At a John McCain town hall in Lakeville, Minnesota, during the 2008 presidential election, a woman stood up and announced, with her voice quivering in fear, that she could not trust then-Senator Barack Obama because she had read that he was not American, invoking right-wing racist conspiracy theories targeting McCain’s opponent. Immediately, John McCain grabbed the microphone and adamantly denounced this, stating that “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.”
Ten years later, President Barack Obama delivered a powerful and glowing eulogy at McCain’s funeral, in which he stated that, even though they were “standard-bearers of different American political traditions” and had many differences, “We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism… and when all was said and done we were on the same team.”
Oh, how far we’ve fallen. Decency and mutual respect among partisans is a foreign concept in today’s America, and it is showing scant signs of returning any time soon. Over the past four years, America has seen its strongest democratic institutions and values crumble. The sanctity of disagreement and the freedom of the press has been compromised, with politicians feuding with any and all dissenters and lambasting media outlets, whose scrutiny of government is rejected as “fake news.” Civil discourse among citizens and politicians alike has been replaced by partisan vitriol and the villainization of opposing parties. We have sowed distrust and discord in our institutions and in ourselves, in our homes and in our schools, in our words and in our actions. We have surrounded ourselves with what we believe to be true and rejected ideas that conflict with our own. We are no longer Americans–we are either Republicans or Democrats. And that is scary.
But this is not who we are. This is not who we want to be. This is not who we can be. This is not how a society and a democracy functions and survives, but rather how it withers and dies. This is not how unity is built or how progress is reached. In this unforgiving and bellicose atmosphere, we are reduced to our most tribalistic tendencies. If vitriol permeates our interactions with those who disagree with us on fundamental issues, no progress will be made and we will only burrow deeper into our respective ideological echo chambers–a place where no one wins and we all lose.
But we are better than our government. We can reject the fearmongering and divisive rhetoric. We can return to a place where political discourse between citizens is built upon discussions of “disagreements on fundamental issues,” as McCain said, rather than the hateful attacks on individuals and identities that have grown to define this administration and the dangerous brand of politics it plays. To be very clear, I believe that there is an objective right and wrong side in today’s American political climate–but this does not define us. It did not define us in 2008 when McCain stood up for the integrity of President Obama when he could have fueled a politically helpful conspiracy, nor does it define us now. We can come out of this era of darkness and begin to build an America that abides by its founding promises and encourages dissent and accountability, but we cannot do this if we do not see each other as equally deserving of those founding promises and if we cannot talk about the issues that affect us most without trading personal barbs. We can only grow as a society if we let those who disagree with us know they can grow too. The path to restoring the tattered fabric of our democracy starts with us–right here at Bates.
The past few days at Bates have been a microcosm of the larger identity crisis our nation is facing. Certain Instagram posts and comments over the past few days have been a symptom of a much greater illness that we must seek to heal from. And this healing comes through communication.
America is a land of great diversity, whether racial, religious, ideological or otherwise. This is what makes us strong, but what could also be our Achilles heel. Bates is no different. For many students, college is the first real chance to experience life outside of our hometowns, families, and the different environments we were raised in. We have come from across the country and the world, bringing countless different perspectives and beliefs that reflect our respective upbringings, especially who and what we have been exposed to before Bates. This diversity of perspectives includes, yes, different political ideologies. For all of us, college is one of the first places we can expose ourselves to different ideas and people and challenge our beliefs. This can be a profound opportunity for all of us to learn from each other and grow–but only if we let it.
Our beliefs and affiliations are malleable and can change depending on what we experience and what we are exposed to. If you see yourself on the right side of an issue and see someone you think is on the wrong side, the only way to bring them over to the right side is to sit down, listen to why they believe what they do and what factors influenced that, and explain where you are coming from and why you believe your side to be right. Communication, a sense of common humanity, and the hope for change opens opportunities for personal growth and ideological development. Casting aspersions on those on the other side does the opposite. If a belief is met with hostility, that belief will only be strengthened and the person holding that belief will resort to surrounding themselves with those who hold the same beliefs instead of trying to challenge it. In a school, country, and world where there are many ideologies and political parties to resort to and identities to shelter behind, we are left divided with no hope for healing and progress.
As difficult as it is, especially now, seeking to understand where other beliefs and ideas come from and communicating your own beliefs and ideas and where they come from is the only way we can build a school community, nation, and world that we can all see a future in. Communication and empathy lead to the understanding that facilitates growth and progress, and, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?
President Abraham Lincoln once said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Well, Bobcats, let us all be carpenters, striving together to repair our beloved, divided school, country, and world. The choice is ours.