Saturday, September 29, 2012

Beginning Examples

I have no time to blog in the coming week, so here a thought as I drop out: Someone asked in response to the last post if voting for a compromiser isn't the same as voting for nothing. Don't we have to stand on principle?

Yes we do stand on principle. That was one of my points in the first post in this series. Everyone should be free to speak on the basis of their own principles -- to speak freely and to be heard. But we have conflicting principles, and we have to find ways to work together.

Example: Some want politicians who hold to the principle of a balanced budget. No compromise allowed! But even business people who are the most fiscally conservative are willing to run a deficit if conditions require it. They know that cash flow is as important as the annual bottom line. And families are willing to take on long-term debt to buy a house. I believe (with the fiscal conservatives) that balanced budgets are basic to our national health. But when someone signs a pledge to never under any circumstances vote for a measure outside of that principle, we get the gridlock we see in Washington. Sometimes compromise is necessary.

Example: I am a pacifist (I prefer to say "non-resistant" or that I hold the peace position taught by Jesus). I am predisposed to oppose any military action of any kind. Ever. If I make my principle a hill to die on, I also use my peace principle to create conflict. Sometimes compromise is necessary.

Example: Proponents of abortion on demand ("pro-choice" to use their own language) support measures in the Access to Health Care bill that compel doctors and nurses to do abortions, regardless of their own religious convictions. The refusal to compromise the principle of choice becomes destructive of religious freedom. Sometimes compromise is necessary.

Hold on to your principles. We are lost without them. We can't think at all clearly unless we have and live by principles. But listen to the other: He/she is also a person of good will with real principles. We have to work together to make our country work.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Keep on Listening. Keep on Speaking.

Part 3. I'm trying to lay out some basic ideas about how to listen and speak in civic conversations about issues that polarize Americans and Canadians. I don't want to tackle the issues directly, but to see if there is some basic way that we might speak with each other to find a path forward in contentious areas.

So far I have argued that many of our differences come from the assumptions about life with which we approach the discussion. Some people say that only secular assumptions are permissible, but I have argued that people who are religious and those who say they are non-religious both argue from their own fundamental framework. Honesty suggests that we state what we believe up front, and courtesy suggests that we listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. But are honesty and courtesy enough? Thus part 3.

In the present situation, when someone makes their case we tend to listen only long enough to discover whether he/she is supporting our beliefs. The comments that appear under news stories online show how little anyone is listening -- respectfully or otherwise. Is there an alternative?

I suggest that we listen with at least one purpose and on the basis of at least one assumption. 1) We assume that the other intends something good. When Republicans look for ways to cut the budget, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt poor people. When Democrats look for ways to help the unemployed, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt the wealthy. When those who call themselves pro-life oppose abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to control women. When those who call themselves pro-choice support abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to kill babies.

2) Our purpose? To discover what the other's best intentions are. We do not need to agree. We may hold that their actions will contradict their intentions. But our first step is to hear the other clearly.

Of course, when we engage in these conversations we want to convince other people that we are right. Does this approach mean that we just talk at each other and take notes to pass a test later? Can we still argue and debate and seek to persuade?

Of course we can. Indeed, we should. But it does mean that we argue civilly; we present our case respectfully; we recognize that we can be wrong; we seek to learn as well as to convince.

Perhaps we could take one simple step. Whenever a politician or other public figure presents their case, we can ask him/her: "Are you willing to compromise?" If they say, "No. I will stand on principle," we can let them know we will not support them. Those whose principles lead them to be inflexible and unable to listen cannot lead a country comprised of different and disagreeing groups of people.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

So How Do We Speak? And Listen?

Yesterday I argued that everyone speaks from within some framework. When we engage in civic conversation in the public square, we speak on the basis of certain assumptions--religious or secular. Sometimes people will suggest that those who speak from religious assumptions should not do so, on the basis that they do not share those assumptions. But we all speak from some ground. We all assume a framework for living. So how do we speak to each other? And how can we listen?

This format--writing in a blog with limited follow-up--encourages oversimplification, and I doubt that I am able to probe the question in great depth anyway. So the suggestions that follow are simple and somewhat surface; but I offer them as a starting point.

1) When we speak, we should be open about our own stance towards life. If you speak as a Christian, say so. If you speak as a Jew, say so. If you speak as a secular person say so. Honesty is a virtue. When a candidate for the Supreme Court can say that his Christian faith will make no difference to his deliberations on the bench, I wonder what kind of self-deception he is engaging in. Who we are should inform what we think and say. So, step one: be honest about your presuppositions, your assumptions about life, your own framework for living.

2) When we listen, we should be ready to listen to those who speak from frameworks different than our own. Christians can listen to secularists. Atheists can listen to Muslims. Secular people and Theistic people should be able to hear each other.

3) When we start with different presuppositions, we will come out with different conclusions to the same data. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that in Canada the rights of the individual trump the rights of the community. There are community rights, but individual rights are paramount. From this basic assumption about life there flow privacy laws that make complete sense -- if the rights of individual are primary.

Many (perhaps most) societies give the primary right to something other than the individual -- to the family, or to the community (whatever that is), or to the State. Privacy laws as they exist in Canada make no sense in these societies. Different starting points lead to different conclusions, even when we have the same data.

4) We can listen to and hear different positions based on assumptions with which we disagree. We can listen respectfully and carefully, even as we continue to disagree.

5) We can learn from positions with which we disagree. We may continue to disagree, but starting from a different place in the argument allows us to see things that we do not see when we remain only in our own framework.

Applying these simple ideas to the conversation about Bill M-312, to which I referred yesterday: The proponents of the bill want to redefine human life so that a baby is legally human before birth as well as after. Those who oppose them recognize the political tactic intended to re-open the debate over abortion on demand. Accordingly they respond with vitriol and closed minds. there is a fundamentalism of secular zealots as well as of Muslims and Christians.

If they would set their own framework aside for a moment, they could perhaps hear the concern for human life that makes for a genuinely "pro-life" concern. Try to hear what the bill's proponents are saying -- don't commit to agreeing; just try to understand.

Then turn it around. Proponents of the bill can be just as vitriolic and closed-minded. Instead of accusing those who oppose the bill of being baby killers, try to hear their concerns clearly. What past actions and experiences lead people to be so afraid of the larger community telling women what they may do with their bodies? How has the larger society dehumanized women (among others)? Try to hear what the bill's opponents are saying -- don't commit to agreeing, just try to understand.

Simple steps, and incredibly difficult to carry out. Try repeating them when discussing same sex marriage. It is much easier just to decide that the person you disagree with is evil; but that approach leads to destruction. We're trying to build a country together, and we need each other far too much not to try to understand and learn from each other.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Ground Do You Stand On?

I've been thinking, wondering how to encourage the kind of civic conversation that can move ahead constructively in our powerfully polarized environment.

A case in point. A private member in the Canadian Parliament has introduced as bill to redefine the meaning of "human life" in Canadian Law (Bill M-312). The bill had no chance of passing because it was perceived as (and intended as) a way to re-open the debate in Canada about abortion on demand. As a result, a full term infant five minutes before birth is not "human life" and five minutes after is.

I have little interest in arguing either side here. The comments that follow such news stories illustrates how pointless and polarized such debates are. Instead I want to use the case to examine the basic process of civic discussion as it now exists.

The usual argument for abortion on demand -- at least if the comments to the stories are any guide -- is that women have the ultimate right to decide what happens with their own bodies. The argument is compelling and should (I believe) carry a great deal of weight. the usual argument against abortion on demand is that the fetus being aborted is human, and that human life deserves the same protection under law as any other person. This argument is also compelling. One can see why some object to redefining the status in law of the fetus.

Again, I do not want to pursue the argument here. I want to examine the process.

Both sides make a strong case. Both sides start from clear assumptions, which they develop into a coherent position. The trouble is that their assumptions are sharply different. Often those who oppose abortion begin with assumptions drawn from a Christian or Judaic framework for living. But if they refer to their beliefs as Jews or Christians in making their case, they are told immediately that religion has no place in a civic conversation. "I don't believe the Bible, so you can't use it in this discussion."

What is not admitted is that those who oppose limits on the individual's right to control her own body also proceed from a religious framework. I define religion as a system that seeks to make sense of life and to answer ultimate questions about life. So naturalism -- the belief that there is nothing more than natural realities -- is religious in form, even if it is not an historic world religion. Similarly the secular worldview that makes the individual the basic building block of society functions as a religious framework for living.

So when people argue the case for abortion on demand, they build on specific philosophical and religious assumptions about the nature of life and of the whole of reality. If the Christian or Jew (someone, for example, such as David Novak, professor in Judaic studies at the University of Toronto and author of The Sanctity of Human Life, 2007) cannot use his/her framework for understanding life, then neither may the secular person, or the Buddhist, or the naturalist, or anyone.

We all speak from some ground when we speak. We all speak with basic assumptions about life and the nature of reality. Accepting that basic fact would be a step forward in the civic conversation -- whether about the meaning of human life in Canadian Law, or the way that we should respond to immigration policies in Canada, or about any other subject.

In a future blog I will ask what such a conversation might look like. At this point it is enough to say that the current conversation looks imperialistic -- the rule of whoever can shout the loudest and beat the other down. Such imperialism is the preserve of no one group. From Muslims to Christians to Secular people to the "non-religious": every one of us is capable of trying to win the argument by mobilizing force and destroying the other. I want to stop that and ask instead, when you speak, what ground do you stand on?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Life and Death on the Prairies

If I had been quicker with the camera, this would be an illustrated post. Maybe sometime I will post pictures of the chipmunk at its centre. This critter took up residence in the hole left by last year's prairie dog. We saw him from time to time raiding the bird feeders.

Lois and I worked out a plan to scare him, and scare him good. One bird feeder is beside the sliding doors to the patio. When we saw him through the glass doors, we moved quietly to the garage. Lois went around the house, picking up and stretching out the garden hose as far as it would go. I gave her a minute to get in position, then I burst from the garage onto the patio yelling like a maniac and charging the terrified chipmunk. He ran around the corner of the house -- straight into a blast of water.

Plan worked. But its only long-term effect was to make the chipmunk much harder to see. Then one day the chipmunk died. Or rather, the neighbour's cat caught the chipmunk. Based on the remains, they were a pair -- so we were headed for lots and lots of little critters raiding our bird feeders.

First I found a tail. Then I found another tail. Then later I saw the chipmunk himself lying on his side, apparently sleeping, but quite dead.

I confess to some sadness on his/her demise. I don't like seeing living beings killed, even though the circle of life is being demonstrated. But we also feel real relief at their death (maybe three of them?). Our feelings towards the neighbour's cat have also changed. He/She has stalked the birds sometimes, but they generally get away. We didn't like the stalking, but we really do like the freedom from chipmunks the cat has provided.

Now to find those prairie dog-chipmunk holes and fill them in before something else takes up residence!