By David Hegg
It’s official. American life and American politics have officially outlawed middle ground. There’s only my side and the wrong side. I’m right, and I’m outraged, and if you don’t agree with me and share my level of outrage as a result, then you are not only wrong, you are also dangerous and should be annihilated.
Further, don’t try to use facts to persuade me I’m wrong. Facts don’t matter anymore. Feelings have supplanted truth. My authenticity as a person, which flows from my desire to be what I want to be and think what I want to think, demands your respect and acceptance. My virtue exists because I exist, and to oppose my beliefs and standards is to reject my personhood, and to reject my personhood is to be anti-human and therefore, rightfully despised, and ultimately destroyed.
Look around. Read, listen, and reflect and you’ll be hard-pressed not to agree that the tribalism of our day has turned not only our politics but also almost everything else in our public life into a battle of dogmatic, unyielding, and often mean-spirited polemics.
What we’ve lost is any middle ground. What we need is a demilitarized zone. What we require is less power-grabbing and more progress, less denigration and more collaboration, less libel and more listening, and dare I say it, less cavalier name-calling and blame-shifting, and a whole lot more civil, irenic conversations that lay the foundation for substantive agreement where it truly matters.
By having outlawed middle ground — that arena where real questions can be asked, important objections raised, and beneficial answers determined without risking one’s standing in the tribe — we have almost completely eliminated the vital function of synergism whereby those in opposition can actually learn from one another on the way to a better solution. When name-calling and meanspirited disdain become the badge of partisan loyalty, is it any wonder we no longer see reasonable people raising reasonable questions and engaging in reasonable dialogue with their opponents? More to the point, can we agree that the intentional erosion of middle ground means that any promise of unity is nothing more than a platitude intended to deflect attention away from the unvarnished partisan agenda of those in power?
And by the way, I say all this having watched both political parties and almost all social movements share the modern tactic of labeling their opponents as not only wrong, but also out of touch, on the wrong side of history, filled with hatred, dangerous and worthy of destruction. Wow, no middle ground opportunity there!
Since our entire nation seems to be in fight mode, here’s my suggestion: We need to fight for middle ground. Why? Because the things we most need as families, neighbors, society and a nation actually live on the space I call middle ground.
First, middle ground is where relationship lives. With all the vitriol going around, we’ve started thinking that relationship only matters with those in our tribe. But this is a lie we tell ourselves in order to continue hating our enemies. Jesus told us to love our enemies simply because relationship allows us to see the truth in one another and breaks apart the biases and prejudices and untruths we harbor toward others. I wonder what would happen if our representatives and senators actually stopped caring about reelection, sat down for meaningful conversations with those in the opposite party, and decided to put the people ahead of party. Sadly, at the rate we’re going, we may never know.
Second, relationship is a prerequisite to respect. In my world, there are clergy with whom I disagree both theologically and philosophically. Some of these are close personal friends. Here’s the deal: While I may disagree with them professionally, I can’t disagree with their lives, with their passions, with their fundamental commitment to the God we all serve. Why? Because my relationship with them over time has bred great respect for them, and we found that respect in the middle ground.
Lastly, relationship can bring respect, and respect opens the door to listening, loving and living in harmony rather than hate. I sure wish we Americans would learn that it is OK to listen to those with whom we disagree. Listening doesn’t mean consent, but it does mean we see our opponents as people rather than enemies, as valuable rather than harmful. And, guess what? Often listening opens up a connection for admiration, even love for the way an opponent’s passion mirrors ours despite different ways of living it out.
Middle ground is simply the place where people with differences can deal with them differently than the way we see disagreement being played out on the screen of our society. Too many of us have been intoxicated with the elixir of tribalism, and for a while it allows us to vent our frustrations. Yet, in doing so we ultimately lose an essential element in free society. When tribalism labels middle ground as disloyalty, the hillside of free thinking, free speech and reasonable opposition starts to erode.
I sure hope we can save the mountain, but first we have to extricate ourselves from the mudslide that is taking us all down.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.