Monday, October 12, 2009

Conflict - for the Sake of Heaven

I just wrote this essay today; I think it is important enough that I am posting it here and also to my more 'permanent' collection of writings on my website ( I also may just use it was the basis of my sermon this Friday evening.

The title of this essay is a direct translation of the Hebrew phrase, 'mahloket leshem hashamayim.' It’s a rabbinic principle that disagreement and conflict are not intrinsically bad and can be good if channeled toward a good end. Everybody who has studied Judaism deeper than the weekly Torah portion is aware of the long-term conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shamai in the ancient academy. The two schools had completely different approaches to halacha (Jewish law). They disagreed with one another on virtually every point of law over a period spanning generations. But they had a common goal: that the people Israel would work to please G-d by living up to their individual and national responsibilities as G-d’s Chosen People. Because of this mindset, they worked through their disagreements toward a good result for their people.

The entire Jewish tradition is based on the premise that conflict is a natural and even healthy part of life. Did not Abraham famously argue (respectfully but argue nonetheless) with G-d over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Was not Jacob re-named Israel (‘he who strives with G-d’) because of his inner conflict over his G-d-ordained destiny? Did not the entire people come to be known by Jacob’s new name? (The appellation ‘Jews’ is later and represents the ancient split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms.)

But conflict has developed a bad name these days. Conflict, it is said, can only result in bad things: at the very least, bruised feelings, and at worst, outright war with every intermediate possibility between. To many people, the very existence of conflict indicates failure. As a pastoral counselor, I found this to be the mindset among many married couples on their way to divorce court; at a gut level, they took the fact that they’d had conflict to mean that they’d failed as a couple – that there was no redemption possible. They would never admit that; as I said, it was more at a gut level than a logical level. On a logical level, if we’re honest with ourselves, every occasion where two people disagree can only result in two basic outcomes: one party submerges his/her opinion and goes along with the other; or the two must resolved the disagreement through conflict. And in reality, at the end of the day only the second alternative is likely; one of the parties will likely tend to submerge his/her opinions enough times until he conflict becomes unmanageable. In other words, in one way or another, conflict is an inevitable fact of life for all but the hermit. But we do tend to hold idealized images of certain conditions – including marriage – which blind us to this reality and make it difficult to even accept the existence of conflict. Conflict has acquired, unfairly, a bad name.

Politics is an area where conflict always exists and is always in the open. At the risk of sounding as if I’m over-simplifying things, I’ll point out that there are essentially two competing worldviews in our American political arena: those of the conservative and those of the liberal.
If you’re a third-party person, a Libertarian or a Green or something else, please don’t flame me! I think that it is not just the two major political parties that are party to this conflict and the divide it creates; the smaller parties pretty much fit in on one side or the other. But that’s another essay, for another time.
Just for the sake of disclosure (if you didn’t pick it up already from any of my earlier posts in this blog), I’ll tell you that I’m a conservative. But as an observer I would point out that both sides of the conservative/liberal divide are full of individuals who are not helpful to the clash. The reason is that they are unable to step past their own positions and see the merit in the person on the other side. In other words, because I think your position is stupid/poorly reasoned/selfish/will lead to a bad end, I’m unable to put aside that I think you are stupid/a poor reasoner/selfish/a malefactor who would lead us to a bad end.

Let me give you an example. The biggest, or at least the noisiest debate in American society right now is the one over health care – or more accurately, over the way health care is funded and dispensed. Most of the liberals I know want a unified (‘single-payer’) system similar to that in many other countries, including (but not limited to) Canada and those of Western Europe.
Yes, I know that this is not the 'program' that is on the table right now in the legislation that is being considered. But President Obama and many of his supporters are on record as favoring such a solution, and many experts agree that the legislation being considered in its many forms will put us on the road toward that kind of a system.
In other words, many liberals want a very (some might say radically) different system than what we in the US have today.
Most of the conservatives want the current system but with certain government controls (such as those which make it difficult for insurance companies to compete across state lines) removed or lessened, and other controls (such as those which might prevent companies from dropping coverage, or which might limit malpractice lawsuits) increased. In other words, the system that we have now but with tweaks and adjustments to make it better.
All this is no surprise; by definition it is in the nature of liberal thought to favor transformative change (and President Obama campaigned on that very principle), while it is in the nature of conservative thought to favor more modest change!
But to listen to the public discourse, the conflict doesn’t sound as benign as that. To many liberals, the conservatives are 'heartless bigots' who want to 'deny health care to the poor and vulnerable.' To many conservatives, the liberals are 'socialists' who want to 'keep the liberal-controlled federal government in power by controlling the jobs and well-being of a majority of the country’s citizens.' To conservatives, they (the liberals) are the 'heartless ones' who want to ‘pull the plug on Grandma’ and assemble ‘death panels.’
The reality is this: each side favors a very different approach to the difficult problem of providing the best level of affordable care to the most people. Most agree that health care costs are out of control and need to be reigned in while ensuring more Americans have the coverage for the care they need. But the rhetoric of the conflict is so powerful that, by and large, neither side can see the other as well-intentioned. Neither side can see the other as having the same goal. Neither side can see the merit in the other, because they can’t see the merit in the other’s position.
I'm using an example from politics to illustrate the problem when our conflict is not for the sake of heaven. But it applies to all spheres of relationship: from the most intimate, to the most global.
I was discussing this recently with a correspondent of mine from Berlin, a woman who is deeply concerned with the problem of conflict in civil life and who wants to promote the ancient Jewish concept of mahloket leshem shamayim to help combatants and potential combatants solve their conflicts by peaceful means. I think she is on to something. I am therefore offering the following as a suggested formula for employing the concept in conflict:
(1) Assume that the other has the same good intentions that you believe you have, and try to make them see that you have the same good intentions that they think they have. Yes, there truly are malefactors about but most individuals try, or at least see themselves as trying, to be benefactors. If you start the conversation by giving the other the benefit of the doubt, and working to make them see that they would be doing well to give you the benefit of the doubt, that would certainly make a good start. If in the course of the conversation you find that you gave the other the benefit of the doubt mistakenly, you can always adjust the conflict to that reality. But I guarantee it won’t happen often.

(2) Once you have made the leap of seeing merit in the opposition, you will be in a better position to see merit (or at least good intention) in their positions. Even if you can’t see the merit in their means to achieve the end result, you might see merit in their envisioned end result. And that means quite a bit. If two sides to a seemingly-intractable conflict see their positions as basically intending to reach a similar end, that automatically makes the conflict less intractable. It means that the negotiation necessary to reach a method of reaching the end will have much more of a chance of success.

(3) One must be extremely careful not to use ‘code words’ or ‘code phrases’ that cast aspersion on the other side’s intentions. These loaded words and phrases have the effect of closing down debate and discussion rather than opening it up. When the conflict in question is one in an intimate male-female relationship, one must understand that men and women communicate very differently. But that's a different subject for a different day!
(4) Even if agreement is ultimately elusive or impossible, this exercise is not a waste of time. It is far better to oppose someone on the basis of disagreeing with their solution, than because one thinks them of no or little merit. It changes the very character of the conflict.

You’ll notice that I haven’t used the word ‘compromise.’ A compromise is a device to reconcile two positions to hopefully make both parties somewhat happy by giving each part of what they seek. If one achieves steps one to three above, a compromise might be the vehicle by which an ultimate solution is found that all can accept. But the act of compromise in and of itself will not tone down the hurtful rhetoric that unfortunately seems to poison so much of our discourse today.
So let’s disagree and thus have conflict. But let’s try to keep our conflict leshem hashamayim and thus, we will go a long way toward ensuring a good result.