Early in Lin Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed Broadway hit Hamilton, Aaron Burr introduces Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens. Burr prefaces his introduction by telling Hamilton to “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
When the men in the tavern push Burr to take a position on the upcoming revolution and he refuses to answer, Hamilton finally speaks up, challenging him by saying, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?”
Throughout the rest of the musical, Miranda’s Hamilton struggles with the passion that comes with being for something. He is for liberty. He is for the new country. He is for being a part of the American experiment. Despite all of his personal faults, what he is for remains constant; he refuses to shy away from challenges to that constant, even when it means potentially losing everything else that he holds dear.
He is so committed to America’s success that he even supports a sworn political enemy who nearly ruined his marriage (Thomas Jefferson) over a lukewarm frenemy (Aaron Burr) because “Jefferson has principles; Burr has none.” He believes that Jefferson is better for the success of the country he has worked so hard to help build.
In the character of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda gives his audience a perfect example of what it means to be truly for something. It is a lesson that too many of us are hesitant to absorb.
Start asking someone what they are for, and they will be more than happy to give you a idealistic list of everything that they believe they personally stand for. But when we challenge them to dig into what that really means, the picture blurs.
Most people see “pro” and “for” as being interchangeable, the opposite of those two terms being “against.” We’ve become people who see every issue as binary, forcing our friends and neighbors to take a stance on one side or the other, refusing to see the complicated nuance in issues that increasingly divide the country. We force people to say they are “pro” and “anti” but don’t give space for discussing what that really means.
I believe we’ve oversimplified what it means to be for a cause or ideology. Anyone can be against anything. Choosing to state your opposition is relatively easy and appeals to our basic instincts. Being for something requires a lot more intellectual and personal work.
“For” requires acknowledgement of complexity and a willingness to dig into it. We shouldn’t just be satisfied with our own reasons for our stance, but we need to research where the stance came from and what it actually means. We also need to be willing to admit when facing apparent contradictions to our stated core beliefs.
I personally have seen this play out in my social media circles related to the wearing of face masks. I have friends who strongly believe that a woman should have the right to choose an abortion because of bodily autonomy (claiming that a person needs to follow their own conscience), but are also some of the most vocal in demanding laws that require people to wear facemasks. I also have friends who strongly believe that most abortions should be illegal (because it is the ending of an innocent life and that life needs to be protected), but are also incredibly vocal about the government requiring them to wear masks when they feel that should be their personal choice, regardless of the fact that mask wearing has been proven to save lives.
And neither group, right or wrong, appears to see the irony in their stances.
I don’t want to oversimplify those issues, because I believe all of them are complex and require more honest discussion than we are willing to give them, but it is important to note that in taking those seemingly contradictory stances, people are demonstrating just how hard it is to be unapologetically for an idea.
Learning what it means to be for something can lead us to some uncomfortable truths. I am for our national parks, believing that they teach us important lessons about history and conservation and I believe that we should do what we can to preserve and protect that land for future generations. I am also for racial equity and reconciliation. To be strongly for both means recognizing that much of our public land was stolen from Native American tribes, the acquisition the result of genocide and trickery.
When faced with these uncomfortable truths, we don’t have to cancel one in favor of the other because to do so ignores the very complexity of the world we live in. Instead we need to be honest about the messiness and deal with both. My unapologetic pro-life and pro-choice friends did not come to their beliefs overnight, but those stances are often narrowly focused on just one particular issue without considering how it should carry over into other related issues that face them every day. Just think of the productive conversations we could have if more of us were willing to honestly and gracefully challenge each other to carefully consider what being for issues very dear to us really means.
In the book I Think You’re Wrong, But I’m Listening, my favorite podcasters–Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers–challenge their readers to always keep learning, saying “Transformative conversation…requires personal humility in the form of genuine curiosity.”
Being for something requires both humility and curiosity. Often we get so stuck in our ideological purity that we get in our own way. Instead of considering why we believe something and how that plays out in the real world, we stick to untested hypotheticals. We become guilty of hypocrisy because we’ve lost sight of the big picture.
When we do the honest work and wrestle with the apparent contradictions in our ideological stances, we can better articulate the why to those who disagree. It also forces us into an evolution of thought that is more mature and nuanced than before. It drives us to see solutions and seek compromise instead of just a “win” for our “side.” We understand that no solution is going to make us 100% happy but that compromise is a solution on the never-ending road to improvement.
In the end, that work makes us better citizens.
Arguing for an expansion of what it means to be for is incredibly idealistic, I realize that. It requires vulnerability and work and a willingness to change when we realize our narrow definitions of what we are for cannot be supported by a real-world application. But doing so will make us stronger people more confident in our beliefs and more open to discovery.
It is how we discover common ground and find a way forward.