I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.
I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.
I’m not afraid of the middle ground. I spend a lot of my time there: I’m not religious, but I keep the Bible and the Koran on my desk, and I’ve read ’em both cover to cover; I don’t have kids, but I generally like the little monsters, and I have great respect for the people who dedicate themselves to raising them; I’m a pacifist who studies military history, and whose parents were both Air Force veterans; the music I love best is that of composers like Martinu and Poulenc but I enthusiastically join in with our neighborhood music group every weekend noodling around on songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Eagles.
I live with cats, but hey – I like dogs, too.
The thing about the middle ground, though, is that it’s defined by the two extremes. When you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Miami, you’ll be lunching somewhere around Fort Lauderdale. The Floridian Diner may not have been the first choice for either of you, but it’ll do, and you’ll each have traveled about the same distance, made the same sacrifice in time and gas and convenience. You might both have preferred something closer to home, more familiar, but the compromise distributes the disruption evenly between you, and you’ll be equally comfortable and equally uncomfortable. No winners, no losers, but everybody gets lunch.
If you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Shanghai, on the other hand, you’re going to end up treading water mid-Pacific. You’ll get wet, and the sharks will be the only ones dining.
Suppose we’re having a discussion about healthcare reform. I advocate for a single-payer system, equal care for all citizens, regardless of income. You prefer a market-driven approach. I’m concerned that your system will favor the interests of stockholders and investors over those of patients, ultimately excluding all but the affluent; you’re worried that my system will end up stifling innovation and crushing patients under a burden of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Point Nemo, at coordinates 48°52.6′ south, 123°23.6′ west, in the Pacific Ocean, is the furthest point from any land on the planet: in a very real sense, it’s the “halfway point” between everywhere and everywhere else. The name “Nemo”, used by Jules Verne for the mysterious submarine captain in his 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, is from the Latin: it means “nobody”. It is very likely that that is exactly who has ever actually visited Point Nemo: nobody.
We can’t both be right, obviously, but are we both wrong?
We can each present rational cases, based on real-world data, to support our respective views. At the same time, because our objections are specific and reasoned, they are also addressable: I can look for ways to introduce market forces into my universal system, counterbalancing the inertia and inefficiency of government bureaucracy; you can accept some regulatory oversight in your free-market approach, guaranteeing equitable treatment regardless of income. Neither of us gets everything the way we want it, but we each leave the table with something. We meet halfway. We lunch on Las Olas Boulevard, and we both get a decent meal.
Let’s try another one.
I’m Emmett Louis Till, and I’m down from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. I’m fourteen years old, and I’m black. You’re Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, and you really, really hate black people. Not for any particular reason, but just because you are who you are, and they aren’t.
I’m from the big city, and I’ve never been away from home before. I like wearing a tie and a grownup hat and going out and strutting my bad self down Main Street and buying little doodads to take back to my mom in Chi-town. You were born and raised in the Mississippi delta, and have never been anywhere else, or wanted to go. You think all black people should be forced to live as slaves, or livestock, or not be permitted to live at all.
The middle ground? Perhaps Milam and Bryant could have crushed only one of Emmett’s testicles and only halfway gouged out his eye before halfway strangling him with a length of barbed wire, halfway shooting him, and throwing his body halfway into the Tallahatchie river. That would be about halfway between leaving him alone and doing what they ultimately did do, right? Emmett may or may not have whistled at Bryant’s lovely twenty-one-year-old wife in a store (Carolyn Bryant, now 82, has recently admitted that Emmett did nothing to her to trigger the retribution), but the attack was apparently motivated mostly by the desire to inflict as much suffering as possible on a young boy, simply because he was black and all-too-visible; the victim was small, vulnerable, an out-of-towner, a target of opportunity. Emmett wanted to enjoy the summer vacation and then go home to his mom; Bryant and Milam wanted to torture and kill. So, again, how should Emmett have met Bryant and Milam halfway?
Any time you have more than one person in a room, you’re going to have differences. I’m tall, you’re not. I pronounce the word for the sister of one of my parents “ahnt”, while you make it sound exactly like the name of a tiny insect. I have a beard because I think it makes me look scholarly; you think beards are nothing but crumb-catcher bibs for messy eaters of a certain age. Despite these differences, we still get along, because we have made some rational decisions about what really matters and what can be overlooked in the interest of consensus and coexistence.
Looking for the middle ground in a disagreement makes sense if both of us are working from a rational, logically defensible point of view — but if one of us is clinging to a position that is irrational, that defies all reasonable evidence, or that denies the very humanity of the other, even perhaps that person’s right to exist at all, compromise ceases to be a possibility. After all, if what you really want, when all is said and done, is to obliterate me and everyone like me, I can’t become halfway dead in order to meet you in that middle ground.
* * *
I don’t like conflict. I let people overcharge me in stores, I allow other drivers to cut me off in traffic, I accept condescension and phony “tolerance” from people who see me as something only marginally different from a criminal or a lunatic, all because I prefer to avoid confrontation wherever I can.
At the same time, while I deeply appreciate the good intentions of those who say: “Must we fight? Can’t we meet halfway?” I know that the halfway point between violent, irrational hatred and ordinary human dignity is still nothing but deep water and sharks, and it’s not a place I ever want to be.