Why can’t we all just get along?

My uly 4, 2012, Mille Lacs Messenger column:

The world will long remember the historic statement — “Can we all get along?” — by Rodney King, who died too young a few weeks ago. For those of you too young to remember (or so old that you’ve forgotten, as I tend to do), King was the man beaten by cops in an incident caught on video. It went viral before the word had its current meaning.

When the cops who beat him were found not guilty, L.A. erupted in riots, prompting King to ask his famous question.

Nowadays it’s as relevant as ever as our two main political parties seem more and more polarized and less and less capable of compromise for the sake of the country.

I read a book recently at the suggestion of Frank Courteau, with whom I’ve had my share of disagreements.

The book is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” It’s an interesting exploration of the human brain and moral psychology, and I highly recommend it.

Reading it brought me back to my experience in New Zealand, where my family spent the year from July 2006 to July 2007.

It was a relief to be away from the bitter partisanship of the U.S., but I soon learned that things were similar down under.

What struck me was not just how divided people are, but how evenly divided.

Why would so many elections here at home and around the world be determined by a 51-49 margin, give or take a few percentage points?

My conclusion is that whatever makes a person lean conservative or liberal must exist in every person’s brain, and communities or countries must teeter on a knife blade for good reason.

Whether we believe in evolution or not, all of us would agree that humans spent at least thousands of years as bands of hunter-gatherers or livestock-herding nomads, jockeying for territory and dealing with threats from competing groups.

Depending on the situation, two responses might be called for: fight for more territory, or find a way to get along.

At any moment, a leader like Joshua in the Old Testament might need to transform from warrior to diplomat to save the community.

Maybe the group is attacked and determines that it can’t win the fight; the proper response at that moment is to save the group by making nice with the enemy.

Maybe the group grows too large for the territory to support; the proper response at that moment is to save the group by expanding its territory, even if that means waging war against the neighbors.

Every one of us has both of those innate abilities: to respond to the unknown with suspicion and aggression, or with submission and appeasement.

Both abilities are crucial to survival, and both should be recognized as positive human traits.

In our current political environment, we are evenly divided between two parties that are reluctant to embrace certain changes and eager to embrace others. Yet each party mischaracterizes the other as being stuck in the past, unrealistic, immoral, stupid or even evil.

As we head toward the next election, we should remember that we all share our essential humanity, and that we are all capable of shifting from conservative to liberal, depending on the circumstance, the times and the topic.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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