When I was a child, I lived in a black-and-white world of all-this or all-that.
Humankind meant my family. The world meant my neighborhood. Religion meant my church. Politics meant my father’s beliefs.
Oh, I was aware that more was out there, but it had little claim on my imagination or loyalties. My world was complete. There were no gray areas, no compromises, no maybes.
That was a child’s view, reality writ small. In time, I advanced beyond it, until the world became large, complicated and gray, with places beyond imagining, people totally unlike anyone I knew, ideas beyond anything I heard at my parents’ table.
It’s called growing up. Discovering through knowledge and experience that the little I grew up knowing wasn’t enough to know.
We are witnessing today a headlong retreat into the not-knowing and simplistic partisanship of childhood. Ideas that make people uncomfortable are banished. Science that calls faith into question is shouted down. Politics isn’t just hardball, it’s dumb-ball: I must win, at any cost, and you must lose. I am right, and you are wrong. My tribe is the only tribe that has value and rights.
This is the tragic core of the partisan thinking that is tearing apart our nation and our larger world. It takes the form of religious extremism: There is no God but my God! It takes the form of nihilism in politics: better to bring the entire state down than to compromise with the evil other.
It takes the form of intolerance: Take the Fox News commentator who demanded that 911 operators in Texas stop sending emergency services to anyone who can’t speak English.
It takes the form of maniacal greediness: Any benefit you get is money out of my pocket.
In this child’s landscape, everything is fragile. If refugee children are allowed in, the entire nation will be lost. If the Affordable Care Act is allowed to work, an entire ideology of government will collapse. In today’s partisanship, there can be no give-and-take, no negotiation.
Partisan thinking is worse than legislative gridlock. It is the victory of ignorance. All people disagree, but ignorant people go farther: They demonize the other, declare the other unworthy of consideration.
Partisan thinking obsesses about winning and destroying, as if Jesus was simply wrong in saying “love your enemy” and “the last will be first.”
Partisan thinking uses religion as an arsenal of weapons for attaining victory. No respect for other points of view, no humility, no learning from religion’s sorry record of extremist excesses.
What is the way beyond partisan thinking?
First, other points of view need to insist on being heard. They need to risk ugliness in the public square. Nothing changes if those being demonized simply withdraw in splendid silence. Two sides shouting will create a lot of noise, but one side shouting leads to repression.
Second, rituals of compromise need to be maintained. The sensible center needs to stay in the room, offering a more hopeful path than extremist invective, even at the cost of being labeled “soft.”
Extremist partisans are children out of control. They need “grownups” in the room to remind everyone that poison in the air kills all who breathe it.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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