Recently the annual federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday was celebrated. In addition to providing due recognition to the African-American community and an exceptional American hero, it was a much-appreciated opportunity for a day off from work. While I very much enjoy my job, it is nice to have an extended weekend now and again.
The civil rights leader is quoted extensively around this time. The other day I came across a political cartoon showing the memorial in his honor in Washington, DC. There was a quote to the effect that darkness is not overcome by more darkness but by light. That hate is not overcome by more hate. The quote struck home.
Around 1859 Charles Darwin published the “Origin of the Species” in which he presented his theory of evolution and described the survival of the fittest as the basic engine of biological evolution. The basic understanding that most people had at the time was that survival of the fittest referred to the fittest individuals, who by tooth and claw, beat their rivals in the competition to survive and reproduce. This understanding resonated with the European culture of the period, which was engaged in constant warfare to determine who the most powerful nation was, as well as to justify their exploitation of non-European people throughout their colonies.
While evolution has been accepted as the best available explanation of the development of species by most scholars, the nature of the engine that drives evolution has changed. Evolution is seen as driven by adaptation to a environmental niche. A characteristic that is advantageous in one environmental niche may not be so advantageous in another niche. So that characteristic will develop in one environmental niche and not in another. Further, cooperation is often the key to survival, rather than the tooth and claw savagery that was so popular when Darwin first spoke of his theory.
I mention Darwin because two different approaches to contemporary politics and civic debate seem to be at work today. One approach is based on the “tooth and claw” understanding of evolution. Politics is seen as a zero-sum game in which the players savage the opponent with little concern for who is harmed in the process. Focus is on short term victories. The other approach tends to value cooperation. Players from this perspective value compromise to build alliances and work toward long term goals. These different approaches are found on both sides of the political spectrum, so I’m not arguing that this reflects a Republican or Democrat take on politics.
The emphasis among many on the value of conflict and the tendency to label as enemy any one who has a different opinion than ours, generates negativity. There is a great deal of name calling and fault finding. Watching the evening news is a shower of negativity, as are the incessant tweets from everyone from the President to the local news commentator. Those who seem to fare best in this storm of negativity are the most vitriolic.
Being exposed to this negativity day in and day out makes it easy to respond in kind. I watch the news and mumble about the president, or the other politicians involved in the latest scandal, name calling session, insulting tweet. My stomach gets tied in a knot and my blood pressures rises as I listen. Pretty soon I’m no better off than the politicians or commentators who are hurling the insults and generating the negativity. I have been caught up in the darkness and generating more darkness in kind.
The challenge is how to respond with light instead of more darkness. It begins with acknowledging that I have been caught up in the darkness and need to change. Acknowledging my situation makes it possible for me to change because I recognize the need to change.
A second step might be to acknowledge that others may have a different opinion on the issues being debated than I have. A difference of opinion doesn’t make us enemies but challenges us to better understand one another and sort through our differences so that we can find some common ground. What is it that causes us to have different opinions? How did those differences emerge? In other words, in order to overcome the negativity, there needs to be dialog that leads to a better understanding of our perspectives and an honest attempt to find common ground.
An initial reaction might be that the other guys aren’t interested in dialog. That might be a valid evaluation of the others and we can’t control their perspective on the issues or their willingness to honestly dialog. However, we can control ourselves and our willingness to enter dialog. We can control our commitment to be the light in the midst of darkness. This is at least a beginning of replacing the negativity with a positive approach.