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Let's agree to disagree civilly

My children sometimes joke that they pity the minority of kids in their high school who are Republican. It's exhausting to be surrounded by people who don't agree with you on almost every issue.

Come to think of it, I don't think they are joking about pitying them. For being Republican, that is.

But then they're also aware that the town we live in is itself something of an island in a state that did not vote for United States President Barack Obama in the last election.

Like other states in the American south, a chasm has opened between urban centres which, being secular and liberal, tend to vote Democrat and rural areas, which are religious and conservative and swing towards the Republican party.

I am now used to hearing family members and friends speak of Those Others scathingly, or in disbelief. I guess the opposite would be true in a Grand Old Party household. I don't know since we don't have that many friends of that persuasion, and with them we studiously avoid the subject of politics.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In Singapore, I didn't make friends based on politics, but then most people don't identify with being pro- or anti-PAP.

It's not because governance has little to do with everyday life in Singapore. On the contrary, it has everything to do with it. But while the political machinery in Singapore runs smoothly, here in the US, the two political parties have become so dysfunctionally partisan that it is nigh impossible for them to agree on anything and this has come to haunt ordinary discourse as well.

If anything, the meteoric rise of Donald Trump and his hate-filled world view that has split his party, signals only a deepening schism. Now we are being asked to defend our values against naked cynicism.

In Singapore, the gauntlet has been thrown down on occasion as well. Pink Dot or Wear White? Should Adam Lambert perform? Is Madonna anti-Catholic? What do we do with a kid like Amos Yee?

On the whole, opposing sides have disagreed respectfully, which bodes well, as these differences can only deepen as younger Singaporeans become more liberal in their attitudes. In the end, we may have to agree to disagree and let some questions be settled by policymakers, the courts or time.

This does not mean that one should not hold convictions, only that one should not lose sight of who, or what, the real enemy is.

I think of this when I see the many college students who have clashed with authorities in recent months, fighting to rid their campuses of any trace of oppression.

Battles have been waged to remove the names of racists and slave owners from buildings, improve the treatment of minorities and even ensure Halloween costumes do not denigrate any group.

It strikes me as paradoxical sometimes how raw and emotional the confrontations can get. You'd expect institutions of higher learning to be bastions of rational thought and discussion, but no one can hear anyone if everyone is shouting.

Which is a pity because real progress appears to reside in our youth, with their desire for equal treatment for all. Is fighting the best or only way to move a country forward though?

Perhaps there is a better way, as embodied in the examples of US Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I was not a fan of Justice Scalia, who died on Feb 13. The longest-serving judge in the US' top court consistently upheld values that were at odds with mine.

Pro-gun rights, anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty, anti-choice for women, in every particular he seemed to advance a conservative agenda I disagreed with.

He rubbed liberals up the wrong way and in the aftermath of his passing, there was a reaction, almost of glee, on social media platforms. The nastiness was not very surprising, given the kind of polarising figure he was in public office.

But then, a different picture began to emerge, as friends, colleagues and scholars hastened to pay homage to a man who did not suffer fools gladly, but who was also loyal, engaging, humorous, interested in many things and unfailingly kind and generous.

Most revealing was his friendship with RBG, as she is known, his well-respected and liberal colleague with whom he disagreed on many issues. Their families spent every New Year's Eve together. He would even hand her his dissenting viewpoint, while she was writing grounds of judgment, so that she could hone her own arguments more sharply against his.

Their friendship mystified everybody, but when I saw him through her eyes, I ceased to think of him only as the nemesis of liberals.

Wonderfully, the only requirement for friendship, is to want to be friends.

The two judges were not in it to change each other and left their battles where they belonged - in the court. And yet, I am sure neither was left unchanged by their friendship. If I could view him differently through her eyes, I bet they also saw the world differently through each other's.

And that's it really. The battle for hearts and minds begins with understanding, not distrust. If we are to change anything at all, we must first change ourselves.

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, said a wise man once. The same sun shines on us all, as does the rain fall.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Let's agree to disagree civilly'. Print Edition | Subscribe