Following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and in the midst of the ensuing polarized debate, we at COMPASSion are drawn to another story, a story about getting along. It is the story of the strong and enduring friendship between Justice Scalia, one of the most conservative Justices of the Supreme Court, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most liberal.
Justices Scalia and Ginsburg often disagreed in the courtroom. As a 2015 article in the L.A. Times reported, “In summer 2012, when the court ended with a close split on President Obama’s healthcare law and Arizona’s strict immigration law, Scalia and Ginsburg had agreed in 56% of the term’s cases — the lowest rate of any two justices. When only the 5-4 decisions were included, they agreed just 7% of the time.” However, in spite of their clear differences of opinion, they forged and maintained a close friendship. They were known to dine, attend the opera, and even vacation together. Their “odd-couple” relationship inspired a comedic opera of its own which debuted last year.
What does the friendship of these philosophically diametrically opposed individuals have to teach us about respecting differences and getting along?
In the L.A. Times article, Lisa Blatt, a lawyer who argues before the high court and once clerked for Justice Ginsburg, described their friendship as one based on “mutual respect and common interests that transcend their ideological differences.”
“I don’t think they even try to influence each other,” Blatt said. “Both of them simply have huge personalities, love the arts, like to laugh and are brilliant.”
Lack of respect quickly engenders conflict, but mutual respect has the power to transform it. Conflict theorists and peacemakers know that respect is foundational for transformation. Writing about respect on Beyond Intractability, a website for the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium, Sana Farid offers this:
One does not have to like a person or understand his viewpoint to accord him respect. Respect comes with the belief that a person or culture can have beliefs contradictory to ours and we should still honor them, as basic respect is a fundamental right of all human beings. In addition, goals and concessions become easier to attain when the element of respect is present. As Bill Richardson, the US permanent representative to the UN put it. “You have to be a human being. You cannot be arrogant… If you treat each individual with respect, each nation with dignity, you can get a lot further than trying to muscle them”…Contempt and humiliation are the absence of respect, as are a sense of being unheard or not understood. The absence of respect or a perceived lack of respect often leads to conflict at an individual, family and societal level.
This is reminiscent of the work of Dr. John Gottman, a preeminent name in the field of marriage and couples counseling. In relationship conflict, Dr. Gottman makes a difference between solvable and perpetual problems. Solvable problems are usually situational in nature. Perpetual problems tend to be about fundamental differences in personalities, beliefs, values and needs. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. What seems to be key for avoiding gridlock and emotional distancing is whether a couple can establish meaningful dialogue about these perpetual problems, based on a sense of mutual acceptance and understanding. You can read more about the work of The Gottman Institute and managing relationship conflict here. And if you need additional help in putting these skills into practice, we remind you that CC offers marriage and couples counseling.
In our individual, family, and community relationships, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg have much to teach us about how maintaining mutual respect can transform our differences and conflicts. In our homes, our communities, and our society at large, where we are too often deeply polarized over multiple issues, they provide an example and inspiration for us all.