by Lola E. Peters
Imagine that you’re living in a very large house with ten other people who are not your family. Imagine that there are no agreements among the residents of the house. Everyone gets to do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. There are no agreements about use or maintenance of common spaces: living room, bathrooms, kitchens, storage areas, parking spaces, or garden. No agreements exist about when or how the rent/mortgage or utilities are paid. Guests? There are no rules about them, either. Nothing dictates when residents can have guests, how long they can visit, or even when/if a guest is considered a resident.
If you’ve ever lived in those circumstances, and some of you have, you know how it plays out. It’s not pretty. There are constant disputes over use of space, cleanup, deadlines, and noise. Those who want no agreements often turn out to be either the least reliable and most disruptive or the ones who are taken advantage of the most. Without accountability there is chaos.
Whether you live in a household of two or twenty, the road to peaceful co-existence must go through creating mutual understanding. The first step in creating the agreements that bring order to the household is deciding on the mutual principles that bind you, then define a process that will be used to turn those into agreements.
Some residents may prefer majority rule while others want consensus. A few might even believe that those who contribute the most resources should have the most say in how the house rules are made. Deciding the core principles and process sets the parameters for everything that follows.
The more people involved, the more need to formalize those understandings, while simultaneously being open to new or adjusted agreements that fit the changes to residents’ circumstances or needs of any new inhabitants. The formality ensures the process will be passed along to future occupants. For example, if someone moves out and the person who replaces them is allergic to certain cleaning products, a new agreement might be negotiated stating that all cleaning materials used throughout the house must be hypoallergenic. If a child is born into the household, new agreements might be needed around noise levels.
The flexibility of the process determines the survivability of the household. Imagine a household that came together in 1990 and adopted a rule that all telephone calls had to be made in the kitchen, or that smoking was confined to the living room. How absurd would those rules be in 2017?
Once the agreements are decided, there must be a process of accountability. What happens when an agreement is violated? What’s the structure? What are the parameters of potential actions taken against the violator(s)? What are the parameters of benefits that accrue to those experiencing violation? Who oversees the accountability of the process and of the violation?
All households, regardless, have to face these issues so they can navigate living in shared space. Imagine, then, a household of 325-million people, with no process, no agreements, and no structures for accountability.
Those who say they want small government are asking for fewer agreements (aka, laws or regulations) and fewer standards of accountability. They want no Environmental Protection Agency with regulations regarding how we share our water, air, and other natural resources. They want fewer laws about how we treat one another. They want fewer standards about how we share our physical space: where we build, the content or quality of construction, the way we behave in common spaces.
That housemate who wants to do “whatever I want in my own room” is letting everyone else in the house know that they believe they are completely autonomous. They are so self-focused that they don’t see any impact that their private activity might have on the larger household. For example, smoking seems like a private act, but some of that smoke will seep out under a doorway, or the moment the shared door is opened, eventually coating walls and furniture. Having a lover who stays over on occasion seems fine, but what happens if the relationship ends badly and the spurned lover decides to play a piano day and night in the park across the street until they reconcile.
I don’t know most of the people I share Interstate-5 with, but we have some shared agreements about how we’re supposed to behave while we’re on the road. We agree to use turn signals to indicate a move to the left or right because we’ve learned that turn signals help us avoid accidents.
In the 1950s and 1960s enough people were killed by flying through windshields in accidents that we agreed to use safety belts as restraints to keep that from happening. Each generation has created new agreements in hopes that more of us will be kept safe while we’re hurtling down the road. This current generation, in the State of Washington, has added laws restricting use of cellphones while driving. As someone who has been rear-ended three times by drivers paying more attention to their phone than their driving, I’m grateful for that change, even though it’s sometimes inconvenient.
Each household decides on its own process for making agreements. The selected process reflects the values of the people who are creating the household. If they believe that all members are created equal and should, therefore, have equal say in decision-making, they will create an egalitarian process. If, however, they believe that one gender is superior, then they might give the housemates of that gender more authority or more responsibility. If the core value of the household is adherence to a particular religious doctrine, the principles of that doctrine will dictate the process for making agreements. Whatever process is selected, it becomes the governing principle of the household, the core of its government.
Societies have presented many models for personal as well as social government: ranging from theocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships to various models of democracy. The U.S. has made transitions in our own national history from monarchy to a modified egalitarian democracy, although there are segments of our society that still want households that are autocratic and who believe there should be one decision-maker in each household. There are even households who believe a particular religious doctrine should dictate the basis of our agreements. While this might work in a single household, the founders of the U.S. decided they valued a society of many religions and made that explicit in the language of the first amendment to our Constitution expressly forbidding the use of any one religion as a decision-making process.
As a country, the United States of America made a decision that democracy would be our core process for decision-making, putting the responsibility on all of the people to decide the procedures and policies that would dictate how we share the land.
Generations subsequent to the initial writing of the Constitution and the accompanying Bill of Rights have reviewed and revised how we implement our democracy. Recognizing the exclusion of many groups, including women and then people of color, from participation in the democracy, amendments have been made to the Constitution making it explicit that this democracy would meet its core principle: that everyone who shared this land would have a say in its governance.
Currently, we are engaged in an internal battle that exists on several levels. There are those who believe:
- they have the right to live autonomously without “interference” from the rest of us, despite the impact their actions have on others
- one religious set of principles should dictate the actions of everyone, and only those who adhere to that religious doctrine ought to have the power to make decisions
- that every person should have an equal, individual say in governance
- that some people are genetically incapable of contributing effectively to governance
- economic principles should dictate participation in decision-making because economic success is either (a) proof of a person’s value to society, or (b) proof of special blessing by a deity
- the amendments made by prior generations should be rescinded
- whatever is best for the long-term health of the planet should be paramount in our decision-making
All of these disparate voices, and maybe more, are speaking at once, and it’s damned hard to sort out the cacophony. If that tells us anything, it ought to be that now, more than ever, we need to be explicit about our agreements. In this era, we need clear agreements that are both enforceable and enforced. We need to be clear about our shared priorities, and about those things we leave to discretion.
The past 229 years have been about clarifying the agreements that were broadly stated in a constitution created to administer a population of fewer than 5-million people (including African slaves, indigenous peoples, and other non-citizens) who were spread over 13 states that all hugged the eastern shore of the continent.
As we’ve spread out over more land and the population has grown, so have the myriad needs of newly incorporated people and the changing needs of those already here. The core, driving, principles by which decisions are made have been challenged and repeatedly revised to accommodate many changes. As our household had grown, so has the number and complexity of the agreements that we agree to live by. How, then, do we continue to share this land?
It is inevitable that we have those among us who want fewer rules and regulations. I’m not among them. In my experience, the more open and honest people are about the parameters of how we live together, the better. In fact, it’s the relationships with the fewest guidelines that have caused me the most pain and where I have caused the most pain. Guidelines provide clarity.
As with all things, there must be balance, and the way to achieve that balance is to begin with a deep assessment of the very process we use to make our agreements and ask if it meets its stated purpose. Does everyone’s voice actually have equal weight? Is democracy the outcome of the process? Has it ever been? The answer is clearly, “No!”
We are in our current quandaries because there are people whose lived experience shows that their individual or collective voice carries no weight at all. How, then, do we rectify our mess? How do we get our house back in order?
The founders of the U.S. began with a set of shared principles. The process they chose and all the systems that grew from that process were all measured against those standards. The Preamble to the Constitution lays them out:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Are these still the ideals we aspire to fulfill? We know there are areas where these aspirations clash, there always have been. Do we have the moral courage to face those clashes respectfully and genially and work our way through them? Our national behavior doesn’t bode well.
We have become a winner-take-all society with no tolerance for nuance or complexity. We let the false narratives that came out of World War II convince us we were the world’s best nation, and obligated to always be seen as a winner. While even the most ignorant U.S. citizen will tell tales of “how we saved Europe, especially the French,” few know that, at the same time, we intentionally sacrificed millions of Russians to Germany after promising we would stand on their behalf.
This adolescent need to be heroic has repeatedly played out in our insistence on defining other people’s agreements and systems. Rather than allowing nations to work out their own way of government, we have repeatedly lied, cheated, killed and destroyed their opportunities to do just that, while publicly saying that we’re doing it for their own good. How would you feel about a neighbor who insisted you live by their household rules? Yet the U.S. public is repeatedly surprised when countries around the world oppose us.
So who are we really? Do we intend to adhere to the powerful words of the Preamble? Do our current agreements, the systems we have created to sustain and support them, and our accountability structures align with those principles? Are we ready to grow up and leave adolescence behind? Are we mature enough to admit our past and current mistakes and start on a path to bring our behaviors in line with our self-image? Are we ready to become a home, not just a household; a nation, not just a country?
The world is watching.
Lola E. Peters is Editor-at-Large for the South Seattle Emerald. She is an essayist and poet who writes about politics, religion, justice, art, and other forbidden topics. She has published two books of poetry (Taboos, and The Book of David) and a book of essays (The Truth About White People).