How Opposites Can Still Attract

If the conventional wisdom that “opposite attracts” is true, why do people who hold different views today often become oppositional? Instead of becoming closer, they allow opposing viewpoints to push one another away. The ability to imagine that there can be more than one perspective in approaching issues has become threatening instead of enlightening.

The word “opposite” is always relational – someone or something is opposite another. For example, “opposite” can refer to a relationship between two objects. Instead of being perpendicular to one another, they can be placed opposite one another. In that case, “opposite” defines a spatial relationship.

When applied to people, the word “opposite” also means that two people or different groups are in a relationship with one another. The question is how they choose to define that relationship. Does “opposite” turn to oppositional, where the two parties deploy protect, defend, and personal attack tactics? Or, do they maintain their points of view, try to see the other person’s perspective, and engage in open dialogue? *

In this second scenario, the goal of engagement is not to change the other’s viewpoint, although that might happen. It’s simply to relearn the beauty of a good intellectual give-and-take and clarify ideas, as did two Supreme Court Justices, the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the late conservative Antonin Scalia. Their opinions couldn’t be more opposite, but their mutual respect for their exceptionally principled arguments attracted them intellectually. They recognized that each made the other better not despite their opposite judicial philosophies but because of them. Justice Scalia remained a conservative, and Justice Ginsburg is a liberal, but their being on opposite sides of issues made a collegial relationship blossom into a model friendship.

Passover and Easter are almost here and it’s very likely that a family member or friend may be sitting opposite someone in both meanings of the word – two people with opposite views sitting across a table. Regardless of religious observance, families and friends gather for personal celebrations. In fact, I was recently interviewed by Katie Moritz in ReWire on the topic, “Words Matter: How To Address Offensive Language In Family Conversations.” Kudos to Katie for raising this question, and as my book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide is now available, I appreciated the opportunity to respond to her questions.

Here’s where I take inspiration from the Passover Seder. The Seder transforms a table into a platform for debate, discussion, and engagement about the collective and personal purpose of the Biblical Exodus narrative. In Hebrew, the “script” that’s traditionally used as a springboard for the telling of the story is called a Haggadah. The Hebrew root meaning of the word Haggadah or recitation (of the story) is “opposite” (נגד/neged). During the Seder, it’s a traditional commandment to engage all people, young and old, those who are more knowledgeable and those who are less knowledgeable, in debate. Opposites are meant to engage people in deeper reflection on the meaning of the story of liberation, how it shaped the Jewish people, and how it influences all people today. Intellectual and experiential arguments between opposites-a definite yes! Shallow, oppositional, personal attacks-not acceptable.

Whether you’re sitting at a Seder table, Easter dinner, or a gathering with friends and family, think about the choice you have when you’re with others who hold views opposite your own. I hope that you’ll choose the opportunity to reclaim the word “opposite” as a positive value that reconnects people with divergent viewpoints through engaging discussions. We’ll all be better for the effort.

* I’d like to credit Rabbi Michael Hattin of Pardes for this insight in his podcast on The Structure of the Pesach Seder.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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