Issac Bailey | ‘Listen first:’ A bit of caution about a noble concept

July 12, 2014 

Issac Bailey


Pearce Godwin, a conservative Republican who once worked on Capitol Hill, has undertaken a noble cause, an effort to rein in the hyperbolic political atmosphere that has turned off many, if not most, Americans.

He’s launched the “Listen First project” (video at and has written pieces in newspapers, including this one, to spread the word about his group’s goals.

“Begin by accepting that there are good, genuine, well-meaning people on both sides,” he recently wrote about the still hotly contested gay marriage debate. “Generally, those in favor of gay marriage are not trying to upend the moral fabric of America nor are those opposed attempting to impose bigoted views on everyone else. Gay marriage is a battle between differing moral codes and world views. Therein lies the fundamental problem.”

“When a Duke fan and a Carolina fan meet in a bar, they will disagree vehemently regarding the supremacy of their respective shade of blue, but they are speaking the same language and can understand the values and metrics the other is bringing to bear on the debate. Not so with gay marriage.

“Folks in the gay marriage debate often talk past each other, invoking concepts that, to the other side, ring hollow and may even sound ridiculous.”

Less name-calling? More respect? Being willing to listen more than rushing to talk? Again, a noble undertaking that deserves serious consideration, but also a bit of caution.

Take the issue of gay marriage. If we were somehow able to strip away the hyperbolic language, have more nuanced discussions across partisan lines and engender a greater sense of peace and tranquility, that still does nothing for the issue at hand.

Should gays and lesbians have the rights of their heterosexual counterparts or not? Should they be allowed to participate in the American experiment as full, first-class citizens? Should they be allowed to marry the person they love?

Or should their quality of life be left to the whims of the majority, subject to the latest political winds?

It would be nice if fewer people hurled the label bigot at anyone who disagreed with their views. But wishing for that outcome should not overshadow the greater need to make sure all Americans – gay and straight – get to first-class citizenship.

Being labeled a bigot because of a sincerely held religious belief might bite, but let’s not pretend it is anything like being denied jobs and equal rights and housing and disowned by your family – and church – for simply being yourself.

The level of real harm is not the same. One needs to be urgently curbed more than the other.

The peaceful exchange of ideas should never supersede the basic rights of our fellow Americans. There were good people on either side of most debates throughout this country’s history. It is not true that only evil people lined up on one side to push slavery and Jim Crow and only pure people with pure motives lined up to oppose them.

And it is true that sometimes good people had to accept awful compromises in the short-term to get us a few steps closer to living up to the ideals we’ve long inspired to in the long run. Calls for purity often make the advancement of pure ideas less, not more, possible.

That’s the reality we face in a less-than-perfect world full of less-than-perfect human beings, a reality that shouldn’t be forgotten.

But neither should we forget that some good people were profoundly wrong on many of the most important civil rights issues of the past couple of centuries, and they could not simply be reasoned with because they often believed they were on the side of God, even as the virtues they were supporting were leading to death and horrible life outcomes for people they said they cared for.

I’d love to live in a world in which important debate was less rancorous, less odorous, saner. Peace is no substitute for justice, though, and oftentimes justice is not achievable without the willingness of good people to dive into the mess and not stop until it justice been attained.

I don’t like dismissive, petty exchanges, either. But that’s not our biggest problem. That comes when good people disengage from the pursuit of justice because they’ve grown tired of the fight. That’s when they become blind to the nuance of the problems facing us and end up settling for any solution that would turn down the heat and noise even if it leaves inequality in place.

That’s when they believe it is better to reach a compromise – any compromise – no matter the merits of the debate. They unwittingly allow themselves to be co-opted by those who put their personal beliefs ahead of true equality.

There might always be good, well-intentioned people on both sides of contentious issues. But it doesn’t mean the outcomes they are grappling for are equally divine.

Contact Issac Bailey at or @TSN_IssacBailey.

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