Disagree? Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes

By John Peters - jpeters@civitasmedia.com

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…


…A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly say, hooray for our side

Those are lyrics from a Buffalo Springfield song, written by Stephen Stills and released in January 1967. Contrary to popular belief, it was not an anti-war song. It was written about a Sunset Strip dispute in Los Angeles.

A lot of young people started flooding the area late at night to visit clubs, creating traffic jams, crowding and late-night noise. Local residents and business owners complained, and the city slapped a 10 p.m. curfew on the area, which led to protests and sometimes violent confrontations in the street. No one was willing to give an inch, to see the other side in the argument.

So he wrote the song entitled “For What It’s Worth,” which includes the above lyrics.

He might just as well have written the song last week, or last month, because it seems that’s what our society — even our local community — has become. Whether talking about politics, religion, or your favorite sports team, it seems no one has any ability to discuss any longer. It’s all “I’M RIGHT and you better acknowledge I’m right or I’ll call you every name I can think of, belittle everything you do, and maybe even threaten you along the way.”

In our own most recent city elections, in the national elections just concluded in November, and in just about every Facebook and online sharing of opinions I see, everyone proclaims their side just and correct and absolutely right, while refusing to entertain even the idea that someone else could be right, or that there’s room for civil disagreement.

Folks, there is very little in life that is absolutely black and white, absolutely right or wrong. In government, at least good goverment, there has to be a lot of give-and-take, compromising here and there to get things done.

President Ronald Reagan — the man modern conservatives mistakenly (or simply dishonestly) say they pattern themselves after, was a master at this. He was able to reach across party lines, most famously with the liberal Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, and move government beyond gridlock, getting things done. He didn’t always get exactly what he wanted, but he was darn close most of the time, while also giving a little to those on the left.

I learned that lesson — always consider things from the other viewpoint — years ago. I was raised in a conservative home, educated at a conservative school, and still cling to many of the conservative ideals instilled in me during those early days of my life.

The first paper where I served as editor, a tiny little weekly in Northumberland County, Virginia, was in many ways an eye-opening experience for me. One of the things I did there was find myself befriending a number of folks in the African-American community. They felt the paper had ignored them for years, and I wanted to change that.

One of the men I got to know was only a couple of years older than I. He was a pastor of a local, predominately black church, and we grew to be friends. Every couple of weeks we’d sit down and just chat. As was the case at that time with most black leaders, he was an ardent supporter of mostly Democratic candidates and causes.

I, on the other hand, had up to that point in my life supported mostly conservative candidates — members of the GOP.

One evening we were in my office and he looked at me and said “I bet you wonder how I can support someone like Bill Clinton, or other Democrats who favor abortion rights.”

I told him I had wondered, that I couldn’t reconcile in my mind a pastor supporting a pro-abortion candidate.

He looked at me and, while I won’t be as eloquent as he was in recalling his words, the minister said something like this: “I’m against abortion. I believe it’s killing unborn children. But I look out at my congregation, and I see children I know are going to bed hungry every night, I see young people already getting into trouble at school, or with the law, with little future. Statistically, I see more people who will be dead or in prison by the time they are 25 than who will have abortions.

“So I do what I can to save the most people I can. When I look into the faces of those children in my church, those are people I see every day, people who are here, now, that I can help every day. So I support candidates whose positions on social programs are proven more likely to help these kids, help them get out of this cycle of poverty.

“I’m not pro-abortion. I just make those choices based on who helps me save the most people, the people sitting in front of me.”

I had never thought in those terms. I had come from a background that simply said “GOP, Good. Democrat? Liberal, evil.” You know, kind of like today’s dogmatic labeling, only without the profanity and name calling of our more modern times.

He didn’t change my mind in this area — I have remained pro-life in my beliefs, maybe more so today than ever. But I did learn a couple of valuable lessons then.

Even people with whom you disagree can have a perfectly valid, understandable reason for their beliefs, one that should be respected. Second, even people on the other side of the political or religious aisle may have more in common with you than he does with those on his side of the room (or, maybe you have more in common with him than you do with those on your side).

Find those areas of commonality, how they can be worked together, and who knows what can be accomplished. At the very least, a much more civil, thoughtful, intellectually honest public discourse could take place.

Right now, given the tone of our public rhetoric, maybe that’s too much to hope for. But it’s a goal worth pursuing.

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-415-4701.

By John Peters