Op-Ed: Shamil Idriss is the Chief Executive Officer of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization. This opinion essay was originally published by SFCG here.
As we emerge from the most hotly contested mid-term elections in recent memory, still mired in the most polarized era of our history since the days of Vietnam and Watergate, Americans need to ask ourselves: is there any virtue in seeking common ground with fellow citizens whose views we find indefensible?
As head of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization, with decades of experiences in countries that have emerged from polarization and violence stronger and healthier than ever before, and still others that have descended into destructive conflict, the answer to me is a clear and definitive “yes”.
But for Americans today, this is no rhetorical question.
Pew Research Center polling shows that nearly half of registered Democrats and Republicans view the other party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being”. And our daily news is full of vitriolic public discourse and reports of acts of violence fueled by hate and fear of our fellow citizens.
In this light, it is understandable that many Americans are losing faith that we can come together across our political, racial and other dividing lines. Some are reaching the conclusion that there is little point in even trying. After all, the argument goes, when dealing with the hateful ideologies that give rise to such vile behavior, searching for common ground is a betrayal. It means accommodating hate in order to avoid conflict when we should instead take a strong stance in defense of human dignity and for justice.
But in this denigration of the pursuit of common ground, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to search for common ground. Or at least what those of us working for an organization that has taken this as our name and mission mean by that term.
With nearly 700 staff working on the frontlines of some of the world’s most devastating conflicts — from Syria and Yemen to Myanmar and South Sudan — the local peacebuilding teams I have the privilege to represent put their reputations and, in some cases, their very lives on the line to pursue “common ground”. Their efforts over the past 35+ years gained them recognition for helping to prevent genocide in Burundi, public acknowledgment from a previous U.S. Secretary of State and Iranian Foreign Minister for providing breakthrough ideas critical to the consummation of the Iran nuclear deal, and a nomination for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
Their work demonstrates that there is no dichotomy between searching for common ground and standing for justice. Indeed, searching for common ground is among the most honorable, pragmatic, and effective ways to build healthy, safe, and just societies. And it may be the best way for Americans to pave a path out of our current era of extreme polarization toward the more perfect union we have been pursuing since our founding.
There is virtue in pursuing common ground because no individual is reducible to his or her most abhorrent position or action. And not everyone who falls in line with hate is irredeemably lost — indeed, most are not.
There is virtue in pursuing common ground because when you study what actually transforms people — what turns militants into peacebuilders, provocateurs into bridge-builders, and yes, even racists into champions of diversity — you see that it is almost never the experience of being shouted down or shut out, but rather human connections with the very people that they had learned to hate.
There is virtue in pursuing common ground because common ground is not middle ground. It is often new ground. It is not just static, lying below the surface waiting to be discovered. It is also dynamic, waiting to be created. For as we do the hard work of scratching below the surface to understand an opponent’s hopes, fears, and values — not just their most visible stances — and to cooperate together in those areas where we can agree, we not only build trust between us. We also ignite an unpredictable, creative, and sometimes transformational process that can give rise to new, previously unimaginable opportunities. And it is that process, patiently and tirelessly pursued, that paves the path to real redemption for even the most divided communities.
And finally, there is virtue in pursuing common ground because there is integrity and power in aligning our ends and our means. Consider Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr. In hindsight, no one would accuse these greats of insufficiently standing up for what is right, of being too accommodating of hate. But at the time that they each risked their lives to reach across the dividing lines in their countries? Even while they were being painted as dangerous militants and wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing by those who wanted to maintain the unjust power structures of the time, they were also vilified by many who should have been their natural allies as sell-outs, naïve dreamers, and weak-kneed pacifists.
What we call searching for common ground is not about coming together across any dividing line — neo-Nazis and immigrants, anarchists and police — to meet in the middle and compromise our principles in an effort to avoid real conflict in favor of “keeping the peace”.
It is rather about digging beyond the simplistic headlines, tweets, and memes to connect with the basic humanity that we know exists across all lines of diversity. To uncover there the fears, hopes, and interests on which we can agree, and to use them as a basis to build trust and cooperate in ways that advance our shared interests and protect the dignity of all concerned. It is about igniting a cycle of joint problem-solving and relationship-building that is the best way to yield solutions otherwise unimaginable or unattainable to us when we remain closeted in our own segregated camps.
In short, pursuing common ground is not a betrayal of justice. It is among the most courageous ways to manifest justice in your activism, not just in your goals.
It is also among the most critical tasks for American citizens to take up if we are to emerge from this current era of polarization stronger than ever, still embodying our founding motto: e pluribus unum.
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