Seeking Common Ground in the Wake of COVID-19
By Julie Hanlon Rubio
Professor of Christian Social Ethics
Jesuit School of Theology
In the face of a global pandemic, we see more clearly than ever that human beings are inescapably interconnected. Our lives depend not just on our own choices but on the choices of loved ones, neighbors, and strangers. To stay healthy, reopen society, and survive COVID-19, we need to find common ground. But common ground has never seemed more elusive.
Novelist Tayari Jones wrote a piece for Time.com in fall 2019 that captured a lot of the frustration around efforts to find a way past worsening polarization in the U.S. In “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”1 Jones wonders, “where was the middle” on slavery, Japanese internment camps, and apartheid in South Africa. She questions the idea that we can overcome our differences by “meeting in the middle,” worries about the “false equivalencies” of “good people on both sides,” and asserts that our biggest problem is not a lack of civility but harms inflicted on vulnerable people by those in power.
“Compromise,” she writes, “is not valuable in its own right, and justice seldom dwells in the middle.”
Today, we might add, there is no room for compromise when lives are at stake. We know the right thing to do. And some people just aren’t doing it.
In Response to COVID-19
As a scholar who writes about finding common ground on contested ethical and theological issues, a professor who seeks to equip students to participate in civil dialogue across lines of division, and a person concerned about the lives of those on the front lines, I take Jones’ critique very seriously. It is a critique I often hear when speaking about my work at universities, churches, and academic conferences. I hear it from people on the left and the right. Critics on both sides argue that focusing on common ground takes energy away from their causes and constitutes a betrayal of their deepest commitments. “Bothsidesism” is ridiculed as an attribute of those whose privilege blinds them to the necessity of pushing for justice.
In Northern California, we have been under a shelter-in-place order since March 17, and have only recently begun to relax some of the most stringent rules in the nation. The importance of getting people to do the right thing has never been more urgent. A vaccine is far off and the economy has sustained enormous losses that will take years from which to recover. Rigorous social distancing has slowed the growth of the virus, but as states begin to reopen, people are growing tired of the quarantine and venturing out more. As of mid-May, Congress had approved two stimulus packages, but for many of those who have lost their jobs or closed their small businesses, that is not enough. Migrants living in crowded housing units, incarcerated people, and the elderly in nursing homes are particularly vulnerable to the fast-spreading virus. People of color are more likely to suffer economically, get sick, and die from the virus. The supply of tests and necessary medical equipment has increased, but health care workers continue to get sick, and we still do not have the respirators and ventilators we need. The urgency of the situation seems to demand the virtue of uncompromising courage rather than a humility that seeks understanding.
Even now, especially now, I remain convinced of the value of common ground work. But I have to agree with Jones: Compromise is not inherently valuable. “Meeting in the middle” makes no sense at all when it comes to things my own Catholic tradition condemns as “intrinsic evils”: slavery, genocide, torture, subhuman living conditions, and forced deportation. There are times when the only just response is righteous anger, when protest is obligatory and withdrawal from dialogue with those on the other side is necessary.
Yet I am reluctant to declare that those with whom I disagree (on issues such as war, capital punishment, immigration, and responding to COVID- 19) are bad people, plain and simple, undeserving of tolerance or mercy, and incapable of change. Most political issues tend to be far more complicated than the evils to which Jones rightly points. I am struck by how often, in talking with friends and colleagues of different views, or reading an opposing take, I learn something that complicates my views.
At their best, calls for common ground do not suggest “meeting in the middle.” In my own work, I often ask people to consider bracketing policy debates on contentious issues and moving to what I call “the space between,” where common ground is usually easier to see and extend. If we can’t agree on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, can we work together in our communities to provide potential workers with the training, childcare, and transportation they need? If we remain miles apart on Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, can we nonetheless work to provide better prevention of sexual abuse and support for victims of sexual violence in our churches and schools? If the legality of physician-assisted suicide or death is endlessly divisive, perhaps our community organizations could come together around better conversations about end-of-life decisions and better care for vulnerable elders.
When it comes to COVID-19, we have to find ways to talk to people who aren’t taking social distancing guidelines seriously. We have to help each other see our connectedness and take on sacrifice for the sake of the most vulnerable and the common good. Condemning people with whom we disagree doesn’t help. What ethicists call the duty of solidarity now requires not just our own commitment to do the right thing but our patient and creative efforts to get others to do the same.
Even on policy issues that demand strong stances, it is not always clear whether standing one’s ground and avoiding conversation with opponents is the best path to the desired end. On immigration, for instance, recent polls suggest that Catholics remain divided along party lines, despite years of clear Catholic teaching, persistent prophetic speech, protests, and social media campaigns. Repetition of the teaching is not moving hearts. Could listening to those who identify border security and jobs as major concerns be viewed as a pragmatic way to make progress rather than wasted time? Could listening to the stories of recent migrants be equally helpful? Mightmutual listening create opportunities for creativity in policymaking that now seem to elude us?
Dialogue skeptics might consider movement on contested issues including same-sex marriage and climate change. Polls just 15 years ago showed nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed marriage equality, while just one-third supported it. Though discrimination and opposition remain, today those numbers are flipped. Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in the reality of climate change, and a majority sees human action as the major cause. Through conversation, personal experience, education, and public media campaigns, minds changed in relatively short windows of time. By listening to people’s concerns, climate change activists today are figuring out how to connect with a broader base and bring others around slowly rather than alienating those they need on their side.
In the Classroom
In my teaching, I make a commitment to deliberately cultivate space for conversation between students with different views. This means assigning diverse readings, naming intellectual humility and solidarity as virtues, and providing language for respectful, honest engagement across lines of difference. More often than not, students come to appreciate their peers despite their differences, and they are able to find ways of thinking about ethical issues that transcend typical right-left binaries.
For instance, when approaching a contested issue in sexual ethics, I might put students in small groups with diverse views, and ask them to speak about why a classmate with whom they disagree found a particular author compelling. This exercise helps them focus on listening to each other and getting their classmate’s argument right, rather than lining up their own points. It also takes me out of the position of defending a particular view. Instead, I am giving them the best possible readings on each side and coaching them as they attempt to articulate views they often find incomprehensible. Though I eventually allow students to articulate their “real” positions and affirm the readings they find most compelling, the time spent making space for each other allows for a higher level of mutual understanding.
Through exercises like these, I try to establish not that common ground is valuable for its own sake, but that finding humanity in people with whom we disagree is crucial. Just as important, I want my students to leave the classroom with a deeper sense that most issues are not black and white, and few arguments are without flaws or completely lacking in justification. Encountering diverse perspectives enables students to clarify their positions and see more clearly the values their opponents hold. Then they are better positioned to contribute to creative problem-solving on contested issues.
One might think that promoting common ground would be especially difficult in Berkeley, a city known for its strong, left-leaning political views. This past year, I attended an event on the UC Berkeley campus where barriers to common ground were clear, but even there advocates affirmed the need for understanding. The event, titled The Politics of Truth: A Way Forward, featured Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology, and Thomas Laqueur, professor emeritus of history. From self-consciously liberal perspectives, each attempted to talk about how truth figured in their research. This exercise was uncomfortable, because they associated “truth” language with those on the “other” side.
Since moving to Berkeley in August 2018, I’ve learned it is common to assume out loud that “the other” is conservative and religious. As someone who identifies as a political liberal, I fit part of that expectation. Like many in my newly adopted hometown, I was surprised by the 2016 election, and I learned about people who identify as conservative from the sociological research in Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land2. But as a religious person, I am often the stranger in the room, listening to mostly nonreligious people either dismiss or try to understand people like me for whom capital “T” truth has something to do with God, tradition, and community.
As Hochschild and Laqueur explored the politics of truth, they interviewed each other about their research, probing for points at which they engaged questions of truth. Laqueur pointed out that in Hochschild’s study of Trump supporters, she added an appendix of facts (or small “t” truths). Yet she did not impose these on the text or, more importantly, her subjects. Rather she sought to understand the narratives and values that shaped the lives of her subjects, and found overwhelmingly stories of loss and mourning about this country. Within the contexts of these conservative narratives, certain facts fit, and certain truths emerged. Knowing this, she was able to better understand and connect with people who at first seemed hopelessly foreign.
But, someone asked, what about liberal narratives? How do “we” attach facts to our narratives, sometimes missing the complexity of issues and, more importantly, people? Hochschild acknowledged the obvious: Liberals have narratives and blind spots, too. “We” don’t understand that many people don’t benefit from the social programs and public goods we support, and she noted we don’t see the suffering of the working class because we don’t hang out with those people. Our circles, she confirmed, are more exclusive than theirs.
Perhaps surprisingly, there in the heart of liberal Berkeley was a shared concern about common ground. Laqueur lamented that professors of his generation had spent a lot of time teaching critical analysis, but somehow had given up on the larger narratives or truths that had drawn them into the humanities and social sciences in the first place. And in doing so they had yielded the moral high ground to conservatives whose narratives were now dominating the public square. Liberals couldn’t cede all value and truth language to conservatives. Even more importantly, he said, universities couldn’t give up on conversations about ethics or continue to assume that only one side had anything to contribute. They needed to move beyond gathering in like-minded groups to prove others wrong, beyond trying to understand “the other.” To make progress, they needed more diversity in the room and capacity to talk to each other.
At Jesuit Universities
I am encouraged by the openings to common ground I found at UC Berkeley, but I am convinced that Jesuit universities have unique resources to contribute. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, originally crafted his rules for dialogue to help Jesuits he sent to the Council of Trent in the 16th century, where major Church reforms would be debated. These rules are simple: Listen first and be slow to speak, attribute the best interpretation to your opponent’s words, be humble, don’t be attached to your own position, give the conversation the time it needs.
Centuries later Jesuit universities, like other universities, struggle to mediate all of the differences on their campuses. When I served on the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education, my fellow seminar members and I visited three campuses each year for three years—listening to students, faculty, and staff at each university. The need for dialogue emerged as a common theme on many campuses. Students told us that they wanted to learn to talk to people they disagreed with, even though their experience with friends and family led them to worry about how these conversations would go. Sometimes, they spoke of faculty who were able to hold space for discussing hard topics in the classroom. More often, they were starting groups of their own to address issues they cared about.
Here at Santa Clara University, there are several groups doing common ground work. Students created a forum called Difficult Dialogues to discuss issues of identity and inclusion. Faculty and staff meet monthly for Community Conversations to surface concerns and build bridges. These are great beginnings. As I read more about public efforts like the Civil Conversations Project and the People’s Supper, I realize that even in the midst of great polarization, many people have been figuring out ways to talk to each other. Best practices are emerging from their experiences. My hope is that by drawing on our Jesuit tradition and best practices developed by other groups, students, faculty, and staff at Santa Clara can become skilled practitioners of common ground dialogue.
The world desperately needs people with these skills. There is virtue in seeking common ground. Walking away from those with whom we disagree is sometimes necessary for personal well-being, and we all need safe spaces where we can be affirmed. But we also need challenging spaces where we can bravely and gracefully encounter views that puzzle or infuriate us. We need to build up the capacity to gently confront others whose actions endanger vulnerable members of our community. As we move into the second phase of COVID-19, we will be learning to live together with new rules. Going it alone won’t cut it. Rather, we should work to help each other remember our interconnection and find the common ground we need to thrive.
JULIE HANLON RUBIO, Ph.D., joined the faculty at Jesuit School of Theology in 2018 after nearly two decades teaching at St. Louis University. She writes and teaches about Catholic social thought, family, sexuality, and politics. She is the author of four books, including the award-winning Hope for Common Ground: Mediating the Personal and the Political in a Divided Church (Georgetown University Press, 2016). Her current book project is Catholic and Feminist: Is It Still Possible? (Oxford University Press, 2022).
1 Tayari Jones, “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground,” time.com, TIME USA, October 25, 2018, time.com/5434381/tayari-jones-moral-middle-myth/
2 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2018)