In a New York Times Op-Ed today, “Slavery Thrived on Compromise, John Kelly,” Kashana Cauley gives us a good example of a very bad habit that plagues many conversations: equivocation. (Equivocation is the use of a word in two ways in the midst of an argument in which the argument gets some or all of its force from that hidden switching of meanings of the word.) Or, another way to put it is that she assumes John Kelly meant “compromise” in one sense which makes him appear crazy when in fact, on just a moment’s reflection in a spirit of goodwill, it’s obvious that he meant “compromise” in quite a different sense.
Contra “John Kelly the Crazy,” who must not be aware that many slavery compromises preceded the Civil War, Ms. Cauley goes on to detail many of them. Then she follows up this list by elaborating many of the injustices, or, I suppose, “compromises” on slavery, which persist to the present day.
My point here is not to comment on the substance of her argument about racial injustice, an argument likely worth considering. My point is simple: when John Kelly said, “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the civil war,” he almost certainly did not mean “there were no compromises on slavery prior to the Civil War, and that’s what caused the war.” Almost certainly, he meant something like, “there were no compromises prior to the Civil War adequate to stop the war.”
Now, I didn’t listen to the interview from which John Kelly was quoted. So, perhaps I give him too much benefit of the doubt, and other things in the interview would provide context that justifies Cauley’s reading of him. My point was simply that the sentence she quotes in her Op-Ed in the New York Times today could easily be read another way if it were being read with goodwill.
This is a lesson for all of us interested in creating a better conversation about abortion, women’s rights, racial injustice, government policy, religion, truth, morality, etc. We should read the other person charitably, especially if we disagree with her, attempting to see precisely what she meant. Then our discussion of the particular points where we disagree will be much more productive.