For years I've been kvetching and moaning over the woes of America and the world in general: conflict over immigration and climate change, terrorism and mass shootings, plastics accumulating in our oceans, the whole cluster of issues around homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, social-versus-personal responsibility. And with America increasingly polarized by the "Us-versus-Them" mentality ("Us" being good, honest friends, "Them" being bad, lying enemies), we can't even agree on what the facts of these issues are, let alone what to do about them.
Then something truly remarkable happened: In July of 2019, I read in the North Coast Journal that Betty Chinn's transitional housing project had stalled due, in part, to complaints from Bill Pierson about the negative impact people without permanent shelter were already having on his business. The article then said Mr. Pierson had been approached by Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson, and quoted Mr. Pierson as saying, "Chief Watson assured me that Betty Chinn runs a tight ship and that any facility that she is in charge of will be operated in the best way possible." The result was that Mr. Pierson not only withdrew his complaint, he donated $10,000 to the housing project.
This was a huge step away from the Us-versus-Them attitude, and a how-to model that can be applied to any issue: each of the major players brought a different perspective to the table, without which the shift wouldn't have happened, and they all brought personal integrity and respect for the other people involved.
It's a perfect fit with a personal vision of turning conflict into cooperation that I've called the Advocacy of Respect, and I was so jazzed with this real life story of principles in action, I wrote to Chief Watson about it. He responded with a hand-written note, saying, "I'd be happy to participate in a constructive public forum such as you described." Then a whole raft of health issues in my family took over my life and this project gathered dust for eight months.
But now the COVID-19 outbreak, along with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing protests have brought the kind of national firestorm unseen since the 1960s, and it's time to move forward again.
The Advocacy of Respect is an alternative to the Us-versus-Them mindset (which bestselling author Arthur C. Brooks calls "the Culture of Contempt") based on a new set of agreements about dealing with our differences. In this culture:
Everyone here knows something true and important.
No one here knows everything true and important.
All of our perspectives are needed.
Our job is hearing the truths we all bring, and fitting them together into something that works.
Given how entrenched the Culture of Contempt is, I think we'll also need some rules about communicating our views respectfully. The one that seems most crucial to me is this:
No personal attacks — respectful communication only.
This doesn't mean we can't express our own opinions and feelings about a situation, or even the behavior of specific people or groups — that's very different from criticizing someone's inherent value or moral character. (Example: "You tracked mud on my floor, and I'm angry about that!" states a feeling about someone's behavior. "Look what you did, you filthy bum! You have no respect!" is an attack on who or what that person is.)
Lots of other ideas come to mind but my sense is that we'll have to trust our basic agreements on dealing with differences, and figure out what works best as we go along.
The first Zoom meeting of people supporting the Advocacy of Respect took place May 12, and included Chief Watson, Betty Chinn, Rabbi Bob Rottenberg, Lynn Hubbard of the Abbey of the Redwoods, Scott Sattler of the Garden of the Heart Sufi community and Diana Nunes Mizer.
Most of it was getting acquainted, exploring what kinds of experience and resources we're bringing to this process. Betty Chinn and Chief Watson both weighed in on the value of simply being kind to each other during the COVID challenge, making what contributions we can, and not adding any of the unnecessary fear or anxiety that makes effective response more difficult.
And since moving forward again, I've discovered that we don't have to re-invent the wheel. There are already a number of grassroots groups that have sprung up along similar lines, including Braver Angels, American Public Square and Crossing Party Lines.
The introductory video at www.braverangels.org puts it very eloquently: "Americans no longer see their opponents as simply wrong, or misguided. They see them as bad people, whose ways of thinking are dangerous and incomprehensible ... they see them as enemies. This level of rancor and distrust threatens our democracy."
I've also connected with Rob Schläpfer of Save America Live (www.SaveAmerica.Live) who lives and teaches in Medford, Oregon. He joined us in another recent Advocacy of Respect meeting on Zoom, bringing in a lot of knowledge and experience, and is very interested in linking up with us to form a regional network.
With all my heart, I believe this is the kind of guts and cooperation America and the world needs, where people hold space for conflicting views and values, and trust in the process itself to bring solutions we couldn't have reached without it.
The intent at this stage isn't to fix anything. These early dialogues are about learning to use the tools, adapting them to meet current needs, building trust and dealing with conflicts as a venture in partnership, not a personal attack.
Bob Olofson lives in Eureka and prefers he/him pronouns. Anyone interested in the project can email him at email@example.com or look him up on Facebook.