What does it mean when the entire country is talking in the past tense? For me, it means I’m worried and dispirited.
As the Greeks taught us, arguments in the past tense are about blame. We’re trying to find out who did what, when, and how. That’s important in a judicial process when we’re trying to assess guilt or innocence. Otherwise, I’m convinced that arguing in the past tense is useless. We learn nothing. We solve nothing. We change nothing.
Politicians, of course, are eager to lay blame. Blame leads to anger and anger leads to votes. It works and has always worked, so politicians will never change the basic formula – blame the other guy, fire up the base, and garner some votes. It’s not about logic or even hope for the future. It’s about pandering and identity.
Some people argue that we can learn important lessons from the past. I’m wondering when that will happen. We make the same mistakes over and over. The mere fact that we think we’ve learned lessons from the past may actually make us more dangerous. We think we’re all the wiser; we couldn’t possibly make those mistakes again. We grow self-satisfied and egocentric. Egocentrism is the reason why every person has to make her own mistakes. We don’t realize we’re egocentric until it’s too late.
Other people argue that things happen for a reason. If we can only divine those reasons, we can understand the arc and thrust of history. But there are so many possible reasons for any given action, we can marshal evidence for virtually any argument. What caused the Civil War (or was it the War Between The States)? It was slavery. No, it was industrialization. No, it was Lincoln’s perfidy. It was the North’s fault. No, it was the South’s fault. In the end, do we really know? Are we any wiser? Perhaps we just look for the “facts” that we already believe. It’s confirmation bias writ large.
Mark Twain said it well, ““In the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place and the right time. It is the job of journalists and historians to make it appear that it has.” We can write history any way we want. We have a near infinite number of ways to interpret a story. We see this in fiction regularly. Just watch The Affair on Showtime. Or read La Maison de Rendez-Vous. Or watch Rashomon. Perhaps history is just a branch of fiction in which we use real people.
So, what’s the cure? First, let’s stop thinking about the past. Every good financial analyst will tell you not to consider sunk costs as you make decisions about future investments. Sunk costs are just that – they’re sunk. So is history. No use crying over spilt milk.
Second, let’s take a cue from design thinking. Instead of analyzing the problem, let’s analyze the solution. Let’s look forward and imagine a solution. Then let’s ask, how do we get there? It won’t work perfectly. In fact, it may not work at all. But at least it has a chance. History doesn’t. As they say, let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.
Fisher wrote (with varying co-authors) Getting to Yes which pioneered the concepts of principled negotiation. The idea is simple: negotiations should lead to collaboration and compromise. Both sides should have a stake in the solution. One side shouldn’t have to “give in”. It shouldn’t be winner take all.
Fisher also pointed out that democracies surface dissension and conflict. In the introduction to the 3rd edition, Fisher argues, “Democracies surface rather than suppress conflict, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian regimes. … The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable — and useful — part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. … And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict not less.”
We have a lot of dissension in America today. That doesn’t bother me. We should disagree. What disheartened me about the recent campaigns were the attempts to invalidate each other: “If you don’t agree with me, you’re not a real American.” “The Founding Fathers said X. If you don’t agree with my interpretation of what they said, you’re unAmerican.”
To me, statements like these are truly unAmerican. People who call others unAmerican are not trying to reason with the opposition or even to argue a point. They’re trying to suppress or eliminate the opposition. The argument goes like this, “If you’re not a real American, you have no standing. We don’t need to consider your views. You don’t count. We’ll do what we want. You’re nobody.” It’s insulting and demeaning to invalidate a fellow American. The American Dream says we all count.
The Founding Fathers said a lot of different things but what they created is a system that requires collaboration and compromise. The system of checks and balances actually works, except in the face of intransigence. As numerous historians have pointed out, the genius of the American system is our ability to compromise.
I’m not particularly loyal to either political party but I am loyal to the process. I like to argue because I think it’s the best way to reach agreement. I’m worried that we’re losing not just the ability to compromise but also the desire. That would be a tragedy. So, no matter who wins today, I hope we can spend less time invalidating each other and more time getting to yes.