Unity is not about agreement, but a common purpose

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jan 28, 2021

I was among those who were thrilled with President Joe Biden's inaugural call to unity, and by his saying that he would fight as hard on behalf of people who did not vote for him as for those who did. It was great to see former Presidents Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush sitting together.

"Unity" does not mean lockstep agreement. It does not mean glossing over real differences on matters of policy or pretending that where we are situated culturally and economically does not affect us in myriad ways, including our point of view. Biden was not calling for a "Kumbayah" moment of false comity.

He was calling for people — politicians and the rest of us — to come together behind traditional American ideals of equality under the law, an economic system in which most people can improve their lot through work and saving, preservation of our natural heritage, welcoming new citizens to contribute to our country and caring for those in need. He was not asking us to agree on everything, but not to let disagreement be synonymous with disrespect. He asserted, and I agree, that we must determine to work with each other, hashing out disagreements as necessary, to create a better society for all of us.

Because, as the coronavirus pandemic has illustrated to devastating effect, we really are all connected, dependent on each other. Each of us is enmeshed in the ultimate fate of all of us. Ben Franklin's remark about hanging separately if we don't hang together comes to mind.

We must stop "unfriending" each other on Facebook and assuming we know everything about someone based on their political choices. It's human nature to prefer those we perceive as like us over those who seem different. But we need to find ways to talk to, and, more importantly, to listen to, those we think of as being on the other side.

I remember a button worn by a priest I used to know. It had the word "Them" on it with a red line slashing diagonally through it. It took me just a moment to realize what the button was saying, and then I laughed with appreciation. "No 'them.'" That's right. In truth, "them" is an illusion, a construct created by those who would win our support cheaply, and abetted by the primitive, self-defensive part of our psyche.

There is no "them." Make the tent bigger, so it accommodates Republicrats and Democans, Greens, Purples and Blues. Draw the circle wider. Don't be afraid to have your views challenged, your mind changed. And don't be afraid of respectful disagreement. But keep the larger goal, the common welfare, always in sight.

There is much that reasonable people of various political persuasions — and I believe there are many millions of them in our country — can agree on, if they will. Lots can be accomplished if we're willing to assume each other's good faith. And now is a time for all who want to stop bickering and address the serious issues facing the nation to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

As they do so, they would do well to remember the real enemy identified by the brilliant science fiction writer Isaac Asimov when he said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" We'll get nowhere if we can't agree on a basic set of common facts.

"Unity" is more about having a common purpose larger than ourselves — the forming of a more perfect union, or, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the creation of a "beloved community" — than about seeing eye to eye all the time. It is about putting loyalty to our community and our country above partisanship or grievance or personal advantage.

Sarah E. Reynolds is the editor of The Republican Journal.

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