Finding common ground



  • Ledger photo by JJ Francais Black Lives Matter protestor

Growing up in the sixties, I remember wondering if the country could possibly survive the violence and the suffering. An unpopular war, with its plenitude of casualties added to the angst. Watching the nightly news, with its body counts, frightened children and made adults wonder if better days were possible. The Cold War loomed always in the background. The threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over our heads. Classroom exercises where children hid under their desks to train for an imminent nuclear attack seemed pointless even to the children.

Following this turbulent period, it seemed that much changed for the better. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 encouraged young people to believe that we were getting on the right track. Focus on civil liberties and a level playing field seemed to bode well for the future of our country. The Vietnam War would eventually end, and finally, the Berlin Wall came down. Treaties were signed and it seemed that the world was finally on its way to a more enlightened state. However, recent events echo the past. Racism, riots and posturing, peer competitors are old news revisited.

More than two thousand years ago, Thucydides, in the earliest depiction of a democracy said, “Human nature being what it is,” I have written “a possession for all time.” At first reading, I found his comment arrogant and condescending. Could it be that human nature had not changed? Could it be that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over? By the end of his book and his description of the Athenian democracy, I was struck by the similarities. Human nature had not changed. Human nature is still our biggest obstacle to progress. People want to be right. We want to impose our will upon others. Where ego is concerned, it is a zero sum game.

Given the human condition, what might be a reasonable way ahead? I would proffer that we should start with the things we agree upon. I am pleased to see that no one defends the treatment of George Floyd. This is a positive change from the ’60s. And, if we all agree that everyone should be treated fairly, then how do we get to this state quickly? 

Certainly, reform is needed in police training and policy. Engagement programs where the police interact with the community – positive projects – create commonality, and remind people of the humanity of their neighbors. Whenever possible, we need to engage on a spiritual level. True empathy goes a long way.

Criminals must be prosecuted, but not the masses. We must apportion justice in a way that allows communities, and indeed a country, to learn and grow. Human nature is not going to change quickly. There is no evidence that it can. We will continue to need police officers. How- ever, the police must cherish the people they defend; and, the people they defend must appreciate their service.

I have often wondered; do basic human respect and empathy contravene human nature? If so, legal structures must guide us on the right path. There is an old saying, you can either think your way to a new way of acting, or you can act your way to a new way of thinking. We must attempt both approaches at the same time.

Identity politics seems to add to the conundrum. The more strongly individuals identify with their social/political group – race, sex, origin, age and political party – the harder it is to accept and respect others. America is amazingly diverse. Identity politics separates. It does not unite. Human nature being what it is, when frightened, or offended, individuals retreat into their identity group at the expense of understanding.

The founders of our country understood the weakness of human nature. The checks and balances in our constitution demonstrate their lack of confidence in the good will of humankind. The constitution that soldiers pledge to support and defend protects all Americans. That must be true. If not, generations of Americans, of all descriptions, have shed their blood in vain.

Let’s find the common ground and go to work to build positively upon it. We live in the Bible Belt. Surely, we can agree to treat others as we would like to be treated. We are a military community, filled with Soldiers, both active and retired, who have experienced shared commitment to our constitution and to our country. Surely, we can accept our differences and build upon our strengths. We do not have to become each other. But, we must learn to care for each other. If we fail to share empathy and search for the common ground, we will suffer the mistakes of the past without hope of a better future. We are just one community, but we can set an example for other communities to follow.

Nate Slate is a retired Soldier and community volunteer.