If We Can’t Have Minor Disagreements, We’ll Have Major Disagreements

2017-12-07 – One of yesterday’s Internet memes was a video of John Oliver discussing sexual harassment with Dustin Hoffman (warning: the audio is terrible).

My first reaction to this was that headline writers were hyping this by calling the discussion a “heated argument” and saying that the “audience was stunned.” And, of course, they were hyping it, looking for clicks, because, if you look at the video, you’ll see that, while the two participants definitely had some feelings about their positions, the discussion still remained civil.

My second reaction was that this wasn’t hype. We’re all just deadly afraid of having in-person arguments. We see this a lot at this time of year as people search for strategies for avoiding arguments at holiday parties. So when a headline writer writes this type of headline, they are projecting their own fears into the headline.

But what is wrong with John Oliver confronting Dustin Hoffman’s beliefs about sexual harassment to his face? And what’s wrong with having a conversation with your politically- (or religiously-) opposite uncle at Thanksgiving or Christmas—as long as you are respectful—and as long as you listen and try to understand (rather than simply spouting off)?

If we can’t engage about minor disagreements, won’t the animosity escalated until the disagreement becomes major and catastrophic? I can’t speak about your family. But in my family, the answer is yes.

And the answer in the political world is also a yes. (Why would it be different? We’re people.)

Talking about what divides us is how we reconcile.

That’s what apologies are about, for example. We ask for apologies. But when we get them, we say they are fake or insufficient. Of course, some are. But even insufficient apologies are an attempt to seek reconciliation.

But no one these days wants to reconcile with anyone else. We just want to punish, even for the smallest thing.

The book of Genesis exemplifies the moral difficulty we have with reconciliation. Adam and Eve ate a fucking apple and the whole human race for all eternity is punished with death. On the other hand, Cain murdered his brother Abel and God protects him from retaliation (from whom? . . . but that’s another story) and rewards him with a family and riches sufficient to build an entire city! (You never read that far in the story, did you?)

Now I’m not saying that people like Dustin Hoffman should be free of consequences for bad acts. But I am saying that if all the Dustin Hoffmans in the world go and stand in one corner and all the John Olivers in the world go and stand in another corner—and they never talk to one another—we will never make any headway toward reconciliation.

Punishment is about the past. Reconciliation is about the future.

And to achieve reconciliation we need to be able to talk about the conditions of reconciliation and the standards of behavior that are expected.

Yes, I know it’s complicated, but is it really more complicated than not talking?

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