There is anger and fear in the air. Tensions are high, and so are the stakes. Some will insist that we are sitting on a powder keg, and it is only a matter of time before it blows.
In such an atmosphere, there are those who call for resistance, and others who call for forbearance. Lines are drawn, and we are urged to either do something about the danger, or sit idly by and allow the worst to come. Edmund Burke’s famous words are evoked: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
We hear that if we don’t resist, we are part of the problem. Those who advocate patience are accused of inaction. That vast majority of Americans who dwell somewhere in the center of the social and political spectrum are pressured to pick a side and move toward one pole or the other.
And so there is a need for a call to resist both the resistance as well as the opposite extreme which it is resisting. The most courageous thing we can do at this time is not to rebel, but rather to hearken back to the values on which the country was founded and find a way to coexist.
The notion of this call for coexistence is not to silence those who believe that it is time to speak up and speak out. Rather it is to urge them toward dialogue rather than diatribe. We must speak TO one another rather than AT one another.
There is certainly a need in these troubled times for advocacy, but there is no need for so much animosity. Our system is stymied by fierce partisanship, and our spirits are crushed by constant antagonism and hostility.
The reality of our checks and balances system of democracy is that if we are to make any progress, we will do so together rather than separately. If we continue to stoke the fire that burns between us, the obstructionism that has become so pervasive will only continue, and therefore we will get nowhere.
An appeal toward civility and patience is therefore not a call for silence in the face of conflict and danger. It is rather the recognition that we are only able to make others aware of errors and inconsistencies if they are listening, and they are far more likely to listen if we speak with respect rather than rancor.
Yelling may be a good way to whip up your crowd, but speaking softly is a more effective way to reach those who are not already listening. Such a volume paradox may not conform with the laws of physics, but it is certainly consistent with the laws of human nature – when we scream we will be heard by those nearby who want to listen, but those far away and less inclined to our message are far more likely to hear us if we moderate our voice and speak calmly and with respect.
And the goal, of course, is not simply to communicate with those who already agree – unless it is popularity we seek rather than efficacy. If it is true progress we are after, real social change that will better the lives of as many people as possible, then we must recognize the need to communicate and collaborate with those who differ. For ours is a society that is enshrined upon the values of diversity, equality and freedom.
Therefore we recognize that what is good is not simply right for some, but rather for the many. We embrace the other not because we want him/her to be like us, but because we believe that ‘us’ is better and stronger when it is inclusive and diverse (which may provoke the question of whether the fact that our country is called the U.S. is simply a coincidental acronym, or if there is something more profound and inevitable at play).
So what are we to do then about the tension that courses through the air like electricity and threatens to ignite the awaiting powder keg? Ignoring it would be as foolish as stoking it. The answer is to engage rather than enrage ; to focus on points of commonality, and from there to work together toward compromise and solutions that will be mutually beneficial.
The dialectic that is being drawn between two mutually exclusive forces is neither factual nor productive. Many who paint in such black and whites are steeped in fear and cynicism, and are often more concerned with their particular agenda than they are with the good of the whole. Or, perhaps to judge more favorably, they are simply overwhelmed with frustration and panic, and they cannot see that there is a better and more collaborative path.
They should be supported in their valid concerns. They should be encouraged to make them known in productive and positive ways. If we are to coexist, we will need the passionate participation of those who care enough to raise vital issues and assure that everyone’s interests are being represented. When such passion can be channeled productively and considerately, then we can be assured that good men and women will stand together to avert the triumph of evil that Edmund Burke forewarned.
Marc Erlbaum, Contributor