Friday, September 13, 2019

Uncommon Ground

Unless you’ve been living in cave or on some deserted island having no contact with the outside world, you know that our society is more divided than ever. It’s not just in the United States. But we do seem to be ground zero for polarization. Whether it’s the government, the economy, religion, the environment, social justice, race, gender, education, immigration, healthcare or just the words one is allowed to use; we don’t agree on much of anything. We hear politicians speak about finding “common ground” with the opposition party and working together to solve our considerable problems. Good luck with that.

I think the real questions are: What is common ground and why can’t we find some?

Before one can answer those two questions, one must understand the ground they are standing on. I believe that a person’s attitudes and opinions are determined by three major factors: self-interest, experience, and values.

Why you stand on the ground you stand on is complicated. Self-interest, experience and values are not independent variables. They are highly interactive and each of them impacts the others. They also mean different things to different people. Some people are almost entirely driven by self-interest. Their values are adjusted accordingly. Some people learn and grow from experience while others are damaged and diminished by their experience. Some people are values -driven, even when their values may be misdirected. In their world, self-interest is tied to value commitments; and experience is always viewed through the lens of their values.

Finding common ground is a challenge. If my self-interest conflicts with your self-interest, can we find common ground? If either of us are primarily driven by self-interest, then it is very unlikely we will find common ground unless we stumble across a low cost win-win scenario.

If we have significantly different life experiences, finding common ground is almost impossible unless we have shared self-interest and/or shared values. And if our values differ significantly, even mutual self-interest and shared experience may not be enough to lead us to “common ground”.

How did we get here? I say it’s the result of increased “diversity” in our society and the unprecedented advances in technology. We’ve gone from being a melting pot to a collection of tribes and special interests. Diversity can be a great thing and it has been good for America up to a point. But what happens when people can no longer find common ground when it comes to existential or eternal issues?

We can’t agree on where we are, where we are going or how we are going to get there? We can say things like “we’re all Americans” or “we all just want to be free to live our lives in peace and prosperity”. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Can’t we agree on those? The answer is a resounding NO. Not when your vision of life, liberty and happiness conflicts with my self-interest or my values or my life experience. You have now become an existential threat to me and mine in the here and now; and maybe even in the ever after.

So let’s quit kidding ourselves about “finding common ground”. Admit that we are a fragmented society with a diverse mix of people who have very different values and significantly different life experiences. And understand what that means in terms of “self-interest”. It’s going to be challenging to find areas of mutual self-interest. Remember we can’t agree on where we are, where we are going or how to get there. But, finding some sort of mutual self-interest is the only option left to us.

This means compromise. We must acknowledge our differences and accept that we can’t have everything just the way we might want it to be. The Left is not going to win over the Right and the Right is not going to win over the Left. Let’s just figure out what things might benefit both sides and do what we can to make things a little bit better for as many people as possible.

We are standing on “Uncommon Ground”. We aren’t going back to Happy Days, but there isn’t going to be A Green New Deal either. No you can’t keep your AR-15, but we aren’t going to take all the guns away from our citizens either. Sorry, but “Free” education, healthcare and whatever else some people think they are entitled to, isn’t going to happen. At the same time we have to do better and those who can will have to pay more taxes. It’s not going to be fair and the government will continue to waste money and not be a very well-run enterprise. OK, fix it. It took over 200 years to get this messed up and it’s not going to turn-around overnight.

“You can’t always get what you want
...but if you try sometimes, just might find, get what you need”- The Rolling Stones

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