we get to know personally other Christians who disagree with us on contentious issues, it may slow down (albeit, probably not eliminate) the centrifugal tendency toward disunity among Christians and help us to realize that we can have Christian fellowship with other followers of Jesus who differ with us on some contentious issues because we share a common commitment to be followers of Jesus. Once we come to that realization, we may even be ready to seek and find some mutual treasures in each other’s perspectives.

In brief, your embracing the apparently modest goal of openness to changing your perspective about the person with whom you disagree may be a first step toward the loftier goal of seeking for mutual treasures.

Mixtures of Good and Bad Ideas

Now that both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama have unveiled their respective plans for our national budget, at least in broad outline form, the airwaves will be filled with talk of “good ideas” and “bad ideas.”

My experience suggests that if I wish to engage someone who disagrees with me on a given issue, the surest way to insure that our conversation ends abruptly is for me to hold tenaciously to the questionable proposition that all my ideas are good and all his ideas are bad. I have always tried to present a strong rationale for what I considered to be my good ideas. But, as I have listened respectfully to the ideas of someone who disagrees with me, I often found that some of my initial ideas were bad in comparison to some of his good ideas. And in the best of conversations, my partner also made adjustments in his initial views about good ideas and bad ideas.

So, in the heated budget debate that is upon us, it is reasonable for those on both sides of the aisle to present strong rationales for their respective proposals. But I hope, possibly naively, that each politician will be open to the possibility that those on the other side of the aisle have some ideas that are better than their initial ideas. Such openness will be necessary to attain bipartisan consensus.

In the book Mutual Treasure that Michael King and I edited, King calls this give-and-take between those holding opposing views the “seeking for mutual treasure.” Many will not want to embark on such a mutual quest because they are convinced that there is absolutely no treasure to be found in opposing views. But you can’t predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. If politicians on both sides of the aisle are willing to engage in respectful conversation, they may find some treasure in the opposing views, without sacrificing their own treasures.

As this budget debate heats up, I would like to reflect on one aspect of Obama’s comments when he unveiled the outlines of his budget plan, his pointing to the importance of both our “individuality” and our “connectivity” as Americans.

To be sure, much of our economic progress throughout our history can be traced to giving self-reliant individuals space to be creative and innovative. Such space needs to be maintained.

However our history also reveals strong elements of “connectivity” between individuals, wherein we embrace an obligation to care for those who are less fortunate than we are, including those who, for various reasons, cannot compete in a “free-market” economy. From my own Christian perspective, promoting such connectivity is central to the command of Jesus that we love others.

It is tempting, but false, to suggest that one of these emphases is the exclusive preoccupation of one of our major political parties, while the other party exclusively embraces the other emphasis. Besides, that presents a false choice. It has to be both/and, not either/or. I hope that persons of good will on both sides of the aisle will embrace the proposition that there are aspects of both our “individuality” and our “connectivity” that need to be embraced, so that the ongoing debate can focus on what those particular aspects are and on the challenging question of the “balance” that needs to be created between these two important emphases.

Wanted: an Even Playing Field for the Budget Debate

We have traversed the foothills, but the climb of the Himalayas now begins, to paraphrase one TV pundit’s reflections on the recent budget deal that prevented a government shutdown.

That arduous climb appears to start with one element of common ground – Any attempt to bring about long-term budget deficit reduction will require that politicians on both sides of the aisle address the big ticket items of entitlements, tax structure and military spending. But how does one proceed beyond this modest point of agreement? To date, only a representative of one side of the aisle, Republican Paul Ryan, has put forth a comprehensive proposal that addresses the contentious particulars.

I give credit to Ryan for putting his bold proposal out on the table. Of course, the Democratic pundits are having a field day, calling elements of Ryan’s proposal “bad ideas” that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. That may be the case, and that portion of the debate needs to continue. But that debate is carried out on an uneven playing field until Democrats present a comprehensive proposal, the elements of which Republicans can choose to label as “bad ideas.”

The good news, as I understand it, is that such a comprehensive Democratic plan for dealing with the big ticket budget items is forthcoming. After that proposal is out on the table, it will be possible to have a fair debate as to the relative merits, or demerits, of proposals from both sides of the aisle, hopefully leading to the emergence of further common ground beyond agreeing that we have a long-term budget problem.

I will dare to generalize these reflections on the current budget debate. Whatever the issue at hand, it is all too easy to criticize a position taken by someone else, without allowing for reciprocal criticism of your position, simply because you haven’t stated a position that can be criticized and discussed.

If the “Ideals for Conversation” that I have proposed elsewhere on this web site have any validity, then the quest for substantive common ground will go nowhere unless those who disagree first listen to and seek to understand adequately the contrary positions of others. This obviously requires that the various contrary positions be put on table. Only then can those in conversation begin to uncover where they agree and where they disagree, and go on from there, depending on the purpose of the conversation.

Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea in Politics?

It is generally agreed that the tax cut legislation of December 2010 reflected compromises on both sides of the political aisle. Were such compromises warranted?

It depends on your view of the political process. There are those who hold to unyielding fixed positions and will not entertain the possibility of making “mutual concessions” (the dictionary definition of “compromise”). Politics is viewed as an all or nothing enterprise. If that is your view of politics, then compromise is a bad idea.

But there is an alternative view of politics for which compromise is a good idea. That view was captured by President Obama in his comments after the December 2010 tax cut legislation: “compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.” The key word here is “yielding.”

When driving through one of the rotaries (roundabouts) in Massachusetts, “yielding” is not the end of the journey. Rather, it is a temporary delay in an ongoing journey. Analogously, in the December 2010 tax legislation Obama yielded on some matters about which he has strong beliefs, most notably his belief that tax cuts should not be extended to the wealthy. But his political opponents also did some yielding, most notably agreeing to a number of tax breaks for the middle class and an extension of unemployment benefits that Obama supported.

But in agreeing to such a compromise, didn’t both Obama and his political opponents violate their deeply held beliefs? Only if you think that December 2010 was the end of the journey. But what took place in December of 2010 is far from the end of the journey. Obama believes that the tax cuts for the wealthy will not create the significant number of jobs that is a high priority for both parties. His political opponents believe this measure will create many new jobs. Who is correct?  Politicians on both sides of the aisle need to exhibit enough humility to acknowledge that they could be wrong. Only time will tell.

Of course the journey continues now with the raging debate about Obama’s budget proposal. One viewpoint is that Obama failed to show leadership in not tackling  entitlement benefits, military spending, of a major overhaul of the tax code. But there is a more charitable view hinted at in Obama’s words to the Press Corps when he released his budget proposal: “You guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is that it isn’t going to happen.”

Once again, Obama’s own words suggest that he views the political process as a journey in which he yields on certain budgetary convictions, at least for the time being, with hope that further down the road it will be possible to attain compromise on the big ticket budget items. Is that wishful thinking? Again, only time will tell.

These reflections are not intended to express support, or lack of support, for the December 2010 legislation or Obama’s budget proposal.  Rather, it is to indicate my belief that it is appropriate for those on both sides of the aisle to agree on compromises, remembering that compromise, as a good idea, is always a temporary yielding in an ongoing political process. To be sure, that makes politics a messy enterprise that has been likened to the making of sausage, but that is the only way forward when politicians disagree as to the best way to go forward.

An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the The Center for Public Justice’s web publication Capital Commentary.