We recently launched an advertising campaign on Facebook encouraging people to subscribe to this very newsletter, and our ad copy boldly claimed, “We’re reviving civil conversation in America.” Some of you may have responded to those ads. Several people commented on Facebook: some were encouraging and others quite hostile. Of all the comments posted, one in the very early days of our campaign has haunted me. It just said: “Too late.”
Skepticism about civil conversation
In the past seven days, headlines and news reports have been filled with issues of justice, racial inequality, free speech, the limits of authority, the use of force, and many other complicated issues. We’ve dedicated our “5 more links” (see below) this week to a roundup of some of those headlines.
Regardless of the story, will we continue to pick teams, hunker down, and throw talking points at the other side from the safety of our like-minded camps?
Is it really “too late” for civil conversation? Judging from a brief review of these headlines, one might be inclined to agree with our Facebook commenter’s sentiment.
Finding agreement despite our differences
Calls for civil discourse are often framed in terms of bringing two sides together: left and right, red and blue, urban and rural, us and them. Looking at the events of the last week and the unrest that continues today, the failure of those divisions to capture the complicated nature of our society has never been more evident.
It isn’t hard to see where we differ. The difficult question we now face is whether, in fact, we share any similarities. Can we agree that racial inequality is a serious challenge that we must address together? Can we hold our leaders and law enforcement to shared values in the ways they administer justice? Are we unified in believing that citizens have the right to protest and that private property should be protected?
The freer a society, the more that is required of its citizens to act justly towards each other and to seek the good of the community, so that it can remain peaceful and free. We have a responsibility not just to tend to our own homes, but to ensure that our neighbors receive equal treatment before the law. We all must work to protect justice because each of us depends upon it to protect ourselves.
There is no magic solution, and no one is coming to save us. If the past three months of global pandemic haven’t convinced you of that, perhaps the events of the past week will. Government has some role to play in modern society and we can certainly disagree about the extent of that role (and how well various government entities perform it), but no elected official has the power to force us to care about preserving our freedom and the responsibilities that accompany that freedom.
The hard work of freedom falls to each of us
Each one of us has power. We have the power to begin tough discussions about these difficult headlines. We have the power to give others the respect we desire and to listen to their concerns. We have the power to find shared principles and build from them, doing the difficult work of figuring out how to put those principles into action. The building of a free society requires constant renovation: in some cases, tearing down old habits and norms, and, in others, expanding our notion of freedom.
We’ve gotten pretty good at disagreeing in this country, and we’re very comfortable pointing out what is wrong with the “other side.”
But it is not “too late” for us to actually see the humanity in one another, listen with compassion, empathize with others’ feelings and opinions, and determine how to work together to ensure that we all benefit from the freedom each of us wants.