Political polarization is only one symptom of the national disease which afflicts us. From obesity to heart disease to chronic stress, we live with the consequences of the failure to relate to each other authentically, even to perceive and understand what authentic encounter might be. In desperation we may choose Republican or Democrat to position ourselves in the political order – which is really nothing but an organized and taunting mess, in which even Independents find themselves swamped. Such a choice, attended with organizational meetings, voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, all the machinery of political action, may provide temporary respite from the responsibility of meeting each other as each other, and not as tenants of some abstract position, some generalization about experience or morality or truth. Can we get underneath the generalizations, outside our pasts, beyond the experiences which drive our suspicions and our grievances?
As a country, we’ve been working as opposites – warring – for so long that our social compact has suffered grievous harm. I’m hoping to renew the substance of our polity, our stake in each other. We are not interested in just another meeting, nor are we out to “find the middle,” to arrive at a “meeting of minds.” Both of those outcomes leave in place the entrenched polarity – Dems versus Repubs; liberal versus conservative; Black Lives Matter versus the police. Us-Against-Them. We want to create between us a qualitatively different experience than compromise or even consensus.
The common ground of Meeting is not in the middle; it is a different space altogether. On the same streets, either we can continue Us-Against-Them – Opposites – or we can try this other way of being together: Meeting. Common ground is a matter of living together, not of agreement in opinions.
Here in Charlottesville, once supposedly the happiest place on earth, some of us, at least, have lived together in hope and without rancor. But even in Charlottesville, we never achieved a real dialogue on the Western Bypass, for example. Now, after the Unite the Right rally in 2017, the issue of the Confederate statues among us carries the added voltage of violence, dividing us further from ourselves.
The health of a body is a different matter than agreeing or disagreeing. Even a body politic requires a bloodstream that flows, nourishing bones and muscles that work together without judgments of good or evil. What we’ve had instead is not bodily health but a clot: angry debate, rigid positions, people trying to skewer each others’ arguments, or to outshout them.
“There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.” [This is the kind of dialogue we’re calling Meeting.]
“And there is monologue disguised as dialogue… a debate in which the thoughts … in the speaking are so pointed that they may strike home in the sharpest way, and moreover without the men that are spoken to being regarded in any way present as persons … ” [This is the way of Opposition.]Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor-Smith
Here in our community we have a legacy of racial separation and misunder-standing, but also real people who can recognize each other as such. What is it to establish “a living mutual relation” among participants? Using some programming adapted from Outward Bound, along with philosophy, research into perception, and inquiry into the substance of our experience of others, we might be able to shift the culture of the country we live in. We might actually generate common ground to walk on.
The remedy for the past is not more of the past. It is Meeting. If we can get the hang of that in Charlottesville, might it catch on?
Henry D. McHenry Jr. October 2018