To Achieve Justice, We Can Agree to Disagree

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Tompkins Weekly 11-17-14

By Eric Clay

I recently had the privilege of interviewing all three candidates for an Ithaca city judge position on the WRFI radio program “The Made of Clay Report.” (You can listen to the show at

The premise of the interview was that it is more important to know the personal qualities of the candidates than their stances on particular issues.

What matters most is how they engage “others” whose values, histories and needs are different from their own and how they manage conflict—both by their composure within conflict and by their flexibility to publicly change in the face of disconfirming evidence.

The central question was this: How do you know the difference between justice and self-righteousness?

Each candidate struggled with this question, which was the point, but a common thread emerged: justice is likely to be real if people of divergent perspectives see the result that way. Justice emerges as a quality of life and a condition of relationships confirmed by many different, and conflicting, views.

But we live in an age where self-righteousness trumps justice. Although our intentions may be good, we value too highly our own perspective and agenda.

Our well-considered personal experience, cultural or religious identity, political party agenda, commitment to fossil fuels or the environment, scientific orientation, organizational membership, economic status and professional code of conduct all provide ammunition for carrying on the wars of self-righteousness.

Under the guise of “shared values,” we organize to control, convert, or co-opt the opposition to become more like us. We dream of larger majorities; but larger majorities just produce more isolated minorities.

Maybe it’s time to get over ourselves and give a broader notion of justice a chance. Where there is justice, there is peace. When we discover the courage to address what really matters to us, we will need a way to live, even thrive, within the conflict.

How can we share a journey that involves people with whom we may fundamentally disagree or who may regard us, or we them, as the enemy?

First, we must honestly regard other human beings as our equals in standing. We often don’t. We can simply accept others’ differences from what we might value, even assist them with their own endeavors, without endorsing them.

Second, we need a thicker skin to not react or shut down when we may be offended, and we will need a more profound sense of kindness towards others as we acknowledge how much we may offend them.

Third, we need curiosity and openness based in trust—the confidence that whatever happens, we will be OK; that we will be up to whatever challenges face us and our relationships. Curiosity gives trust legs.

Finally, standing on these legs, we can learn from our enemies.

From a moral and spiritual perspective, we learn more from our enemies than we learn from flattering friends. From a scientific perspective, we learn more from disconfirming evidence that upends our views than from corroborating evidence.

So like those judicial candidates, to get over self-righteousness, we have to assemble the wisdom of divergent commitments.

This is the approach of my employer, Shared Journeys. We are dedicated to address stubborn, even seemingly intractable, differences. One example is how we assist with food relief as part of Ithaca MobilePack, which has packed 1,300,000 meals over five years for hungry children in Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Africa.

Food aid is controversial, particularly whether organizations should provide immediate relief, which may impede longer-term solutions. Both approaches are necessary. Christine Olsen, a Cornell University Professor of Nutrition, and expert on the needs of women and children, observes that: “[G]ood people of faith could come out in very different places in this discussion.”

Shared Journeys is a catalyst for learning across differences locally, regionally and internationally. Locally, 1500 packers volunteer in the most diverse event in Ithaca/Tompkins County. We bring together Muslims, Jews and Christians, as well as non-religious folks, low-income, African-American, Asian and Latino participants, straight and gay, students—elementary thru college—and rural and urban residents. We don’t endorse each other’s ways of life, but we accept the fact that we need to work together to address issues that are bigger than any of us.

We become educated advocates about food security and the operation of food markets. Through this activity, we have mitigated prejudice towards Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, Mormons, atheists and secularists, locally and globally. We continue to challenge an international aid organization to promote sustainable local food production within and near the 70 countries receiving aid.

With an eye on justice rather than self-righteousness, we learn to live in productive conflict. Only then will we be strong enough to engage and carry out the work that needs to be done.

Eric Clay is co-founder and community coach of Shared Journeys.

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