The Ongoing American Experiment

Can humans live as trustworthy ideological rivals in peaceful co-resistance? 

Every generation of Americans has to discover for themselves whether or not they want to live peacefully with bothersome neighbors that call their cherished convictions (and often their good will and sanity to boot) into question. The American social order is a continual, risky experiment to see if diverse people can thrive together even though they disagree about the basis for that order, their moral values and the very purpose for life.

Trusted rivals?... Lifelong friends?... Both?

The land of the free was not based on the notion that humans can achieve a unity of conviction. It was founded on the continuity of factionalism. It is a giant ideological dojo where the contestants of conscience trust each other to fight fairly without threat of violence. When enough of us begin to think that the ongoing contest is rigged in favor of one group, then the fundamental trust that allows rivals to be honorable is dangerously threatened—and with that the great American experiment hangs in the balance.

If opponents do not extend each other the same privileges in the ring, no serious victory over the mind and heart is possible. This destroys the noble character we attribute to each other as co-citizens in our social order. Worse than drugged athletes or rigged markets, sham contests over our deepest values result not only in mutual resentment but in eviscerating self-doubt, if not self-contempt, all hidden beneath self-deceiving self-righteousness.

Without trust between critics and rivals, we cannot be real with each other and nothing holds for long after that.

Conflicts over the highest good are difficult. Each generation must learn that sincere advocacy of the superiority of one’s truth is authentic expression, (usually) not a sign of arrogance. The moment that tests the American experiment occurs not during the pledge of allegiance, nor even when citizens are called to give their lives to defend their country—these patriotic acts are common to all nations. Here citizens discover that they make the American grade only when facing a threatening ideological challenge from a fellow citizen of a contrary conviction. This challenging ideological territory once led to a horribly bloody civil war when trust broke down completely. Americans normally, however, do not presume that those who call their deepest truths into question are their mortal enemies. They trust that their ideological adversaries are not necessarily idiots, dupes or devils—instead, they presume them to be intelligent people of good will that are frustratingly stubborn in the face of our obviously better way of seeing things!

This fundamental trust encourages adamant ideological rivals to patiently attempt to persuade -- not coerce -- each other to see the higher way. So except in cases that disturb the civil peace, Americans learn to openly challenge each other in continual persuasion contests aimed at the human conscience. Convinced that the conscience cannot be coerced, we have learned how to fight over the truth without trying to impose convictions by force of law or threat of punishment. Since humans will never likely agree on the answers to fundamental questions, societies need to find a way to perpetually contest the truth within a normal social framework that debars the use of coercion of conscience.

Value creation—the focus of human interest that places one thing above another—derives from the perennial desire to experience the superlative—in any field.  Perhaps the deepest human value creation occurs in the creative freedom to act--and persuade others to act--for a purpose that is higher than all others.  The contest between different views of 'the highest' intrigues and motivates us. We love ultimate crownings like take place when our love says yes to marriage or we observe winners of the Super Bowl or the Nobel Prizes or the art contest that draws millions to the Louvre.  It is through engaging rivalries for the superlative that we sense human striving is intrinsically valuable--not for power but for the beauty of it.

For many of us the most intriguing contest is over the superlative of superlatives--who or what is the Most High or Only God. This is a contest over the highest value creation because it determines religious or ideological ideas that order everything else.  It is also the most profound cultural force for direction and change. It not a theoretical sport to be lightly engaged.

Once enlightened or saved, people have often felt the responsibility to influence the hearts and minds of others to see and follow the highest light. Thus, humans normally try to influence their immediate family and friends, then the broader community, and finally the entire world to ‘see the light.’ When there is no trust or honor between contestants, horrible, often violent conflict results, as we see in the wars either caused or worsened by ideology and religion. The problem is not in the contest but in the lack of trust between rivals and the coercive attempt to destroy, not honestly persuade, the opposition.

Americans have to continue to learn to be at their best—to engage ideological rivalry in an attitude that reflects a social spiritual ‘tough love.’ Americans have too often been bigoted bullies, willing to forcefully eliminate their critics and rivals rather than try to convert by persuasion. But if we see that the contest is natural and perpetual we will be less inclined to lose patience with each other’s freedom to resist.

Although America cannot impose on others the trust we develop among ourselves, we can inspire others to try to emulate it. We have missed the mark about this in recent years—thinking that the rest of world only needs our form of democracy or modified capitalism to thrive. No — within their cultures they need to courageously dare to experiment with patient persuasive engagement between ideological contestants. Experimenting with trustworthy contestation and collaboration will be the next great step in social evolution. Expect lively peace between trustworthy, bothersome rivals of conscience. The alternative, sadly, is the vulgar devastation of war.

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