Five days before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April of 1865 and ten days before his own assassination, Abraham Lincoln considered a request by the Virginia State Legislature to assemble for the first time since Union troops had occupied her capital in Richmond three days earlier. Though his cabinet was in violent opposition to the notion of an occupied enemy legislature assembling, Lincoln believed it was necessary. He noted “there must be courts, and law, and order or society would be broken up, the disbanded armies would turn into robber bands and guerillas.” He believed that the best course was to allow, “the prominent and influential men of their respective counties…come together and undo their own work.” After four years of war and over a half a million people killed, America was in need of healing, not punishment. And in order to get there, he needed the leaders of the South to lead their people through it. In April of 1865, the singular political question of consequence in America was how to deal with the reunification and reconstruction of the 11 states that seceded from the Union four years earlier. Lincoln, as usual was thinking about the problem in three dimensions.
Three Dimensional Thinking
Lincoln was a man of deep principle. He formed his policies on the belief that a nation founded on the ideals of liberty and equality was equal parts worth preserving and incompatible with the institution of slavery. His willingness to hold to that principle at great cost is likely his most significant contribution to the preservation of our Union as it exists today. But what made Lincoln so special was that he didn’t stop with principle. He had the compassion to consider all that the Southern people had been through and the pragmatism include even the chief architects of their secession in the solution to their ills. Like an object needs length, width and depth to be an object, political ideas need principle, compassion and pragmatism to work. And by work we mean make people’s lives sustainably better. Our great leaders, the one’s that have built and sustained our society, think in three dimensions when others do not.
Less Than Three Dimensions
Principles are dangerous things without compassion. Believing that your role as a government is to create the greatest nation on earth is a fine principle. But if you decide to exterminate members of your society that you believe are holding you back from that goal and conquer and subjugate your neighbors to prove it, you’ve got Nazi Germany. It’s an extreme case, I know, but one that effectively shows what happens when principle is devoid of compassion. Principle tempered by compassion is a truly powerful thing. But it’s still not enough.
For a policy, movement or activity to be effective, it actually has to be possible. Let’s explore an example. If you have a principle that says that Americans have a God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and temper that principle with the compassion to include those whose basic medical needs cannot be met by their own employment or economic circumstances, you may come to the belief that healthcare reform is required. But if you decide that you want to do that through a single payer system where the government pays for all of it without raising taxes, you don’t really have a policy. You’ve got something else. Thankfully, we didn’t decide to do that. Contrary to popular belief, the Affordable Care Act is not socialized medicine. It is, however, based on the same principles and compassion that would lead you in that direction. It diverges from it though with the critical pragmatism of privately provided health insurance. The Affordable Care Act is actually three dimensional. Much of its criticism is not. Which is why it actually appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do. Get more people health insurance at a reasonable cost to our society.
The Two Dimensional Era
So what’s happening today? We appear to be stuck in a two dimensional loop. We either stop once we’ve devised a principle and try to form an opinion based solely on that, or we do something equally ineffective. We cry out in compassionate outrage against the unfair suffering of others independent of principle. Which has created a binary ongoing discussion that never actually gets completed with the pragmatism that is required to fix anything. But it does get lots of attention and passion. So it continues.
Let’s look at the Black Lives Matter –v- All Lives Matter debate (the silliness of how that actually looks in print is not lost on me). We either have an almost mature formation of a movement if we do it three dimensionally, or an unhelpful toxic unformed argument that will yield nothing but division if we don’t. In three dimensions we’re leading with the principles that no one is excluded from the protection or enforcement of an effective criminal justice system, including those we depend on to enforce it. That principle is informed by the compassion that we feel towards those who are subjected to the violent reality of life in our urban poor areas, again, including those with the impossible task of policing them. And finally, we start to talk pragmatically about what to do about the root cause of the issue, which is a massive segregated divide between our urban minority neighborhoods and the rest of America. So in three dimensions, we are circling in on a mature, potentially successful discussion on how to address the issue. But we’re not doing that. Like most of our debates today, we’re doing something else.
Right now our society is broadly locked in the death grip of arguing principle versus compassion, which is like engaging in an argument over whether a car is fast or blue. Neither side is wrong. They’re just arguing incomplete thoughts. Which is actually impossible. Just because it’s not possible, doesn’t mean we won’t try to do it every chance we get though. We’ve got a two dimensional, $280 billion dollar media market getting fat on the industry of conflict and outrage and our political discussions have been infected by it. But that doesn’t mean you have to. And it’s really not that hard to keep yourself three dimensional, even when all around you are flat. It takes a little introspection though. Turning to memes, tweets and soundbites won’t get you where you need to go. They’re one dimensional at best. So instead, next time you’ve gotten yourself worked up about a societal problem, ask yourself a few questions. What principle of yours does this societal problem upset? Second, how does this societal problem impact the people it involves; all the people, not just the ones exactly like you. Lastly, ask yourself what you’d have to do to fix the problem. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, you may need to ask yourself if you’re really interested in fixing the problem or if you’ve become addicted to the glorious outrage of its existence. Which is another problem all together. One for another time.