These clans of African tribesmen, managing the sometimes tenuous relationships between clans, solved their civility problem by marrying into the other clan. This sociological pattern stabilized their society so that the normal conflicts involved in life – whether it’s life in Philly or in sub-Saharan Africa – didn’t escalate to unmanageable levels. With these marriages, people were then connected to each other in multiple ways. You might have a bone to pick with “them” because of tribal identity (maybe literally “a bone,” in tribal Africa) but since “they” were also your in-laws, there was only so far you were ever going to push the disagreement.
This edifying story comes to us via Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” that describes the need for us to have “cross-cutting” relationships with each other. (This book is required reading and John Marks is most notably NOT exempt.) A healthy society has relationships where you change who is your “friend” and who is your “enemy” inside of different contexts. My husband might be my friend in most every way, but he is also my enemy when we root against each other’s alma mater in football or, in my parents’ case, when they reported dutifully every election day to cancel each others vote out.
Back in the day, mom and dad would nearly always joke about it as they both wheeled out of the driveway in the midst of their crazy-busy lives to cast their precious vote that meant exactly ZERO given their difference of opinion. (You’ve got to love this concept of democracy that makes otherwise sane people do such an insane thing in service of high principle when they could have just sat back in marital-collusion and had a glass of wine instead.)
Crosscutting connection is the same wisdom practiced by feuding European nations looking to make peace by offering up a son or daughter to an arranged marriage. Of course we know in hindsight it didn’t always work, but that’s a story for another day (and The Village Square gives them an “A” for effort).
Problem is, crosscutting relationships are so – well – yesterday. As we discussed last week, everything is trending in the direction that we find ourselves in groups of increasingly like-minded people. When the same “enemy” is always on the “other side,” the relationship is no longer crosscutting and doesn’t stabilize anything. Fact is, when relationships don’t cross- cut, given the distinctly imperfect nature of human beings, relationships can be pretty much incendiary. You get consistently and increasingly angry with the same people (ergo, fistfights and swastikas at town halls).
We live in a time when we look at Mary Matalin and James Carville and think that there is simply no explanation but that it is a loveless business-relationship-slash-publicity-stunt to get them booked on Meet the Press. (While I’m using them as a rhetorical tool here, you still can’t convince me they like each other in the slightest and the stunt has certainly worked on the MTP front.)
Bishop writes: “One of the tenets of democratic faith has been that direct, face-to-face contact between groups on different sides of an issue defines a self-governing people.” Perhaps if we agree on nothing else, we agree that we’re not doing so well on self-governing by this measure – unless “face-to-face” includes flinging Hitler posters to and fro.
So what can we make of this entrenched overwhelming division currently on America’s plate? Despite the complexity of the problem, the solution – potentially – is as simple as a few dinners out (at the “potato salad school of diplomacy”).
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square in Tallahassee. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org