Americans benefit when the best versions of the right and left are vying against one another. Today, Donald Trump leads the worst iteration of the right I have seen in my lifetime, creating a deep fissure in the conservative movement that may never heal. And a deeply flawed iteration of leftism is ascendant at the same time, as I argued in “Why Can’t the Left Win,” quoting seven constructive critics of its pathologies.
Among the most thoughtful responses was a letter from a a South African human-rights lawyer who has spent much of his adult life in the United States. “Many of the issues pursued by the Left are properly described as matters of human rights,” he began. “They seek to end marginalization that is based on arbitrary difference, and instead promote dignity and opportunity based on simple human identity. Those rights are inviolable because they are argued to spring from simple existence.”
He finds much to commend in that approach:
The foundations of human rights struggles - and triumphs - lie in perilous battles. Slavery, Nazism, apartheid and more. Each ethos was entirely incompatible with the basic communal principle of “do no harm.” A struggle against them was necessarily existential. They either had to be eliminated entirely, or suffered completely. A contrary view could neither be accepted nor tolerated. Its proponents had to be ruthlessly destroyed. In the battles listed above, that was the correct approach.
However, he added, “today, in developed democracies, that is no longer the case. There is considerable futility in adopting an ardent, classic human rights struggle for much of what is being sought by the Left. The nature of the struggle has changed. The goal is improving the peace that we have, not winning the war we are waging. The goal is to be able to live in the same street, not claim that street as ours.”
He goes on to expound on that critique:
Too often, the Left of today … retains the mental image of the elimination of an opponent, and of waging war on difference of thought rather than building peace through similarity.
At times, I have litigated against a government to compel them to provide better services for a group of its citizens. A newspaper-worthy court victory will secure that. Sometimes, you need to fight and fight hard. Some violations of human rights are so egregious as to demand it. At other times, a ceaseless and unyielding approach is counter-productive, no matter how personally meaningful and glorifying it might feel to look like a valiant jousting knight of old. Victories in human rights can often be pyrrhic. Outside of the narrow point of contention, the government and those citizens will still have to cooperate for the rest of their lives. The relationship is strained by the fight. It is often irretrievably broken down. Winning for one side then turns into a loss for both sides.
A great deal of successful human rights work stems from taking a different approach. Treating a human rights problem as being akin to a corporate law issue can work wonders. Corporate matters can be dirty and nasty, but they are rarely existential. Nothing in corporate law is worth dying for. Consequently, negotiation, compromise, and settlement can be your realistic avenues. Many business relationships have to persist despite disputes between the parties. The commercial validity of companies may depend on the continued relationship. Destruction of the opponent is counterproductive. That leaves open a path to accommodation, for you still have to maintain a relationship. Similarly, brokering an agreement in a human rights matter can be the seed needed for trust to grow. That only comes through talking, listening, and respect.
It isn’t flashy or dramatic, but it can be enduring.
Thus his advice for the Left:
Seeking the advancement of human rights in a democracy is like seeking a better marriage with your spouse. You should always seek a better marriage.
Sometimes, that results in a fight. The purpose of the fight should never be to destroy your spouse. The purpose of the fight is to keep living with your spouse. To do that, choose your disputes carefully and over only the most vital of matters. Accept that your spouse is seeking certainty and security, just as you are. If you believe in individual dignity, accept that their thoughts and actions may not reconcile with yours and that trying to shame them will make the relationship intolerable. Most importantly, once the fight is over, seek reconciliation. After all, you have to live with one another.