Friday, January 4, 2013

The Value of Differing Opinions - A Way Back from the Breach

Our democracy and the right of free speech is based on the value the founding fathers placed on differing opinions.  It is by the airing of differing opinions that people are either  persuaded or not, or a compromise is found which while not giving either side everything it wanted provides a way for each side to feel good about the outcome.  But ultimately, of course, the majority rules, which means that there will in most political matters be a large percentage of people and their elected representatives who are not happy with the result.  Such is life in a democracy.

For such a system to work, for our democracy and representative government to function, it is of critical importance that even though people and their representatives may disagree with others as to a whole raft of issues, that, as lawyers say, “people agree to disagree,” that they understand that “reasonable minds may differ.”  Which is to say that each side respects that the other side came to its opinions honestly and with reason ... they just don’t agree.

When, however, people become so convinced of the rightness of their opinions that they become self-righteous and ideological in their approach to issues ... that is they feel that they are not just right and the other side wrong but that the other side is somehow evil or harmful ... then there can be no compromise, there can be no reasoned discussion, there can be no art of persuasion and the process of our democratic government breaks down.  And that is the state in which we have found ourselves these past few years.

How have we come to this point?  Why has a system that has operated for more than 200 years, with the exception of the Civil War, with widely divergent points of view and often hot tempers reached the current impasse?  Really, what we are seeing now in the posture of the two opposing sides is most akin to that which our country experienced over the issue of slavery and to a certain extent the civil rights movement.  And that’s disturbing.

On the issue of slavery and civil rights, those in the south felt that their whole way of life, their whole world would cease to be if African-Americans were given their freedom and the same rights as white people.  And they were right.  Their world did change.  But life went on, and white southerners changed too; they adapted to the new reality.  And they found once they got over themselves that much about their world did not change.

The same kind of reality check is needed in the current situation in order to progress from the current Congressional gridlock.  Both sides ... which is to say the liberal left and the far right ... need to understand that life will go on, that the country will prosper, that they and their constituents will be ok, even if their view of government does not totally win the day.  This is surely an instance where there is merit on both sides.  

For example, as staunchly liberal as I am, I get livid when I get emails and petitions, or read articles, in which liberal groups refuse to give an inch on entitlement (Social Security and Medicare) spending.  I’m sorry, but the nation’s debt and deficit are real problems and we just do not have sufficient revenue to continue past policies unaltered as our age demographics change.  

There are ways to cut spending without harming those who are truly dependent on these benefits, and that’s what Democrats must make sure of.  As for the starting age of Medicare, that used to be of critical importance because of the cost of medical insurance.  Now with the new Health Care Law, insurance available through the insurance exchanges for those of limited means will probably not be much more than what one currently pays out of Social Security for Plan B.  So it should not be the critical issue it once was.  There’s also a painless opportunity to raise revenues for SS by ending the salary cap regarding the application of the SS tax.

But how do we get both the public and their representatives to get down from these barricades they’ve erected?  How do we get them to go back to the day when each side respected the other side?

As a Buddhist, I find the answer in the teachings of the Buddha.  The Buddha taught that all things are empty of intrinsic existence, that they are of dependent origination.  What that means is that every thought we have, every opinion we hold, all our perspectives are a function of our learned experience, whether within our family, our peer group, or the larger culture.  

As a proposed statement of fact, this statement is unassailable.  And when one truly accepts that fact, there is no way that one can say any more with certitude that I am right and the others are wrong.  Even if one is Born Again, your opinions are based on the teachings of your peer group, your minister, and they in turn were learned from someone else.  They are as dependent as the opinions of a secular humanist atheist.  And if anyone has the hubris to say that God has spoken to them and this is what God says, beware!

There should be only a few universal rules in coming to a compromise on issues.  First, do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love and respect your neighbor as you do yourself.  Second, do no harm to those who are vulnerable and need the protection of the state.  Third, the social contract must be honored by all citizens, part of which entails that those who are better off have a social responsibility as citizens to help those who are not well off ... that’s what progressive taxation is all about.  Fourth, there can be no sacred cows ... neither military spending nor entitlements.

Application of these rules would arrive at numerous ways to cut the deficit and slow the growth of the national debt through a combination of raised revenues and reduced spending without harming either individuals in need, the strength of the economy, or our national security.