In February, Idaho Public Television aired the documentary American Creed, in which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy come together with prominent figures at all points on the political spectrum to ask what beliefs we hold in common as Americans. The documentary illustrates how civil and meaningful conversation can be had, even in times of disagreement or intense polarization.
To encourage local high school students to share their thoughts on civility, IdahoPTV hosted a writing contest for students in grades 10 through 12. They were encouraged to view the following clip from American Creed, in which Joan Blades, founder of MoveOn.org, and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, form an unexpected bond.
Students then wrote and submitted essays between 750 and 1,000 words on the topic of finding civility and common ground during times of disagreement.
Congratulations to the following students, whose essays were selected as the winners. The winning entries are published below.
1st place: Alexandra Ryan, “First, We Will Listen”
2nd place: Seth Husney, “Beloved Community in the 21st Century”
3rd place: Aziz Ouedraogo, “Selecting Compassion for Stability”
1st place: “First, We Will Listen” by Alexandra Ryan
America’s story is one of tragedy and triumph. She’s seen the blood and brutality of the Civil War, echoed the call of Women’s Suffrage, split herself to black and white then did her best to blur the lines. Her people have cried for change, fought for freedom, fought each other then came together. She wears 50 stars for her 50 children, and like any family, the 50 do not always find common ground. Yet when we change how our conversations are structured and focus on our humanity before our political party, we can find civility in the 50 and ease the intense polarization America has come to identify with. We can recognize our rights as both human and constitutional, and remind ourselves that we have a say in what it means to be American. We can achieve all these things and more, but first and foremost, we will listen.
In 2013, I moved to Boise with the firm belief that being conservative meant working for your money and being liberal meant expecting the government to take care of all your needs and complaining when that didn’t happen. I had never been truly exposed to poverty, race, or gender inequality. To me, all of the fights aimed to ease tension between minorities and the privileged were just getting in the way of American progress. I was ignorant but happy with my limited dictionary of political paraphrasing, and didn’t feel the need to expand my vocabulary. Then I met my best friend.
He was just as reluctant and stubborn as I was to alter what it meant to be republican vs. democratic; only he believed in everything that I stood against: pro-choice, Black Lives Matter, feminism. He was the leftist that I had turned into a villian. As for me, I was his elite, oppressive counterpart. It felt like the only common ground we had was our age. But as we began to grow up together, our willingness to listen to each other began to emerge. He soon taught me that women should have a say as to what happens to their bodies while I showed him the profound effect God has on my understanding of life. He allowed me to understand my racial privilege, not attack it, and I began to see how naive I had been to think Black people were wasting their breath, fighting for rights I thought they already had. I showed him that feminism isn’t automatically something you come to terms with just because you are female, and he showed me that feminism doesn’t just belong to female bodied women. We changed the way we defined terms we previously conceived as concrete. Being conservative no longer meant being a capitalist hero and being liberal wasn’t equivalent to being a lazy communist. My old adversary soon become my closest friend. We still disagree on many things, but we’ve added respect to our political dictionaries. Common ground doesn’t mean manipulating language until we create a definition we can agree on. It’s acknowledging each other’s differences and bettering ourselves to understand these differences. It’s having conversations that don’t involve targeting those that make us feel uncomfortable, but listening to those that need to be heard; even if we don’t always love what they have to say. To have civility in America, we have to accept that we might not always be right when it comes to political terminology; and paraphrasing is just as dangerous as as avoiding a conversation altogether.
When the recent Parkland shooting happened and the tragic loss of 17 lives occurred, America went numb. Some wept, some offered condolences, but many raised their voices. The conversation changed from “save our guns” to “save our lives.” As I watched teenagers my own age, all of different genders, races, religions, and backgrounds fighting for the protection of themselves and each other, I could feel a shift in America’s climate; this was iconic. Human factors that have unjustly yet constantly caused division within our society were, even if only momentarily, put to rest. Why? Because the hundreds of voices protesting for better gun control belonged to human beings. Of course the differences between red and blue were carried into their protests; only this time, not as opponents. Whatever you were – liberal, conservative, or somewhere in the middle – you were a human being first. And when those kids saw that before the donkey or the elephant, they made America listen.
Let’s allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable with our political views. Let’s allow the platform of our conversations to be the understanding of each other’s backgrounds. For America to make progress in our polar political parties, we have to understand where the polarization came from in the first place. We may not like or share the same views, but I can respect yours if you respect mine. Don’t attack me; educate me. Show me why it is you feel oppressed or angry and why you think the conservative way or the liberal way is the best way. Talk to me with your humanity, not your party. Acknowledge my gender, race, and religion but don’t use it against me. If we can take the time to accept that different doesn’t mean enemy, then we can find our civility. With that, we can achieve what the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage Movement, and Parkland kids all achieved: We can make America listen.
2nd place: “Beloved Community in the 21st Century” by Seth Husney
Our nation is one forged in the fires of conflict, the truths of freedom continually reaffirmed in strife. It is through this disagreement that the greatest progress has been made. Whether it was the preservation of the Union during the time of Lincoln, or the March on Washington within the lifetime of my parents, Americans have displayed a passion for discourse in our constantly evolving country. As a nation of the people, we have an obligation to disagree and debate, and do so with civility. Without courteous debate, we become polarized, pigeonholed into our own beliefs. In a country as diverse as the Untied States, we will never reach a universal consensus, but as a nation indivisible, we must embrace disagreement, and be dedicated to each other and our country regardless.
The idea that we must believe in each other even when we disagree can be summed up using the concept of The Beloved Community. A core idea of Martin Luther King and non-violent Civil Rights crusaders, The Beloved Community is rooted in coexistence and peace. It is the goal of civil discourse, an idyllic yet achievable state of humanity in which different ideologies unite to fight for universal wellbeing. But this idea is not based on the unrealistic belief that every person must believe the same thing, rather it is about utilizing civil disagreement as a platform for progress rather than viewing it as an obstacle. Activist Bell Hooks described that The Beloved Community “is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” We do not need to share the same viewpoint, but instead have a reverence and respect for other perspectives, and a deeper understanding of the context of others’ beliefs. It is about recognizing our different backgrounds and becoming stronger because of them.
Central to productive civil discourse and the beloved community is the idea of agape love. It is a kind of love different from romantic or brotherly love that extends to greater humanity. Agape is a sense of understanding and togetherness that surpasses boundaries—a dedication to love even in the face of hate. All too familiar with hate, Martin Luther King described that agape “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.” It is this kind of passion that overcomes polarization. By believing in each other’s humanity, artificial divisions like political party are superseded. Agape seeks to unite, rather than divide. This kind of devotion in the face of intense disagreement has been key throughout our history. The successes of the African American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s came not of anger and violent protest, but from everyday people, (and lots of them), courteously demonstrating love in action. The dedication to civility of these citizens extended all the way to the disagreement of a police baton. This civility and agape has also been vital to our democracy on a more personal basis. Supreme court justices Anton Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg adjudicated many major cases, and they were usually on opposite ends of the legal spectrum. However, they maintained a personal friendship, while challenging each other intellectually. Ginsberg and Scalia’s discussion and disagreement strengthened their arguments, and their decisions reinforced our government. Without the civility with which they argued, and the personal respect they had for one another, the justices would have been unable to fulfill their roles of their office, becoming set in their own polarized views. By approaching each other with courtesy, disagreement can be based in understanding, and polarization can be overcome.
When there is not civility, no common ground can be found. Our nation has been weak in times where we could not come together and recognize each other as human. One such time when civility deteriorated was in the years before the Civil War. In 1856, democratic Senator Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of abolition. This symbolized the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” that ultimately resulted in the greatest bloodshed our country has ever seen and the splitting of the Union. Today, intense polarization has become common with the ubiquity of media. Each side has its own extreme news source, the viewers of which only become more set in their beliefs as they are only shown one side of every story. Social media plays into our biases, as we lose understanding of other people. The citizens of this country have become increasingly tied to one side or another and have begun to dehumanize those that don’t agree with them. Just months ago in Charlottesville Virginia, far-right demonstrators met counter protesters with torches and assault rifles. The only discussion came in the form of hateful chants. The result of this was one dead and nineteen injured counter protestors run over by a far-right demonstrator. Civility was abandoned for violence, no progress was made, and the gap between the two sides only widened. As a nation we need to consider events like this, and reconstruct the ways in which we disagree.
Today is a new dawn for political activism in the United States. People have taken to the streets in record numbers to engage with their democracy. Now we have the opportunity to look back at our history and choose to take this energy and use it to start building understanding. The American discourse is never over, but by integrating the ideas of The Beloved Community into our culture, our country can rise from civil atrophy, and continue to grow and progress. By basing our discourse on love rather than hate, we will only become stronger.
3rd place: “Selecting Compassion for Stability” by Aziz Ouedraogo
Back when I was in 7th grade, I happened to meet someone who would later become my best friend. She had moved here from Ohio and when we first met, it did not seem like the two of us would get along. At the time, I was very liberal, loud, and outspoken. She on the other hand was much more conservative, quiet, and reserved. Today, the roles are nearly reversed, my political views have become much more conservative and I’m much less forthright. Accordingly, her views have become much more progressive and she is more forward than ever. Having discussed this together, we attribute much of this to each other and this is why.
By the time we were talking politics, we were good friends and I think this made all political discussion possible. We saw each other as people, as friends, and we were genuinely interested in trying to unlock the other’s perspective. I remember well the first political topic we debated. It was abortion, a hot topic issue for both sides of the American political spectrum. I am, and have been pro-choice, while she is and has been pro-life, but what’s changed is our reason for supporting each side. Back then, she argued strongly for the right of the child while I defended the rights of the mother. Here we could not come to an agreement. I remember this discussion so well because it actually made me remember that I feel life begins at conception. When my friend initially shared this idea with me opposing abortion, I rejected it; it did not fit with my narrative as a feminist, yet I still wanted to understand my friend’s perspective. Something to know about me is that I am a lover of science, thus my friend proposed the idea of life beginning at conception from this perspective. While I am still pro-choice, I now evaluate another life in my stance. From the biological perspective, I think it is foolish to ever say that two living creatures would come together and not result in another living creature. Because of this realization, I have a much greater appreciation for the pro-life perspective and I do not dismiss it like I previously did, although I remain pro-choice. I can also defend my position less ignorantly as I now know that between my passion for science and previous view of abortion, I was contradicting myself. Having discussed this shift in views with my friend, I know that for her, while still pro-life she now sees many more gray areas in which abortion may be the right option because of the conversations that we’ve shared.
In the five I’ve spent getting to know the political perspective of my best friend, I can say that my views have gone from socialist to independent. Over the past five years, there have been many moments like the one detailed above in which my views have shifted because I have found a flaw in my own opinions. Unfortunately, this is not received well by those around me, I’ve found that I’m now too conservative for liberals yet not conservative enough for the right. For example, my mother comments on how unsatisfactory it is that I love capitalism and rights of the individual. I’ve noticed it’s become too easy to think as a political identity instead of an individual human being, and this is coming from someone who cannot yet vote. I think what makes civility difficult to achieve during times of intense polarization is exactly this, forgetting that humans are messy, and one’s opinions may not align completely with anything. When this is forgotten, it is difficult to do as I did and see your own opinion from another’s perspective. I have seen that our American allegiance to our political parties his makes it difficult to forgive. For example, during election season a girl in my little sister’s 7th grade class requested that she ‘go back to Africa’ when they were discussing Trump. One day I returned home from school and told my family about a new friend I had made. My sister told me that my new friend was the older sister of the ‘racist’ girl in her class, and my mom was not happy that I was her friend. She was still upset about what that girl said to my sister, but in my opinion that girl was merely echoing her parents. I found it amazing that my mother could not find it in her to forgive a child who was likely unware of her actions until I realized it was due to her attachment to her political identity.
We need to stop dividing ourselves during times of disagreement or intense polarization and this will lead to civility. As a scientist, I can relate most things to a natural phenomenon that fascinates me. A component of evolution is stabilizing selection, or when members of the same species begin to display less extreme traits and start displaying one non-extreme trait. If there were birds laying eggs in clutches of 3, 5, and 10, over time they would all begin to have clutches of 5 as this is not too much or too little. I think this is what America needs politically, from both extremes, we need to come together to a stable, central mean. Like my best friend and I did, we need to understand the perspectives of other humans and not act as political identities. This division makes civility impossible and I think shifting from a battle of identities to a unity of individuals can change everything. Compassion on the individual level can stabilize our political climate and selecting it could change many things, like allowing mothers to forgive children.
The documentary American Creed was co-produced by Citizen Film and WTTW – Chicago PBS with major support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
IdahoPTV thanks its partners in its American Creed community conversations and writing contest efforts: The Idaho Statesman and Boise State University Center for Idaho History and Politics.