There was a time in our history when “reasonable people” could disagree on the question of whether some people should be allowed to own other people. The question was argued passionately on both sides, election campaigns were run with the question front and center. A war was fought.
But today, that question is settled. Reasonable people cannot disagree on that question. Reasonable people do not consider the question at all. If any political party decided to run on an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the vast majority of Americans would be shocked.
How many other settled questions can you think of? It's an interesting exercise. Should children be employed in factories? Should women be allowed to own property? Should people who do not own their house be allowed to vote? Should witchcraft be a legal offense? Is human sacrifice necessary to appease the gods?
These are moral questions that were (are, in some other places) considered worthy of debate. Reasonable people disagreed.
But now these questions are settled. Reasonable people do not disagree about them. Reasonable people do not consider them at all.
Imagine, though, how those debates played out over decades, maybe generations, at dinner tables, around fire circles. By what process did they become settled questions? How did it feel to be one person in one family, one community, living through one of those shifts? How did it feel when the question first arose? Who asked it and what happened to them? How did it feel to watch your community split apart over the question? How long did you spend in the height of rancor, roughly evenly divided? When the “right side of history” started to win, how fast and how enthusiastically did the losing side’s supporters change their minds? How many holdouts took their beliefs to their graves? How many generations did they touch who hardly knew the question had ever been asked?
This is where my thoughts have gone in the past few weeks as I try to understand the powerful grief brought on by this election. Especially as I try to understand why so many people seem to not comprehend that grief. And this is where I’ve gotten so far: we are grieving the world we thought we lived in, a world where we believed several ugly questions* were well settled or very nearly so.
As for those who don’t understand the grief, I think it’s clear that some wanted these questions reopened because they didn’t like the trending answers. I have the sense that a larger number thought these questions were so settled that they had no fear of voting for the person openly asking them. He must have been joking, they felt, or he won’t really act on them (although his appointments and statements so far say he will). But I’m guessing the biggest group of all just believed these questions were still unsettled and therefore, no matter which side they lean towards, aren’t greatly troubled. “Reasonable people,” after all, “can disagree.”
For the moment, this realization is helping me to pull myself together and look to the future with a galvanizing if uncomfortable clarity. So the moral tasks at hand aren’t what we thought they were. No matter. We’re still here, still with nothing to do but work and hope to bend the arc of history toward justice.
* Questions like, are there certain types of people that just don’t belong in our country? Should law enforcement be allowed to treat certain types of people with more violence and suspicion than others? Should men be able to grab women with impunity? Is it OK for states to actively discourage certain types of citizens from voting? Is it OK to mock a person’s disability or trauma? Even — and I slightly hesitate to add this one since it feels over the top, but it did get raised by the candidate himself — is nuclear proliferation a good thing?