Building a Bridge toward the Future: Will You Meet Me in the Middle? By Ivy Helman
On Tuesday, President Obama’s acceptance speech included the following statement about coming together as a country across differences of opinion. He said, “We will disagree, sometimes fiercely about how to get [toward the future we hope for]…by itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward…”
How do we really do this work? How do we come together across difference to make change? How do we foster productive dialogue that produces genuine and real results? In this dialogue, what principles do we use? What values do we honor? What criteria do we use to judge opinions of others? When is an opinion wrong or when is an opinion just different from our own?
In the United States, some of us understand this country as grounded in Christian roots and founded on basic Christian ideals. At the same time, others of us take pride in the fact that our nation was founded on the basic principle of the separation of church and state. Neither of these, when we look into the heart of the matter, however really describe the political climate in the United States. Here, there is a complex, deep and difficult tug-of-war between religion and politics. Nowhere is this truer than at the intersection of what I would call feminist concerns or what in some politically conservative, Christian evangelical circles is often labeled “family values.” (As an aside, “family values” is a term I wholeheartedly disagree with since, as a feminist, I support family values as well. To me, family values means that families units in all their varieties – be they single-headed homes, queer families, polyamorous relationships, heterosexual families, etc. – be places of safety, justice, love, trust, mutuality and care.)
As difficult as it is to come to terms with, the intersection of feminism, religion and politics is fraught with danger or downright scary for some people in the United States. Often, nowhere are our differences in ideologies, beliefs, interpretations, understandings, experiences and viewpoints more polar opposites than they are when there is mention of marriage, women’s ability to control their own bodies, immigration policies, equal pay for equal work and environmental justice to name just a few. A gulf widens and the bridge between the two sides snaps…
Where do we go from here? Is there truly a way forward as Obama believes there is? Can we rebuild that broken bridge or perhaps construct a brand new one to bring us over the large divide between people on both sides of the shores who care strongly about government, politics and religion? I believe that there is. While there are no easy answers to these questions, let me suggest a few places to start to bridge this gap and begin dialoguing.
First, and most importantly, bridge-building, or dialogue, should begin with a general philosophical conversation, one that answers the following questions: What is this future we envision? What should the United States look like ten, twenty or one hundred years from now? We cannot begin to build a better United States (let alone a better world if we decide that is what we also want to work toward) when we disagree on what we mean when we talk about basic concepts like justice, love, values, trust, community, safety, self-direction, peace, respect and equality. I believe the country was founded on principles like these. Only we have lost sight about what they really mean. In addition, I suggest an air of caution when we try to export these values elsewhere. Cultural imperialism and the high cost of militarism seem contrary to the United States’ founding vision.
Second, once we have general agreement on these philosophical ideals, how to apply them to life is bound to bring up disagreement. Even here on this blog, where we generally agree about ending sexism in religion and rooting out and exposing patriarchy, we disagree about the best ways to accomplish such tasks. Some of us believe that “traditional” religions can be remade into new creations while others wish to throw out received religions and start afresh. Yet, others of us find all religion emblematic of the deep roots of patriarchy in our society and wish to see the end of it all together. These kinds of disagreements are healthy. We have much to learn from the many perspectives shared here, and, in the end, we all wish to achieve the same goals: an end to sexism and patriarchal oppression in religions and in the larger society as a whole. Our differences in how to accomplish these goals challenge us to work towards better understandings of each other. They also challenge each blogger and commentator to improve how they articulate their respective points of view.
Third, when it comes to dialogue among different viewpoints we know disagreements will occur. However, how disagreement occurs is important. Vocal tones and words spoken cannot be condensing or judgmental. Differences of opinion between groups or between individuals should not hurt, and when they do hurt, reasons as to how and why need to be diligently sought out. In addition, the hurt party must be given plenty of room to explain how and why what was said hurt them, and the offending party needs to be willing to listen and amend hurtful words and/or tones. If hurt was on account of misunderstandings, then both parties need to work to enhance understanding.
Fourth, working together doesn’t mean always having to compromise. Likewise, neither party should get into the habit of always being the first to compromise. The socialization of women, as highlighted by feminist theory, offers us good food for fodder here. Women as a group have been socialized to make people happy and appease those in charge and therefore we often compromise well before we should. Despite what the President has said about needing to compromise, I am of the opinion that compromise is not always the right solution when it negatively affects principles of self-direction, community, values, respect, justice, love, peace, safety, equality and trust.
Finally, all who come together in dialoguing and bridge-building need to cultivate a spirit of openness, collegiately and concern so that we can build a future together. Further disagreement will lead us nowhere. For the United States to truly have a future, we, its elected leaders and its citizens, need to begin to build bridges. We need to sit across the table from one another. We need to talk with each other not to each other. We need to become each other’s allies, not continue as each other’s enemies. (Didn’t Jesus say love your enemies?) We cannot do that if we will not even listen to each other. Let’s take Obama at his word. The first step across that wide divide is a bridge. If we both start building on our respective sides, we can meet in the middle that much sooner. Then we can shake hands and begin walking together toward our shared future. Will you meet me half way?