Finding Common Ground

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.

Comments | 5

  • Synchronicity?

    Two comments:

    one perhaps “clanger effect” or synchronicity?
    – wasn’t the downtown eating establishment called the Common Ground and did the founders consider a double entendre?

    – have you heard of the Braver Angels – and if so what do you think about their approach?

    • They like this!

      The New England chapter of Braver angels just promoted Lise’s thoughts on Facebook.

    • Common Ground and common ground

      I do remember the Common Ground restaurant very well. It was upstairs from Everyone’s Books, but eventually it fell apart and closed. Food there was tasty, and very cheap or free depending on your circumstances (at least that’s how I remember it).

      I have heard of Braver Angels and think it’s a great idea. There is the issue of self-selection though, which I think makes it useful but not the whole solution to our national problem. When it comes to finding common ground with people, I can only do that with people I know. So if I’m acquainted with, or friends with, or related to, or working with someone who is completely on the other side of the political spectrum from me, then I can go with that, and find ways to get along with those people. I’ve learned that there’s little sense in getting mad at them when they say something i would never think or say. And depending on who they are, I tend to keep my disagreement mild — if it’s a work colleague, for instance, I’m not going to give them the whole 9 yards when they say something. If it’s a friend or relation, I can be more straightforward.

      One thing I’ve found is that humor, even self deprecating humor, can help. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, the other person is unlikely to either, and then everything goes more smoothly. So if someone says something anti-environmental to me, I can reply “well, I’m a total tree hugger, as you know, so I don’t really see things that way…..”

      I would also be remiss if I didn’t admit that I’m far from perfect, and with people I know very well, even less so!

      Thanks for reading this. I always worry that my words might offend people, and it’s nice to have folks respond in the spirit intended!

  • Excellent

    Very true words, Lise, thank you. I always try to focus on common ground when possible.

    With my own father, this skill came too late and after his death, but I now am able to reflect more fairly on those connections we had that made us love each other.

    • Thanks, Timmy, for your comments and also the news abou

      Thanks, Timmy, for your comments and also the news about Braver Angels!

      As for your dad, it’s good that you had other “connections” as you put it.

      With my own dad, he knew I loved him and I knew he loved me, even though we weren’t very good at expressing those feelings. As for the “common ground” we finally got to, we were lucky there, and I know that. It could just as easily not have happened.

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