Our history of humility

The greatness of America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, lies "in her ability to repair her faults." In the face of crisis we band together, we compromise, we overcome.

These days, not so much. We have suffered through years of partisan bickering at all levels of government. But it is not the bickering that offends. It is the paralysis that results. Significant policy challenges remain unsolved and, at times, even unaddressed. That is the troublesome part. While political conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not.

Perhaps we should be a little less certain of how right we are and consider a healthy dose of humility.

You remember humility. It is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. Perhaps even more important, it is courage to compromise when appropriate.

Humility should not be confused with weakness or absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually quite clear; they just don't blind one to believe in their own perfect knowledge.

Too often, acknowledging a contrary opinion has become unacceptable. To settle, to negotiate, to compromise is seen as weakness. We've forgotten that compromise "is the essence of the democratic process," says Princeton historian Barbara B. Oberg, editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

We enjoy a unique legacy of humility in this country which most Americans have forgotten.

• The humility expressed by the 84-year-old Benjamin Franklin as he moved adoption of the U.S. Constitution, "I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: … the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. … I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me … doubt a little of his own infallibility and … put his name to this instrument."

• The humility shown by George Washington when he peacefully relinquished his command after the Revolution and later when he voluntarily stepped down as president after two terms. The latter decision prompted King George III to comment that in doing so, Washington was "the greatest man in the world."

• The humility shown by Lincoln as he appointed his chief political rivals to the Cabinet because he needed their experience to run the country. It was also clear when Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, not boasting of the bloody victory over the Confederacy, as would be expected, but poetically asking for peace and healing, "with malice toward none; with charity for all."

Humility is the key that opens the door to purposeful dialogue. But we have lost dialogue to debate. We know so much, we are so sure of our opinions that we do not listen anymore. We rush in to tell our truths about the way things are and must be, not allowing there might be other truths and possibilities. We talk over each other, with not even a gap for politeness, much less for silence and consideration and that "doubting of your own infallibility."

It reminds me of playing sandlot baseball as a kid. We would argue up to the point of the kid who owned the ball taking it and going home in a huff. Americans are losing the perspective necessary to know when the dispute has gone too far. We risk permanent paralysis by failing to even try to understand a different life experience or a contrary opinion, or to consider compromise.

No amount of persuasion will change another's moral foundations. Rather, we should seek enough common ground to advance our deliberative democracy. This requires a commitment to communicate across the great divides of our time; the divides of partisanship, of race and culture, of age and gender, of wealth and poverty, of liberalism and conservatism, of knowledge and ignorance. Most important, it requires a return to humility.

Steven M. Seibert is a former state agency head and served as a Pinellas County commissioner (1992-1999). He is a mediator, lawyer and policy adviser.

Our history of humility 12/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 4, 2011 3:30am]

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