Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times makes a provocative point in his excellent analysis of today’s political dialogue. About halfway through, he suggests that a confusion between values-speak and politics-speak is making things worse. In Rutten’s words:
Values do not admit compromise; politics, which is the prudent application of values in pursuit of the common good, requires compromise.
Some of what we’re experiencing today as bitter political rhetoric may reflect the leaching of the values debate into the generality of our political life.
The problem with politics in which every question and situation is framed as a matter of fundamental values is that it makes compromise impossible. There simply isn’t any way to meet the other side even halfway without, in some fashion, ceasing to be yourself.
Rutten may well be right about the current interplay of discourse and values in contemporary America. But unlike him, I don’t think it has to be this way—especially if we come to the belief that we are not our values.
Here’s why that matters. I have often said that authentic dialogue calls us to set aside (however temporarily) our preconceptions, including our values, in order to listen with full attention and an open heart. That’s too much to ask if our values define us.
But what if our essence is deeper than that? Many faith traditions point to something deeper: the soul, the life force, the divine spark. If we identify with this essence, we can relax our death-grip on the other things we often use to define ourselves: status, wealth, and position in society, but also our proclivities, perspectives, and yes, values. That “relaxed grip” empowers us to set aside most everything to engage in dialogue—without “ceasing to be ourselves.”
This doesn’t mean values are irrelevant to dialogue. Indeed, they help us weigh what we have heard after we have heard it: what it might mean for us and our understanding of the world. But by not leading with our values—by not declaring certain things “off limits” or automatically filtering the other’s perspective through our own—we free ourselves to listen deeply. Deep listening builds trust, and trust is essential for making dialogue, and collaboration, work.
So we can hold values and still reach across divides. Good thing, too. How can we even hope for a civil society otherwise?