Can we treat one another better: as fellow citizens?

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, November 30, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — A friend once took me to see her newly built home in the Tennessee mountains near Sewanee. We drove up, and she opened the door and walked right in. No key discreetly hidden under the doormat, nothing. Just an unlocked front door.

When I remarked about it, she told me, "We have a saying around here: Why lock your door? A neighbor might need something."

I thought: What a wonderful way to live! And, a split second later, how dangerous! All it would take is one neighbor with a bad attitude for everybody else to get ripped off—or worse. It would be nice to live among such trusting and trustworthy people, I told myself, but let’s get real.

I think we are always engaged in a battle between optimism and cynicism — between the desire to help create the sort of community (or world) we’d like to live in, and the fear of being played for a fool.

Cynicism is winning. The victory manifests itself in ways that include not only locked doors but also locked minds and locked hearts. Name virtually any public controversy, from welfare to abortion to ballot-counting in Florida, and instead of lending even a modicum of support to a neighbor’s argument, we lock up.

We might be tempted — either as a government or as individuals — to be generous to poor and needy people. But it takes only a few stories of "welfare queens" or legless beggars who have salted away scores of thousands of dollars to make us lock up.

We are fully capable of seeing at least two sides of most arguments. We can see the logic of following the law as the best way to resolve Florida’s vote-counting fiasco, and we can also see the appeal of making as sure as we can that voters have their opinions registered.

But we won’t let ourselves acknowledge that the other side has a point, fearing that such a show of weakness will be used against us. We lock up.

Anyone could agree that it’s a good thing for parents to have more educational choices for their children. But some of us, fearing that every choice proposal is an attack on us and our political allies, pretend to see no value in expanding those choices. We whip out studies proving that their studies are misleading or based on incomplete data. They produce studies proving that our studies are wrong.

Why should we admit that the other side has a point when we are dead certain they’ll make no such admission in return?

The danger, as any lawyer will tell you, is real. But there is another danger I believe to be far more serious: The danger that we will never discover how trivial the differences between us can sometimes be, that we will fail to move from our locked-door positions toward the common ground that can transform warring factions into fellow citizens.

Even this incredible mess of an election we are still trying to sort out is, at bottom, over fairly minor differences. Neither candidate was anywhere near either the socialist or the libertarian extreme. There just wasn’t that much difference between them — which may be why half the American people voted for one and half for the other.

But the prediction is routinely made that the eventual winner and his party will have great difficulty running the government because the election was so close.

The assumption is that the winners, no matter the slimness of the victory, will lock their doors against the losers (who will be accused of trying to take by negotiation what they failed to win at the polls), which means that the losers must refuse to cooperate with the winners (whose real agenda, it will be assumed, will be to increase and solidify their advantage).

The assumption, in short, is that all of us will yield to our cynical side. And as long as that is the assumption, it will probably be the fact. Each side will be cynical — will almost have to be cynical — so long as the other side operates on the expectation of cynicism.

Are we locked in this futile and dangerous routine? I’m looking, as I often do, at the framed quotation from Goethe on my office wall:

"If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and what he could be."

Will we — can we — learn to treat people as they ought to be, and respond in kind when they treat us as we ought to be?

Or is this an attitude that can exist only on pristine Tennessee mountaintops?

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