Even as I start to write this I begin to realize a certain amount of futility. I know the argument I make will fail at some level or another. Still something calls me to express it. I woke this Sunday morning as I do most mornings to the sound of my clock radio. Most Sunday’s what I hear first is NPR’s ‘On Being‘ — a program that used to be known as “Speaking of Faith’ —all argument aside, feel free to read this post as nothing more than a plug for this program.
This morning the show’s host, Krista Tippet was interviewing two men, David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, men of past plainly stated opposing views on the subject of gay marriage rights. Each of these men spoke candidly and convincingly of their genuine deeply held beliefs. None of this was new particularly. The basic range of ideas has been in stir for several years now. There were maybe one or two nuanced points to each argument I hadn’t considered before. But I don’t mean to make this post yet another aperture for examining the particular question of marriage equality.
What was interesting —maybe even inspiring— was in the nature of the disagreement these two men managed. The way they negotiated their disagreement, it was something of a gift. Blankenhorn and Rauch referred to it as an achievement:
Mr. Blankenhorn: See, because it’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid, but to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that and that, I’ll tell you, in today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate, you know, the heart just cries out for this kind of, you know, serious effort to achieve disagreement.
Jonathan Rauch: I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this, and I saw in you someone who is willing to say, you know, being right is not as important to me as making a pact with my fellow Americans on the other side so that we can share this country.
Mr. Blankenhorn: We can — we can live together.
Hearing this conversation struck me and resounded on a couple of levels: at the level of housekeeping here at Holmes & Company and on the larger level of the general public discourse as well. This idea of a fundamental difference we can regard as an achievement is a strange one, I’ll grant. But I think Mr. Rauch is dead on when he describes it as matter of patriotism —another way of putting it perhaps: this achieved form of difference is our duty as citizens.
This is a duty I believe we all have a tendency to give short shrift. We all tend to see debate as a contest —an ugly contest at times— to be won or lost ultimately, not something to be sustained as useful and even vital, something we really ought to treat as an honorable ongoing endeavor.
I was discussing this with my son this morning and we touched on the habits of speech in the civic realm. In the Courts and in the Congress, even when opposing sides in a debate are heated to the extreme, there is that convention of addressing one another with restraint and respect, as “my esteemed colleague from Texas” or even “your honor.” There are the careful protocols of Roberts Rules and the like. These aren’t in place for decorum for its own sake, I don’t think. They certainly don’t make differences go away. I think the genius of these debate conventions is that they serve to filter out the distractions from substance ad hominem insults so often are. The real differences that remain, engaged earnestly, these are the achievement. Like the poet said, at least about certain things those Old Masters, they were never wrong.
We’ve all noticed the ground shift in the debate on marriage rights. The crippling confliction that so damaged John Kerry in 2004 as an election politics wedge has turned toward being a crucial liability in the opposite direction. The consensus has moved against contesting rights and conservatives grow concerned about being on the wrong side of history. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, I’ve advocated for marriage equality for quite some time, yet as the social change appears to be arriving more fully I start to sympathize with those who dare to differ with it. I still think they are mistaken to oppose the rights of others to appear before the law as equals —and that this is the essence of the question, but I also notice that charges of bigotry get thrown their way promiscuously. This is touched upon in the discussion Rauch and Blankenhorn and Tippett conduct.
We may soon see some welcome progress on marriage equality, through the courts and through our congress. But maybe there’s a better way to see and understand that progress than one side winning out in a contest over the other. Maybe what we need to do is allow some difference to remain, if only so we can learn to do so kindly.
I’d urge all to give the program I heard this morning a listen.