February 13, 2021
Last Sunday in the U.S., we held the "Super Bowl," a much-hyped end-of-season football game between the two division champions. It is watched by millions, and the ads on the Superbowl are both extremely expensive and much watched and discussed. This year, it seems the one most discussed was a Jeep ad,* narrated by Bruce Springsteen, a huge pop music icon. It showed a small, lonely church sitting all alone in a blank expanse of Kansas, at the geographic center of the "lower 48 states."
"All are more than welcome," Springsteen narrated, "to come meet here, in the middle. [He pauses.] It's no secret, the middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. [He pauses again.] Now, fear has never been the best of who we are, [pause] and as for freedom, [pause] it's not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all, whoever you are, wherever you are from, it's what connects us. And we need that connection. [pause] We need the middle."
|The pushback against Springsteen's message was fast and furious--from both sides. Even my conflict-resolution colleagues disapproved.|
The pushback against Springsteen's message was fast and furious—from both sides. The left expressed no interest in seeking the middle. "Why should I meet in the middle with QAnon crazies?" "This is simple White Christian nationalism, of a particularly insidious kind." "I think the right thinks they are the middle. Does meeting in the middle mean accepting moderate amounts of racism? I don't think the ad has any redeeming value." (Quotes all drawn from my Facebook feed.) The response from the right was similar: "'Unity' is code for forcing me to agree with the left agenda. "Pass" (This quote came from a Boston.com article.)
Even my conflict-resolution colleagues disapproved. Among my colleagues' posts on Facebook were: "It made my teeth hurt from grinding. Cheap grace, really, really cheap." "Would love to have been a fly on the wall (zoom room) of the conversation between the marketing “experts” behind this... Were they deliberate despite the somewhat obvious contradictions? Did someone shout, “This isn’t about healing, it’s about selling cars! We just need to leverage confusing emotions, not be accurate! Who cares if common ground and middle ground are totally different concepts. We can play it both ways!”
That sentiment echoed a thoughtful Medium post by Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground entitled "Message to the Boss [Springsteen's nickname]: Common Ground is not in the Middle. Shamil wrote:
Seeking “the middle” suggests that you are abandoning your core values, replacing something that you deeply believe with something that you merely tolerate.
“The middle” is not where the United States needs to go.
What we need instead is “common ground.”
. . .
The difference between “the middle” and “common ground” is the difference between a superficial process that papers over problems, and a patient process of healing, reconciliation, and trust-building that allows us to move forward together, with our differences intact and our dignity affirmed.
Idriss continues with a number of related key points:
|Finding common ground is not the same as endorsing an opponent's behavior.|
- Finding common ground starts by realizing that conflict is an opportunity and a starting point that enables people to tackle shared problems. It is not the "final destination."
- Finding common ground is not the same as endorsing an opponent's behavior
- Seeking common ground before accountability is not impossible, nor is it immoral, as some suggest.
- Accountability achieved solely through retribution is at best incomplete. It isolates the symptoms of our broken society; it doesn't address their causes.
- We need to include grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation together with accountability if we are to achieve a healed society. (Shamil Idriss, "Message to the Boss: Common Ground is not in the Middle." Search For Common Ground on Medium. https://sfcg.medium.com/message-to-the-boss-common-ground-is-not-in-the-middle-83542e558436)
Of course, from a conflict resolution point of view, Idriss's assertion that "common ground" is different from "the middle" is right. As I teach in my conflict skills course, collaboration is different from compromise, and when it's possible, collaboration is better because you don't have to give up half of what you want. Rather, going back to classic Fisher and Ury (Getting to Yes), you "enlarge the pie."
But, I would argue, common ground isn't necessarily all that hard to find. It doesn't necessarily need a long, drawn out process of "healing, reconciliation, and trust-building." Often, those will come later—after people have come to get to know each other, come to work together to accomplish common goals. It can be found just by recognizing the humanity of "the other." The other side has fundamental needs, just like we do. They need security—they need to know they'll have a job with a livable wage, health (or at least health care), respect and the ability to live their life in the way they want, without too much outside interference, at least if they allow others to live their own lives as well. This relates to identity. We all want to be able to feel comfortable being who we are. We don't want to be chastised or discriminated against because of our color or our beliefs, even if our color is white and our beliefs are Christian. Of course, we shouldn't expect to be able to chastise or discriminate against people who are not white, cisgendered Christians without being called out for it. If we respect each other for who we are, respect our similarities as humans as well as our differences—we'll find common ground.
|If the coastal elite would, as Springsteen suggested, take a road trip to the center of the country and get to know the land and the people a bit, I think our politics might be much different—and much better.|
But this ad wasn't written by conflict experts, nor was it directed to conflict professionals who understand that distinction. It was directed to the millions of superbowl watchers—a broad cross-section of America. I found it interesting that many of my friends on the left were quite sure it was addressed to people on the right, not to them. But "the right wouldn't get it," they asserted. Based on the reported responses, that seems right. Did people on the right think it was addressed to the left? I don't know, as I don't get Right-leaning Facebook posts very much (and the one quote I found through Google, included above, suggested the Right-leaning writer did see it addressed to him). For what's it's worth, I thought it was addressed to the coastal left, suggesting that all those folk who live on the coasts should take the time to drive to "the middle," to Kansas, and stop and talk to people along the way. Guy and I often drive through western Colorado and Utah—very red, very rural places. It is striking to look at the country and the towns, and think about how different the lives are of the people who live there. It's no wonder they have different priorities than do people who are packed into densely-populated, much more diverse cities on the coasts. If these city dwellers would, indeed, take a road trip to the center of the country and get to know the land and the people a bit, I think our politics might be much different—and much better.
Guy saw the ad in more symbolic and less literal terms—as a good faith effort to encourage us all to focus more attention on the good things that have bound us together as a people and made America's successses possible. He saw the ad as celebrating common ideals such as reverence for the land, a commitment to fairness, and a celebration of our rights and freedoms. More importantly, it was a call for us to do a better job of living those ideals. In this context, Guy saw the "middle" of the country as a metaphor for the underlying common ground that we need to cultivate if we are to de-polarize America.
|The Springsteen ad was a Rorschach test—we saw what we expected to see.|
Guy also pointed out, quite correctly I think, that the Springsteen ad was a Rorschach test (or put another way, it is like the old face/young face illusion). If you don't know what I mean by that, Google "old face young face illusion" and you'll get lots of pictures. Supposedly, each of them can be seen either as a young woman or an old woman (or man), depending on how you interpret it. As often happens, I look at them all, and can only see a young woman in some, an old woman or man in the other—I can't for the life of me see both of them in the same image. But I know from talking to other people that they are there.
So the Jeep ad is like these optical illusions. You see what you are primed to see, and not the opposite, but the opposite is also there.
|What about giving Springsteen the benefit of the doubt? He isn't a conflict professional; he doesn't know the difference between "middle" and "common ground." He was simply trying to get us to look beyond our toxic polarization, at least a little bit.|
Naomi Kraenbring, one of my students in my ongoing Reconciliation course, posted a discussion board post about the Jeep ad, and along with it, she posted a Valentine's day story from the LA Times entitled "My father's belief that he was in an ideal marriage actually made it so." The pairing of these two articles was striking, and it reinforced Guy's notion about the Jeep ad. The ad had good aspects and bad. Some parts, perhaps, appealed to some audiences, other parts to others. But apparently the vast majority of viewers decried it, because they focused much more on what they didn't like, than on what was good about it. If we had all taken the approach illustrated in the LA times love story, and believed Springsteen and Jeep to have good intentions, not ill (which I actually believe they did) we might have seen an ad that was trying to pull us all us away from our toxic polarization It was urging us all to give "the other" the benefit of the doubt, respect, space, perhaps even love. If we did that, I believe, we'd be much better off than we are now, griping at each other about an ad and everything else we don't like about our country and about each other.
The same idea can, and I think should, be applied to the progressive left which is busy tearing down statues, renaming schools, and in some cases (such as the New York Times' 1619 Project) rewriting history if those statues represent and schools are named after people who did not follow "proper behavior" in the eyes of the Left in 2021, or if the history did not center on America's "sins." But how was George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or other former American heroes to know what would be considered acceptable behavior 100-200 years hence? Did they do nothing of merit in their tenure worth remembering and honoring? Should we really focus only on their flaws (in today's terms), instead of focusing on all the great things they did for this country as well?
|What about doing the same for history, for monuments, and for people who, in some views, "make mistakes?" Rather than simply tearing down monuments and trying to forget history, we could add interpretive materials that better put these monuments in context and help us learn from history.|
The same is true for contemporary people who are condemned for making what is seen to be (or perhaps even was) a racist comment. I have a very accomplished colleague who was censured and almost fired for assigning an article that used a racial slur when discussing the legal complexities of hate speech limits. How can you discuss what is and is not covered by free speech law if one can't talk about the speech in question? In this case, I think the charge was ridiculous, and the response completely misguided and harmful to all involved (the professor, the faculty, the students, and the school).
But sometimes the charge is fair. My recent assignment for my Reconciliation course was to find five stories relating to reconciliation in the news, and analyze them using the concepts we've been reading about in the course. Two people picked out stories about country music star Morgan Wallen recently being "cancelled" because he was videoed using a racial slur. In this case, the offense really did occur. As a result, his music was pulled off SiriusXM, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and other music providers. According to Variety, "DSPs [digital service providers] have rendered him nearly invisible—part of a series of stunning setbacks for someone who started 2021 as music's hottest recording artist." "In stark contrast," my student Chloe Herl wrote,
"President Sheryl Guinn of the NAACP, Nashville Chapter, has reached out to Morgan Wallen to have an educational conversation with him about the history of the N-word. While maintaining that Wallen must hold himself accountable for his words and actions, President Guinn offers a chance to learn and grow to the country singer. This sort of conversation, which reminded me of the practice of Ubuntu - not erasing accountability while returning a perpetrator to society through apology and personal growth -- also touched on a key component of reconciliation -- which is facing the problem.
Rather than furthering our divisions by canceling people, and calling out what was likely a good-faith effort to help our country heal a little bit, wouldn't it be better to applaud Springsteen and Jeep for making a courageous effort, and help him and others understand that "common ground" is possible, even for people who don't want to come to "the middle"?