There's lots of talk these days about foundations of America — or even democracy itself — being threatened. Despite all the gravitas, however, there are many for whom such talk feels abstract at best, or even worse: hollow and paranoid.
In a recent speech, former presidential candidate Evan McMullin said, “Disagreement about policy issues is fine. Even passionate differences ought to be welcomed in America.” But with rising emotion in his voice, he added, “but there are some things we must not disagree about: truth, equality, justice, freedom. …”
While the talk was well-received by this college-age audience, one man interviewed afterward said, "Yeah, I’m not sure. I don't like someone else telling me what’s important. I need to find that out for myself."
It’s natural to want to learn “by our own experience,” of course. We have to wonder, though: What kind of personal experience would be needed to confirm for ourselves that ideals like freedom, equality and truth still matter today?
How about this: Having a relationship with someone — anyone — who happens to disagree with us deeply?
Although an extremely common human experience, relating across substantial disagreements has become harder for most of us in recent decades, in an environment where surprising numbers of Americans now question the basic character of their political opposites. 2016 Pew research confirms majorities of people on the left see those on the right as “more close-minded … dishonest, immoral and unintelligent” compared with most Americans. And majorities of people on the right likewise see those on the left as “more closed-minded, immoral, lazier and more dishonest” than most Americans.
At least we agree on something, right?
These are troubling times … and not just because someone like McMullin says so — but also because the widening tensions in our own relationships tell us so.
We submit that it is precisely these difficulties, however, that might also personally reaffirm something about these same lofty ideals. If you think about someone in your life you’ve disagreed with deeply (and loved and respected simultaneously), no doubt you’ll find the following: 1) a belief that this person is of equal worth to you, despite the disagreement and 2) a willingness to allow this person the freedom to see the world differently than you.
Without these commitments to freedom and equality, disagreement starts to break down. Similarly, when we stop believing in any reality or truth outside of ourselves, it becomes hard to justify the need to talk with anyone else who might see the world differently. So in other words, inherent to the act of healthy, productive disagreement is a commitment to ideals like freedom, equality and truth.
This is no sermon from Uncle Sam at the top of Mount Rushmore. It’s a lived reality in every one of our lives — for better, or worse.
If that’s true, then maybe it really is time to recommit to these ideals — and recognize associated threats coming from both sides of the political spectrum. As McMullin put it, “Right now, we have people on the right who are questioning equality as a figment of the ‘liberal agenda.’ And in the same moment, we have people on the left who are questioning freedom as a tactic of the ‘conservative agenda.’”9 comments on this story
Writing unitedly as a conservative Latter-day Saint, an atheist Marxist and a liberal Episcopalian, we agree that protecting a healthy democracy (where we can disagree openly, and freely) is not a “liberal” thing or a “conservative” thing. It matters to all of us.
And it’s no abstraction either. It’s whether you’re able to maintain family relationships — to continue a relationship with that best friend from high school, or even to say hello to a neighbor.
From decades of working to bring liberals and conservatives together, we have learned for ourselves that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on pretty much everything.
If you don’t believe that yet, then maybe it’s time to find out … for yourself.