Us vs Them.
In popular culture (and in popular media), the presentation of social and political issues would make you believe that all controversy comes down to this, right?
“Either you’re for us or you’re against us.”
Sometimes it’s easier to simplify complex issues and controversy by minimizing our enemies than it is to approach our differences with a generous and open mind. In Cincinnati these days, the political climate is quite hostile. A few key issues (namely, the streetcar) may have perpetuated the Us vs Them dichotomy, but the dichotomy between “Progressives” and “Conservatives” is not new. Regardless of the issue in question (the streetcar, healthcare, gay marriage, etc.) there is a lot that we assume about the people on the other side. Most of these assumptions are based on stereotypes and, though we know that stereotypes are often true, they are unfair.
While working in the secular nonprofit world, I’ve always been one of the most conservative–both socially and politically–of my peers. And, though I’ve never considered myself an “apologist” for Conservatism, it’s been necessary at times to step in and speak on behalf of other Conservatives. Even those with whom I disagree.
And, that’s the point.
If it’s possible for me to consider myself a Conservative, yet still disagree on certain issues with my conservative brethren, then it’s safe to assume that there is more diversity on all sides than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m sure there are just as many Progressives who could tell you the same story.
So, let me offer an oft-needed reminder of seven truths about Conservatives that every Progressive should know.
1. We are not your enemies. Although some of the loudest voices among us call you names and reduce you to the ignominious “Them,” they do not speak for all of us. Many Conservatives are interested in cooperation and are willing to work together with you.
2. Conservatives want a better world, too. You may disagree with them about what a “better world” looks like, or how to get there, but you should not assume that those worlds can’t co-exist. Sit across the table from an articulate, passionate Conservative and you might be surprised by how much you actually have in common. Many of them are motivated by the same things you are, things like a safe community, a peaceful world, millions of full bellies, and a thriving economy.
3. Most Conservatives are not wealthy. You may think that all people with a conservative bent are only out to protect their pocketbooks, corporations, and investments, but that’s simply not true. My guess is that most of the folks who stand on the conservative side on social and political issues are working-class and middle-class citizens. They might not be “the poor,” but they are definitely not wealthy by American standards. And this is why they often vote against issues that raise taxes. They are often the ones who are on a fixed budget and are most affected by small changes in tax rates.
4. Conservatives give generously. Progressives think that Conservatives are stingy and selfish and hate poor people. But that characterization is unfair. Sure, many Conservatives give to faith-based organizations instead of secular ones. Sure, many of them are donating more money to their church than they do to their neighborhood homeless shelter. But, conservative individuals and organizations are meeting needs in every corner of the world, from clean water in the Third World to medical care in large metropolitan areas to GED tutoring in the poor urban core. The reason Conservatives don’t support socialized medicine or government assistance and subsidies is not because they don’t want to give their money to support good works, but because they’d like to have more control over how their money is spent and how that work is done.
5. Not all Conservatives are trigger-happy war mongers. Let’s be reasonable here. George Zimmerman does not speak for everyone who is passionate about 2nd Amendment rights. And not all people who support US involvement in wars do so because they profit from those wars or love the feel of blood on their hands. These issues are more complex than that and we do ourselves a disservice when we write them off as having simple solutions.
6. Sometimes, Conservatives are right. You can learn a lot from people who are different from you. If you care at all about being right, not simply winning an argument, it might be in your best interest to take some time to understand what Conservatives really believe and think. Find a Conservative that you respect and ask their opinion about something, not for the sake of debating but for the sake of understanding. You might be surprised to find that your new friend knows something that you don’t. Let down your guard, give them the benefit of the doubt, and try to learn something.
7. Sometimes, Conservatives are wrong. Yes, just like you, sometimes Conservatives are wrong. But do you think you will ever change someone’s mind by minimizing their opinion? If you are unwilling to sit across the table and peaceably discuss an issue with a Conservative you, frankly, don’t deserve their time. This should be a no-brainer, but if you want the opportunity to change someone’s mind, you need to show them the same courtesy that you’d expect from them.
All seven of these things might seem obvious but they’re things we need to be reminded of every once and a while, especially in times when the “Us vs Them” narrative dominates the political scene. This is true in Cincinnati right now and true elsewhere, as well.