Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Why Amendment One Passed

When North Carolina’s General Assembly proposed Amendment One last fall, a group that opposed the amendment proposed a campaign called “One Million Conversations.”  They suggested that each one who opposed the amendment talk to 10 people, to have open, frank, and friendly conversations about their concerns about the proposed amendment.  And if everyone who opposed the amendment spoke to 10 people who in turn spoke to 10 people, and so on down the line, there would have been a million conversations against the amendment.  

That campaign idea was a good one.  Rather than viewing those who supported the amendment as enemies, it viewed them as friends and co-workers and relatives who could perhaps be persuaded to change their minds.  

I have no idea how many of these proposed conversations happened.  But in the wake of the amendment’s passage, it’s worth looking at some of the reasons why it passed.  Because I think that this amendment’s passage gives a lesson for the future.  There were crucial mistakes made by this amendment’s opponents.  Both of them were problematic.  Together, they were fatal.  

The first mistake was to view those who supported this amendment as bigoted, hate-filled people.  In any legislative process, those who support and oppose do so for a variety of reasons.  We are fortunate that most people in North Carolina are neither bigoted nor hate-filled.  But over and over, the amendment’s opponents made these charges.  It happened in person, in newspapers and magazines, and online.  I witnessed an exchange in a restaurant where an amendment supporter made a quiet, thoughtful case for the amendment, and an opponent proceeded to scream that the supporter was “hateful,” “evil,” and “bigoted.”  

Not surprisingly, the conversation stopped.  

In a political discussion, keeping conversations -- even among those who disagree -- friendly, civil, and pleasant is important.  And assuming that those we disagree with are well-intentioned is perhaps even more important.

Next, the religious question.  Those who put forth this amendment didn’t frame it in religious terms, and it would have been wrong if they had.  But a lot of the amendment’s supporters did.  That’s because North Carolinians  -- and Southerners, in general -- are often deeply religious.  And that religion is often something that informs day to day life.  Anyone who has lived in the South for a length of time has had the experience of being asked -- even by casual acquaintances -- about one’s religious life, church attendance, and other such matters.  

Those who made religious arguments for this amendment usually did so out of firm convictions.  The amendment’s opponents may have disagreed, but the arguments needed to be answered.  I was shocked by the mockery unleashed online, in print, and in person against those arguments.   Opponents failed to take amendment supporters’ religious views seriously.  And when the arguments weren’t taken seriously, the supporters stopped talking.  

Beware when those you disagree with stop talking.  It doesn’t mean they agree with you.  It just means they have stopped listening to what you say.  And mocking deeply-held religious beliefs (of whatever variety) guarantees that you will not be taken seriously.

Religious people in the South are often well-versed in their Bibles.  Even when they are not otherwise well-educated (although they certainly might well be) they know their Bibles.  Those who opposed the amendment often failed to respond seriously and thoughtfully to the biblical points.  Even clergy and others who should have been able to answer seemed to revert to not taking the biblical arguments seriously.  

Now that the voting is over, what can we all (those who opposed this amendment, and those who favored it) learn?  

First, takes one’s opponents seriously, and listen to them.  Assume the best about them.  If possible, get to know them.  

Second, don’t mock deeply held beliefs, religious or otherwise.  You can certainly express disagreement, but mockery and sarcasm don’t work, and will usually work against what one is trying to accomplish.  If you don’t have the ability (for whatever reason) to respond to another’s beliefs, try to find someone who can respectfully do so.  

Third, realize that although your opponents may vote as a bloc, they are not a “group.”  They are individuals who have differing life experiences, motivations, and reasons for their actions.   

What can we take away from this?  I think our biggest lesson is to remember that our opponents are not our enemies.  We as a society have lost an ability that we need to re-gain -- that of listening to and taking seriously those who disagree with us.  

Listening to someone’s arguments and considering them is not compromise.  It’s taking them as individuals seriously, and appreciating them as individuals and not casting them as faceless members of a group.  

We can learn to listen.  We can learn to understand what others are saying even when we disagree.  Our neighbors are not our enemies.  

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