If you speak to someone about something controversial, like abortion or war, in intimate and full confidence, you will usually hear a vastly different story from the one we routinely hear and see in public, no matter what the opinion is or what side is taken. This is understandable. There are real liabilities to being open and honest. Anyone who has told the unvarnished truth many times in public has been punished for it.
Liabilities aside, there is still a serious problem: in place of sincere, but measured, conversation and dialogue, we get defensive postures mostly intended to hold one’s ground. Sometimes this gains ground, almost unwittingly, but the gains and losses come and go, the former are celebrated and the latter ignored, and soon a fear of generosity becomes the more significant outcome.
I’ve heard it said so many times: “I would be willing to consider X view, contrary to my own, and I think it has some merit, but the other side is using this to find an opening and muscle their way in.” The slippery slope fallacy abounds not so much for logical reasons, but for temperamental ones. People seem to fear the possibility of granting ground or goodwill to their opposition.
I am sure that I suffer from this, too, in some way I am presently blind to, but I can also attest to the unpopular fact that I personally know communists who joke about how much they love to play golf, Republicans who work at the food kitchen every week, Democrats who patiently care for foster children who treat them like shit, atheists who love the religious arts, theists who don’t go to church, and more. From direct and extended contact with real radical feminists who are prepared to fight to protect legal abortion and real Christian fundamentalists prepared to fight to abolish it, I can say, with no reservations, that each person holds a real portion of the truth.
In fact, there are very few subjects of real controversy where I suspect that any side, no matter how crazy sounding, is operating out of malice or bad intentions. Sure, false consciousness plagues us all, and blind spots are always lurking, but when it comes to what people intend, I am not so sure that good intentions can’t win the day.
Of course, as Ivan Illich reminds us, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But conversation relies on generosity, the ability to offer your interlocutor the assumption that they are not speaking in bad faith in advance, the assumption of good will and, yes, even good intentions. If we cannot be generous, then we simply cannot communicate. There is no conversation between ungenerous combatants. We can’t even fight — and we don’t, we just repeat the same, tired refrains to people who already agree with us and give angry gotcha replies to the one’s who venture into our territory.
The same is true in other forms of combat: find a great competitor in war or sport and you will find someone who has respect for the most contemptible of opponents.
Hatred, in its purest form, can be a form of reverence.
Nowadays, we don’t know how to hate. We hate like kindergarteners. We call people names and convince ourselves that they are really, really, REALLY bad and naughty. We don’t really take the time or effort to be generous and hate properly.
This may because there is a great deal of money and attention to be made by casting things in these polemical binaries. They are mutually beneficial. To have a healthy rivalry, you need to create mirror opposites, with points and counter-points, a stable caricature of each side. There is no room for “perhaps,” “it depends,” “maybe,” “it seems,” and “could you give me an example of what you’re talking about?”
Some contend that this is a failure in argument and discourse. I disagree. I think we are scared to be otherwise, to be taken advantage of or misinterpreted, to have our words abused and our intentions distorted. So we’ve created fortresses and castles to guard against generosity.
To be generous is to risk. To risk being hurt or, even worse, being wrong to some degree.
But there is another risk in generosity, in the offering that precedes the gift: the risk of being in love.
This is what the fear of being generous conceals, I think: the greater despair that desires love so much, that it avoids and runs from it at all costs.
What we need is healing, and that won’t come easy or fast and I don’t know where to begin. Generosity begins in trust and all the hallmark cliches.
Perhaps, we might begin by considering the predicament and dwelling in its shadow before we run at the next plastic solution. I think we often seek solutions before fully understanding the scope of the catastrophe. But maybe another approach is to try to be more generous in a risky and real way. This will require courage and light.