A key to ending the culture wars: Respect.

The difference between respecting others and enabling one’s adversaries seems a thin line. But respect is an essential agent of progress and healing.

Courtesy of Political Blind Date
The Canadian program “Political Blind Date,” seen here during filming in New York, offers interesting insights into the power of respect.

Today, respect can sound old-fashioned, even naive. At a time when opposing forces are fraying the fabric of the United States, the difference between respecting others and enabling one’s adversaries seems a thin line. What’s more, respect can be a means of repression – a tool used to defend the status quo. Activists of the civil rights era were often accused of lacking respect.

But a recent series of articles from The Christian Science Monitor takes a decidedly different view. In fact, the articles in our Respect Project argue the opposite: In its highest and deepest meanings, respect is an essential agent of progress and healing. Why?

A recent interview in Politico offers some insight. In 1991, political scientist James Davison Hunter wrote the book “Culture Wars,” lamenting how politics was being taken over by cultural issues on which compromise was impossible. Back then, it was abortion. Today, he told Politico, “part of our problem is that we have politicized everything.”

As a result, “the very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal,” he said. “How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence? … You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.” 

Much has been said about the threats to American democracy, but for Professor Hunter, this expansion of the culture wars is one of the deepest drivers. “Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences,” he said. “And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides.”

What is the way out? 

He said: “Well, I’m going to sound really old-fashioned here, but I think that this work takes a long time and it’s hard. I think you talk through the conflicts. Don’t ignore them; don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And whatever you do, don’t just simply impose your view on anyone else. You have to talk them through.” 

That is what our Respect Project is about. How do you do the long, hard work of talking through conflict to find the common purpose that is essential to democracy? Our aim was to draw from the deepest conflicts in society – the culture wars – on race, politics, sexual identity, and religious freedom. Our stories explore how a commitment to respect – essentially, to the humanity of one another – can change lives and open doorways previously unseen.  

This, Professor Hunter argues, is the “whole point of civil society.” It is to provide the mediation that prevents violence. The Constitution provides the framework for the American experiment, but it depends on its citizens to do the work.

“What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century?” Professor Hunter asked. “That’s the big puzzle.” The answer is the same as it has always been. What do we share in common? That, Professor Hunter says, is the way to find “the sources we can draw upon to come together and find any kind of solidarity.” 

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.