(Or, Finding Common Ground on Divisive Matters)
For the past two election cycles, I have been silently observing both presidential debates as well as social media rants by friends and family, bashing each other for their positions. I’ve grown still more concerned as 2020’s unrest—unprecedented in my lifetime—has brought these seething emotions to the surface in ugly ways across our nation. Now my concern is no longer for relational rifts but for the tearing apart of our country. Escalating violence just to be heard, and each side’s attempts to control the other, are becoming increasingly open. Not only a sense of community, but also freedom, justice, and peace are at stake if we fail to recognize the humanity of the “other side.”
These things must not be! They divide. They rip us apart. They allow neither healing nor progress. They make us susceptible to a common enemy. Our too-frequent reactions leave the other side feeling all the more justified in their position, and no understanding is gained.
This outrage at those on the “other side” is not limited to politics. I have seen volatility, name-calling, and bashing also in many areas of philosophical difference. None of this is helpful.
What can we do? How can we stop this trend and bring peace and humanity back to our relationships, communities, and our country?
Let’s start by considering what fears may prompt us to dismiss or bash others, what Biblical wisdom can help us relate, and the core needs we share as humans. Then we’ll look at potential common ground we can find in a variety of controversial topics.
Why Are We So Afraid Of the “Other Side”?
Why do we humans accuse, label and dismiss each other when we find ourselves in disagreement? (A number of years ago, Sean Blanda wrote insightfully about this phenomenon in his article The “Other Side” Isn’t Dumb.)
Why, on important matters, do we have to be so divisive and hateful? If we would step back and engage in civil discourse, what would we lose? What would happen if we disagreed without name calling and bashing?
In solving emotionally-charged disagreements, it is helpful to step back and ask “Why?” Though assuming and assigning motives is unwise, considering possible motives—or roots of deep-seated feelings—is helpful in understanding the “other.”
Honest introspection can help us approach disagreements in a healthier manner:
- Do we have genuine love for people?
- Do we have interests to protect?
- Do we really care about truth, justice, and freedom?
Are we afraid of hearing arguments for other perspectives because…
- we hate to be wrong?
- we might not get our way?
- their arguments may sway too many people to their side?
- they might convince us?
- we feel threatened by change?
- harm or irreparable damage may occur if the other side wins?
Maybe we won’t feel so threatened by people’s opposing viewpoints if we recognize the core human need behind their beliefs.
What Does the Bible Say about the “Other Side”?
To recognize someone’s core human need, we first need to remember that all, including the other side, bears the image of God. (Read more on this topic in Which Lives Matter? Recognizing God’s Image.)
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27, NIV
Basic wisdom across the world, Christian or not, tells us to treat others well:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.Matthew 7:12, NIV
- We want people to listen to us. Are we listening to them?
- We want others to be kind. Are we being kind?
- We don’t like the disrespect we feel from the other side. Are we treating them with respect?
- We call for justice. Are we upholding justice for those on the other side?
- We want safety. Are we ensuring safety for all others?
God has called us to live in peace.1 Corinthians 7:15b, NIV
Regardless of how fiercely we disagree with the other side, we must represent our God well in our treatment of them. And we must remember, constantly, that we were all created in the image of God.
And as fellow human beings, we all have core human needs.
Core Needs of Humanity
As I’ve pondered this troubling trend of division, I’ve come to this realization:
Everyone wants to be heard. To be understood. More specifically, to have their fears and concerns regarding the topic acknowledged.
Yes, sometimes special-interest groups push agendas with ulterior motives. Yes, some power-hungry leaders may try to use their position to force their ideologies on everyone else. This discussion is not about them, but about how we, as civilians, interact with others in our country about any number of troubling issues—past, present, or future.
Long ago in my undergraduate work, they taught us about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His motivational theory proposes that basic needs must be met before we can realize our full potential as humans. Physiological needs of food and shelter form the first level, and then safety needs. After safety comes the need for belonging (which could be fleshed out including our needs to be seen, heard, known, and understood.) Regardless of whether we fully accept Maslow’s model of human motivation, I think we can all agree that these first three levels of needs are important.
That desire to have our needs and desires acknowledged is not liberal, conservative, capitalist, socialist, bigoted, educated, scientific, or ignorant—it is simply human. Before we lodge accusations, we have got to pause and reflect on the humanity of the other side.
Understanding Calms Anger
When my daughter has an explosive meltdown, there is usually a deep hurt or unmet need under the surface. Though this explosive, unreasonable, hateful and sometimes destructive behavior raises my blood pressure, and I have to stop to make sure I do not react in anger.
If, instead, I calmly probe her thoughts and feelings that led to the meltdown, her sense of being heard and understood calms her heightened emotional state, and reason returns. When I ask, “You were feeling disappointed because___?” or “You felt angry because ___?” Her rigid body almost instantly relaxes. Even if she still doesn’t get her way, she responds in kinder, calmer ways when I acknowledge her feelings and needs. When her need to be heard and understood is satisfied, we can move forward in solving the problem.
Like my daughter, I don’t have to have my way as long as my ideas have been given consideration. But ignore me or dismiss my concerns, and ugly feelings begin to boil. I think this is true for most of us.
Humans want to be seen, heard, and understood.
What if we applied this principle in our dialogues about controversial issues? If we stopped to consider the other side’s concern—their fears, needs, and values—future dialogues could be much more productive in bringing unity and solving issues.
Common Ground on Divisive Issues
Let’s look at some commonly divisive issues and see what common ground we can find. You might be surprised!
Disclaimer: First, I bring up these issues, not to take sides or promote one view over another, but to discern the core needs or desires common to both sides. In keeping this discussion neutral, however, I am not saying all views are equally valid. There certainly is ignorance and evil in this world, so we should use our intellect to evaluate arguments.
Protests and Riots
The protests against racial injustice after George Floyd’s death were an unleashing of anger and pain from years of inequality and injustice. They were a reaction against too many times of not being heard. They were calling for those in power to make changes, so people with dark skin can feel safe in their neighborhoods and respected in their communities.
The protests in DC over contested 2020 election results were an unleashing of anger and fear of injustice in the electoral system. They were a reaction against leaders failing to address their concerns about the election results. They were calling for those in power to take the accusations of rigged elections seriously, so they can trust the government to be fair, by the people and for the people.
On the surface, the riots in DC were very different from the racial protests across the country. The citizens involved were likely on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Yet they were not so disparate as we may assume. In both instances, people wanted to be heard and to be treated fairly.
Whether the racial protests last summer or the election protests this January, we may not understand, appreciate, or even condone the violence and destruction that ensued. But we can understand the core need to be heard, to be seen, and for wrongs to be acknowledged, because we are human.
Though in the first weeks of the COVID crisis, the pandemic appeared to be bringing people together, that quickly devolved into nasty bickering.
Some became enraged at those complaining about their freedoms being trampled upon—not being able to go out, gather with family, or buy seeds. From their experience fighting for life and seeing death, they wanted to stop the spread to spare lives and prevent further deaths.
Others became fearful about providing for their families. Still others were enraged at their freedoms being trampled upon, fearful of the government overstepping its bounds and becoming a dictatorship. Still others worried about the the mental and emotional health of family members living alone.
Whether physical, emotional, economic, or spiritual, weren’t we all wanting LIFE?
One side wants to eliminate guns to prevent rampant homicides, school shootings, and mass shootings.
The other side wants to keep guns to protect themselves from intruders, muggers, mass shootings, or God forbid, a government that turns tyrannical.
Everyone wants to be safe.
In a previous election, one side wanted a wall and stricter policies to keep immigrants out—to preserve American jobs and to keep out drugs, criminals, and terrorists.
The other side wanted relaxed immigration policies to allow refugees and asylum seekers to enter and find safety and refuge.
Here, one side wanted protection for themselves, while the other side wanted to offer protection to others. All of us, I hope, can identify with both the human desire for safety and the value of compassion.
One side wants freedom to homeschool their children so they can teach them what they want, when they want, where they want, and how they want.
Another side wants the government to provide vouchers or a similar system, so if a family’s local school is underperforming, they can use those same tax dollars to send their children to another school of their choice, public or private.
Yet another side wants all children to attend their local public school so increased funding gives all children equal educational opportunity, and so that those children can all learn to be tolerant of one another.
There are differing views about what is “best” for children and what “good education” looks like, but all sides want children to have access to good educational experiences.
Those arguing for mandatory vaccinations want to protect their children (and all susceptible segments of society) from serious diseases, complications, and death.
Those rejecting vaccinations want to protect their children from possible side effects and serious, life threatening reactions to those vaccines.
Both sides fear harm, desire to protect their children, and after weighing the possibilities, take a calculated risk.
Humanity, Our Common Ground
Whether it is these issues or any other topic—humans want to be seen, heard, and understood. When we write people off because of their beliefs or stands, we refuse to understand their underlying concerns or values.
We think we’re so wise, that we know so much more and are such better people than the other side. But what is wisdom?
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.James 3:17-18, NIV
Wisdom shows itself in humility:
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.Titus 3:1-2, NIV
This is not a discussion of which side of any issue is right. It is about looking past our disagreements to see why the other side holds certain concerns. At the core, their concerns may be surprisingly similar to our own!
What it all boils down to, on any one of these issues, is everyone wants a good life!
Not every side of every issue is equally valid. But we should enter conversations with humility, recognizing that behind strong feelings on controversial issues there are human needs, fears, and concerns. When we begin this way, we are more likely to understand the other side. When we understand the other side, then we can begin allaying the fears of everyone on both sides, and then move forward with solutions.
Until the end of time, humans will find topics to surround with controversy. Regardless of strong feelings or the seeming improbability of reaching solutions, we need to remember to look for the humanity in the “other side.”
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8, NIV