Pragmatic Spectrum

Dear Friends,

I’ve never been easy with the terms conservative and liberal. Like most “liberals" there’s too much “conservative" in me and probably too much “liberal” in my so-called conservative friends to make the increasingly divisive, implied differences very useful. I’d like to try to describe our differences more in terms of a quite different frame, differences based on a "pragmatic spectrum."

In reality the majority of us can be described as pragmatists, the term often used to describe Obama. I suspect most of us have survived in our daily lives and in our major life decisions by weighing various practical alternatives and ethical considerations relating to a certain situation and choosing the one that we can most live with: Pragmatism. Being pragmatic, of course, may mean we avoid dealing with serious needed change, but nevertheless most of us structure our lives on pragmatic terms most of the time. But we may vary widely about what defines our pragmatism.

For example, it’s safe to say that many folks on a pragmatic spectrum weigh their decisions more from the preferred perspective of wariness about change, about their personal advantage, safety and welfare, about loosing influence and responsibility for their lives. Their pragmatism suggests they would be more inclined to resist perceived threatening chang to them and their community, and they are often therefore more fearful and anxious during times of substantial change. To be honest - and non-judgmental - that would describe at least a part of most of us.

Off to the other side of the pragmatic spectrum are the folks who primarily weigh their decisions on the basis of how their actions will affect other people. Their pragmatic orientation leads them to keep peace in the family, care for others as best they can, and they are more likely to seek change that would better serve the wider community. And to be honest, that would describe at least a part of most of us as well, including our neighbors who may often resist change.

So far I have tried to say that that the vast majority of people may have different biases that define their pragmatism. But most on both sides of a pragmatic spectrum would prefer a “pragmatic center,” a world that would hold reasonably steady, a world where those more concerned about their personal welfare and security would live reasonably well with those more interested in promoting social change. Both sides would prefer to trust a society that would assure their safety and welfare, and change would come about through an orderly process of just law making and preservation of human dignity. Changes would occur at a moderate pace with the assurance that no group would seize disproportionate power over the others without checks and balances. The exceptions, of course, would be those who live under wilting discrimination and oppression who cry mightily for rapid relief and liberation. But I am trying to make the point that society as a whole prefers a status quo with slow paced change even if they are increasingly aware that it is not sustainable..

As much as we may want to believe that our Constitutional democracy assures our preferred just and orderly change, the reality of thecontemporary tumultuous era seriously undermines all or most of the preferred political world described above. Instead of a deliberative response to social injustice, we all live in a time of rapid, complex, threatening change. The majority of citizens on both sides of the pragmatic spectrum have lost much of the control, or even influence, over the fate of their lives. So instead of holding a “pragmatic center” things spin out of control and fall apart. Decisions are made by faceless corporations or wealthy political cabals disassociated from the welfare of the rest of us.

In responseto the chaos one end of the spectrum, the already wary and fearful pragmatists, have sought a radical “savior” whose wild promises of salvation seem more “pragmatic” to them than drowning in helplessness and perceived neglect and abandonment. On the other end of the spectrum, the more community based pragmatists, the ones who assumed the welfare and good will of the status quo was relatively safe, and justice would ultimately prevail, went into shock because the “pragmatic center” doesn't hold for them either.

If you are still with this little late night reflection on pragmatism, I want to loop back to the limitations of the terms liberal and conservative. Our contemporary crisis is not about one political or personal preference versus another. It is not about us and them. The impact of the tragedy of “things falling apart" (or, more accurately, are made to fall apart) encompasses all of us, including its perpetrators. It’s not about “conserving” or “liberalizing.” It’s about having the wisdom to realize that unless we find ways to reasonably cooperate across our unfortunate divides we cannot survive. We need pragmatic win-win strategies that benefit us all.

A good way to describe what is needed is “triage,” and many of us are functioning in this mode. We need to resist and stop the damage being done to all citizens, including those who naively believe the current administration is addressing their needs; attend and protect those most damaged and threatened - always the poor and marginalized; and work at providing alternatives to the social structures that caused so much damage in the first place. The field hospital during an earthquake is not interested in who is conservative or liberal. They are interested in who can address the critical needs before them. Everyone is needed to help, and we need to successfully make the emergency call across the political and cultural spectrum for everyone to pitch in. I seriously can imagine a time in the not too distant future when the liberal/conservative divide will be far less important than cooperative efforts, especially among the young.

I am pleased to say that many of us are already participating in the recovery process from the current political tragedy. Today, for example, I attended a first-of-its-kind community meeting on our island where some twenty-four representatives from very old, but mostly very young, organizations gathered to share about how they are responding to the threats of the current administration and the wider crises of climate change, income disparity, racism and the gamut of other unjust situations we are all facing. The predominant sense in the room was toward practical and hopeful action, what I am calling a kind of united pragmatism. I find that enormously encouraging.

And each of you are surely also seeking practical, pragmatic ways to join in this recovery effort. In spite of the dire threat to so much we hold dear, it is a time of opportunity and community as well.