‘How would you write it if you assumed your opponents were acting out of the best intentions?” an old boss used to ask.
Always a good question, it feels more important now than ever, as civility falters and fury dominates.
So how would we characterize supporters on both sides of today’s hottest-button issues if we assumed the best intentions? The answer is to define each side by recognizing the important values they fight for, rather than define them by the important values we feel they fight against.
Abortion might be the most consistently divisive political issue of my lifetime, and the one in which combatants are most comfortable demonizing opponents. Anti-abortion activists fight to keep fetuses from dying. That’s a cause that has clear value to most, as the generally heartbroken response to miscarriages attests. But opponents portray anti-abortion activists not as crusading for unborn children, but as crusading against a woman’s right to care for her health and define her own path.
On the other side, pro-choice activists who prioritize safeguarding the rights and health of women are portrayed as favoring the killing of fetuses.
Abortion-rights activists don’t hate fetuses. Anti-abortion activists don’t want women endangered or burdened by birth and rearing. Arguments framed as if they do are destructive and dishonest.
Immigration is another sizzling controversy in the United States in which we define ourselves in terms of what we love and our opponents in terms of what we claim they hate. But both sides have legitimate, loving purposes behind their convictions. Those who advocate for immigrants who are here illegally, are fighting to better the lives of these immigrants. They mostly don’t oppose the rule of law or the security of the border. They don’t support MS-13 and other violent gangs. And they aren’t part of some ploy to enroll more Democratic voters. They just want for these immigrants the better life the United States can provide, regardless of how they got here.
On the other side, those who oppose a path to citizenship for people who came illegally to the United States are often painted as racist or xenophobic. But fighting to keep your school district from being so overrun by children here illegally that it cannot educate your own children is not racist. Fighting to disincentivize illegal immigration via tight border security because your community is impacted by gangs or your living is impacted by cheap illegal labor is not racist.
One side is fighting for the future of immigrants facing terrible obstacles. The other is fighting for safe, stable communities and the law. Far fewer are purposely fighting against anything or anyone.
Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, featuring the most hardened opinions, fits this pattern. To themselves, most American Jews and non-Jews alike who support Israel are pro-Israel, not anti-Palestinian. They fight for the safety and future of an imperiled people. To themselves, most Americans who support the Palestinians are not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. They are pro-Palestinian, fighting for a group they feel is marginalized and abused.
The best reason to view those who disagree with us as if they had the best intentions is because they mostly do. There are those who hate, but they are not many, and they won’t win out.
What will win out are the compromises we craft when we come to see that the vast majority of our opponents are as kind and loving as we are.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.