My father was always conservative. Although never a registered Republican — he preferred to see himself as an Independent — his views were decidedly to the right. For my part, I too saw myself as independent but took the opposite road politically, becoming what he would call “a liberal.” Consequently, we rarely saw eye to eye about political matters, although it never came to blows.
But somewhere in the early 21st century, my dad retired from his job and began to have more time on his hands. Having moved to rural Rhode Island and having no friends in the area or work to keep him occupied, he acquired the unfortunate habit of listening to talk radio. Rush Limbaugh was his favorite show. As a frequent visitor to the new family homestead, I became the target of his right-wing ire. After all, it’s no fun being angry if you have no one to attack over it.
For the next several years, here’s how it went: I would go down to visit on the bus or train or whatever conveyance I could find. Dad would pick me up at the station and then we would fight. He would raise some “bleeding heart liberal” viewpoint he’d heard on Rush Limbaugh and then he would accuse me of holding that view. Sometimes, I was guilty as charged, other times not. But it didn’t matter. He would go after me hammer and tongs, getting so mad that he would pound the steering wheel in his fury, leading me to fear for my life, and not just because of our political differences. Dad, I would cry, watch the road! But of course I would argue back, because that’s what people do, right? When we disagree, we argue with our opponent.
Then one day, tired of the sturm and drang, I decided to try a different approach. I decided to talk about common ground — the things we agreed on, rather than the things upon which we disagreed. I started to list them. We both love nature, art and literature, music and musical theater. Neither one of us favor unnecessary wars, high taxes on the middle class, greedy rich people, and smarmy pseudo-intellectuals telling us what to think. In short, I argued, we have more in common than we have differences.
Here is the amazing part: after that day, my father stopped turning me into a liberal punching bag. We continued to spar as we had all my life, but we never fought about it. We would sometimes agree to disagree, which is often the only avenue open when political and philosophical differences exist. And to my immense surprise, the milder side of my father’s nature emerged and he began to express views that while neither right nor left per se, were very much different from those he’d expressed previously. The hard line softened, and I loved him for it.
Now it’s one thing to mend fences with your family, because presumably you love them, and people tend to be more willing to look for common ground with people they love. But I’ve found that this approach also works with people outside the family circle.
A decade or so ago, I risked my credibility with my leftist friends by developing a friendly relationship with a local gentleman whose conservative views were somewhat legendary among progressives in town. He shall remain nameless since you may know him, but I found that despite my own reputation in local circles as a radical lefty, I was able to get along with him by emphasizing our commonalities rather than our differences. We both liked the same tv show, for instance. We both loved plants and gardening. We could even discuss issues we disagreed on without rancor, as long as we kept our tone “civil” and allowed the other to express their own views without jumping all over them. Here again, the willingness to agree to disagree came in handy.
In a nation radically divided by partisan differences and mutual hatred, I see no way to heal that divide with more division and hatred. We need to see our commonalities, as my father and I were ultimately able to do. We need to learn how to discuss contested issues without emotion, as my local conservative friend and I were also able to do. In short, we need to be able to acknowledge our common humanity, because without that, we are lost in a sea of unproductive words that only serve to increase our problems, rather than solve them.
For many of us, befriending the enemy is very difficult to do or even to attempt. But consider this: if your enemy becomes your friend, you have a much better chance of convincing them to help (or at least not hinder) when the chips are down.
Perhaps ours is a hopeless situation, but with so many things at the breaking point, from climate and class to war and peace, it seems obvious that we need to find common ground and fast. Achieving this is a valuable skill, and one that anyone can learn if only we put our minds to it. As our potentially dark future unfolds, we can no longer afford the luxury of being right, regardless of cost. A pyrrhic victory serves no one. Common ground serves us all.