Our society is fractured. Much mending is needed.
The world is in flames. Natural disasters, racial hatred, poverty, unemployment, pandemic deaths, shootings, violence, environmental hazards — and that’s just in the United States. There is a surfeit of pundits bemoaning our dire situation. Never before in our history has the two-party system been so broken. Never before have colleagues, U.S. congressmen/women, been unable to be collegial. This systemic failure has affected all of us. Friends, neighbors, shul members, even family members cannot have a civil conversation without partisan rhetoric.
I am tired of all this. I have Trump fatigue. I cannot discuss politics with any but my closest friends. Every word must be measured.
The crescendo with which Trump ended his presidency did nothing but fan the flames of mutual distrust and discord. I cannot read another editorial or listen to another talking head about the terrible presidency of Donald Trump. We know that even his partisans now acknowledge what his most ardent critics have always claimed to be true. We also know that the far right has been emboldened and won’t leave without a fight. There are more than 70 million hardline Trump supporters, and they are not going away.
What is needed is to cease the demonizing and find ways to deal with Trump’s many followers in a way that can be productive, instead of just writing them off as dangerous and myopic Republican partisans, delusional loonies, anarchists, racists, and wannabe revolutionaries. Worst still are those, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community, who feel that what Trump did for Israel outweighs everything else about him that violates our basic Jewish values and ethics.
It is impossible to have a rational conversation with any and all of the far right. I am sure they say the same about us.
Hopefully the Orthodox right will not take up arms, but the Capitol rioters and their ilk need to be dealt with. The issues between them and the rest of the country have been festering for decades. The country has not adequately addressed the issues that have inflamed them for so long. Whatever the validity of their arguments, the potential for a wider confrontation is very real. Convictions and arrests will not end the fighting and the killing. We may not like it, but this conflict can be resolved only if the parties directly involved engage in appropriate and honest dialogue.
Normal diplomacy does not work with the various groups that coalesced into the mob at the Capitol. Unless negotiators understand their mindset, any discussions will be futile. Further complicating matters is the simple fact that what is essentially a brutal street fight without rules cannot be fought or even contemplated in the context of Marquis of Queensberry conditions. Another impediment to comity is the unbalanced standard of morality, decency, and integrity that Congress is expected to maintain in the face of violence, hatred, and amorality.
This is a conflict that can end only when the involved parties themselves really want it to end. If this is not possible. then we are in for rough times.
The underlying dynamics of conflict resolution dialogue offer an approach. Moses employed creative ambiguity by asking Pharaoh to release the Israelites for three days instead of freeing them altogether. This was a diplomatic ruse to reach a stated goal. This took Pharaoh from his comfort zone to a discomfort zone but not to a state of alarm. Moses never lost sight of his ultimate goal but approached it bit at a time. This may be one way to stave off an insurrection.
There are four types of dialogue. The first is called Negation Dialogue. In this type of dialogue, the parties view each other as a threat. Therefore they negate the “other” via stereotype, dehumanization, and even demonization. We see this in the rantings of the mob and calls for revolution. It is present on the web and in media coverage and other incendiary and unbalanced reportage. We see it in the calls for the arrest and prosecution of protesters, and in non-recognition of possibly legitimate aspirations. Clearly this form of dialogue is not productive.
The second type of dialogue is called Domination Dialogue. It is based on a fundamental non-acceptance of the “other.” Neither side recognizes nor validates the other. They enter into dialogue, however, with the avowed purpose of phony relationship-building, in order to convert the “other” to their point of view. Certain Congressional representatives pontificated while the mob sought to abduct those with whom they disagreed. Conspiracy advocates say one thing to appease the world press, and quite another on their websites to their audience. The insignia worn by the various groups are quite disturbing, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. Secession is touted as the goal of this revolution if things do not change to fit their worldview. Humiliation and torment is rationalized. Fictionalization of American history is apparent in every interview. Logic and facts have no bearing. Domination Dialogue will not yield positive results.
The third form of dialogue is Compartmentalization. This exchange involves keeping your distance while jockeying for position. The parties display respect for one another at arm’s length. This dialogue maintains the conflict and does not yield any synthesis. We saw this in Congress, even on January 6. Some form of accommodation and/or triage represents compartmentalization. Sound bites about the need for reconciliation or pleas to just get along from various leaders are examples of compartmentalization. Calls for new leadership and more meetings are only delay tactics. Mainly, it represents just empty words without any real commitment to do anything concrete.
The fourth form of dialogue is called Gracious Dialogue. These exchanges are normative, not descriptive. Gracious Dialogue offers an opportunity for growth and progress, since each side confers dignity, respect, and validity on the other. It is a dialogue between equals. If the rioters really were to recognize the legitimacy of the election and the Biden presidency, and if Congress were to accept the notion of an alternate reality party, then accommodation might become a possibility. If the parties directly involved in the dispute were to validate each other’s point of view, strife might be converted to positive energy. If there were a true recognition of realistic security measures, if rioters would turn in their weapons, if Congress did not need body armor, if Congress had a partner it could trust, if the Trumpers were treated with respect, etc.
These ideals are quite lofty, and perhaps unrealistic, given the history, tropes, and pathos of these battles. Everyone has a passionate point of view about this conflict. What also is clear is that no long-term solution is in sight. We have to resolve the core issues of trust and sovereignty. Issues of relative right and wrong are irrelevant. Historical accuracy also is irrelevant. Neither side in the struggle will be swayed by words or guns.
There is no verifiable truth in the face of facts on the ground. Normal modes of thinking and negotiating do not work in this scenario. Deeply felt cultural issues of displacement, saving face, honor, and dignity, on the one side, and security, survival, and the maintenance of a certain image of strength on the other, must be dealt with by the two sides. Are there leaders who can pull this off ?
Real, gut-wrenching concessions to reality must be made by both sides. Without Gracious Dialogue and the conferring of legitimacy and status on the other, the conflict will continue to destroy the country and the people in it.
If is such a small but powerful word.
Does this scenario have a foundation in reality? Can/will Trumpers stop preaching hate and glorying in overthrowing our democracy ? Can/will the extreme right and their ilk give up the hope of eliminating minorities and immigrants? Will they ever validate the electoral system ? Can/will Congress acknowledge any of their aspirations? Can we find common ground?
We cannot wish the conflict away. They have their truth and the rest of the country has theirs. If objective truth gets in the way of reality, then reconciliation is a long, long way off.
Crisis intervention and conflict resolution require Gracious Dialogue, or else the crisis and the conflict will continue.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene holds a doctorate in history and has taught at Yeshiva University, Queens College, and Upsala College.