In ancient Germanic law, there is a concept known as Wergild. This Old English word translates to “man payment or man price,” and was the amount of compensation paid by a person who has caused someone’s death. This payment goes to the deceased family. An informal dealing, at first, Wergild was later regulated through established law.
Later, monarchies no longer held enough power to enforce and collect wergild through the law, and gradually, financial compensation began to be replaced by death and mutilation.
A man for a man—the “man price”.
The alternative to this was even more extreme. Blood Revenge was another legal avenue for reparation in early Germanic society—one that resulted in bloody, long-running feuds between social groups, particularly families and clans. Blood Revenge meant death—to one side, and then the other, and then the other, sometimes until both groups were so decimated that both were forced to give up their quests.
And if you think these concepts outdated, simply turn on the news. We’re still exacting our Weregild and Blood Revenge today—only the methods have changed. And if we can’t create change, it’s going to destroy us.
The aptly named culture war in the United States is the avenue of that destruction. A conflict between conservative and progressive values, the war has raged, in one form or another, since the 1990s, reaching a new peak during the 2016 presidential election.
The victories and defeats of the culture wars continually decide the fate of a plethora of hot-button issues, such as school curriculum, environmental policy, homosexuality, recreational drug use, and abortion—that’s just naming a few.
This is the Struggle to Define America, as sociologist James Davidson Hunter put it in 1991. The University of Virginia professor saw what he described as a dramatic realignment and polarization of American politics and culture—a realignment in a constant state of flux as territory is taken or ceded.
This realignment is driven, largely, by differences in ideological worldviews—what Hunter defines as Progressivism and Orthodoxy—you might know these groups as liberals and conservatives. These two forces fight to define what is right and what is wrong.
The war has only become more intense, the proponents on each side louder and nastier. With the advent of social media—particularly Twitter—political and social bombs are being lobbed at not only politicians and leaders, but at everyday people.
We’ve developed what could be called a “callout culture”—an environment in which individuals are publically called out over social media when they are perceived to violate the norms of one side of the war or the other.
Accusations of racism or sexism fly. Lifestyles are condemned. Jobs are lost. Reputations are ruined. Companies are boycotted. These aren’t mere words. These are true, material losses—real damage done in a war that was previous comprised of words and ideas. And the worst part of all this? Much of it is done without a thought—the enemy is utterly dehumanized. We begin to hate one another.
No longer are we attacking ideas, as we should be. We go after people without due thought. We go after the Wergild in the form of lawsuits or, even worse, the Blood Revenge in the form of murder and injury.
What we’re missing is civility. Rather than engaging in real talks—which include compromise—we immediately move to anger, to attack, to ruination.
We’ve sacrificed the ideal of dialogue at the altar of winning.
So what is there to do in a time when the nation is more polarized than ever? The 2016 presidential election was one of the biggest upsets in the culture wars in the past two decades, leaving conservatives relishing a newfound power, and liberals in anguish. The feud between the two halves of the United States has never been more intense, and we’re seeing this escalate in the form of violence, racism, career-ruining callouts, and angry rhetoric.
What we need now is compromise. As New York Times columnist William Saletan contemplated in 2009, a possible solution lies in a mix of conservative and liberal ideas. He went on to assert that conservatives should accept family planning as a way to reduce governmental assistance and abortion, while liberals should embrace the idea of personal responsibility.
Compromise is the key, but what can you do, as a mere individual in a gigantic national machine, to bring about a resolution to this ongoing conflict?
You can educate yourself in the lost art of civility.
When you talk about these issues, remember the number one rule: avoid ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem—Latin for “to the person”—is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the other person instead of the issue. Name-calling and insults fall into this category.
Rather, talk about the issue at hand. Talk about the laws. Talk about the policies. But for goodness’s sake, don’t talk negatively about the person. This only hardens people’s positions, and to ignore the emotional factor is to fail to effectively argue your point.
If you take nothing else away from this, remember one admonition—be kind. Seek to build up rather than to harm. Work to see the world not as “us vs. them,” but merely as “us”. If you can hold that mindset, that worldview, then you can start building America up rather than attempting to tear half of it down.
If this mindset can take hold in the roots of America, we can end this wave of social and physical violence that, as things are, stands to break over America.
Whichever side of the culture war you think might be right, the way the two sides engage one another must change. If we cannot learn the arts of civility, dialogue, and kindness, the future of America looks bleak, indeed.
Thankfully, the needed change starts with you. Be kind to your neighbor and seek compromise. Merely seeking to win at any cost will get us nothing. Compromise will gain us everything.