Political Discourse, Elections, and Our Obligation to Civic Discourse

I wanted to thank Mr. Miller and Ms. Munkittrick for organizing these upcoming discussions and I wanted to offer a few remarks on the upcoming US election, which is now twenty days away. Given the role that the United States plays in world affairs, everyone has a stake—and I hope an interest—in this election. Across the country people are already voting by mail, and on November 3 polls will open. It is not at all clear that when we wake on the morning of November 4th and make our way to classes there will be a clear result. The vote is likely to quite close in many States, and we may have to be patient for the votes to be counted and, if necessary, recounted. In some States, counts may be contested, by one side or another, and state and federal courts may need to adjudicate the results. The Bush-Gore election of 2000—just before you were born—was not settled until December 12, 2000 when the US Supreme Court finally ruled on the Florida recount—at which point Vice President Gore graciously conceded defeat to President-Elect George W. Bush. In short, we should be prepared for uncertainty.

This election promises to be hard fought, contentious and divisive—and complicated given that it will take place against the backdrop of the pandemic. It will not be the first—or even the most—divisive election in American history. But there is no question that we are living through a period or polarization and division unique in my lifetime. It is likely that these divisions—and the acrimonious political climate they have engendered—will persist well beyond this election, regardless of who wins. They will be a part of your political and civic coming of age.

It is easy to despair at the state of our political discourse—which can be shallow, mean-spirited, ugly. Elections represent our imperfect attempt to reach for a better collective future, but too often they are treated as the political equivalents of professional sport rivalries or gladiatorial combat—with all of the shouting, taunting and gloating that comes with it. But it does not need to be this way.

As we look to the election and beyond, we have a unique opportunity—we have an obligation—to counter these trends. A I said in my letter to you just before the beginning of school on our use of social media, our goal as a school, as a place of learning, is to elevate the tone of our school-wide discussion, stand athwart this tide of acrimony and say: no.

We do this—we say no—by practicing what I would call civic sportsmanship. We reject the name-calling, mean-spirited invective, shouting and acrimony that too often deforms and distorts our public discourse.

We do this by rejecting—categorically and emphatically—the kinds of racist, hateful and discriminatory speech that finds favor on the internet and among political fringes and factions. We recognize that some forms of speech are harmful: intimidating and threatening speech, harassing speech, bullying speech—on and off line. Those here who take an expansive, more libertarian view of speech rights should know that these categories of speech remain unprotected, proscribed by custom, law and our own school values. The reason these forms of speech are prohibited is a simple one, especially for a community committed to inclusive excellence and learning: it’s makes it difficult, if not impossible, for others to learn because they are deeply painful.

Instead, we practice “conscientiousness” of speech. Yes, we engage in discussion and dialogue, often on issues that are contested, but we try to take care with our words, we weigh them, and we take responsibility for the impact they have on others. We seek to avoid those slights, insensitive remarks—often of a racial or ethnic cast, often unintended—that makes others feel unwelcome, alone, marginalized, knowing, as well, that our friends and peers will misspeak, make mistakes. And when we do misspeak or err—as we each of us will—we take responsibility for the impact our words have on others.

We embrace respectful dialogue, intellectual civility and what the philosopher John Rawls calls the “public use of reason”—these are the necessary skills of citizenship in a diverse democracy and they will serve you well in college, in the workplace and, I assure you, in life.

We recognize that within this student body there is a great diversity of viewpoints, opinions and political belief across a range of issues, informed by our religious convictions, our experience and backgrounds. There are as many views of the world in this tent as there are people sitting in it.

More than this, there is, to paraphrase the great American poet Walt Whitman, a great diversity within each of us that is irreducible to easy political labels. Last week the faculty heard from Diana Hess, the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Wisconsin. Her research into the political lives of high school students showed that, when polled, any individual student’s views on pressing public issues span the range of the full political spectrum. It is a rare student—to use her language—who thinks consistently blue or red on all issues. There is an inner complexity within each of us. Her research also revealed, not surprisingly, that on many issues, students don’t know what they think; they are uncertain. That is ok, even preferable in some ways; it is the beginning of curiosity—of an active, engaged civic life.

We celebrate the diversity of viewpoints in this tent this morning, recognizing this as a great strength of this community. We know that any number of educational outcomes increase when we have the opportunity to live a diverse community. We learn more. We deepen our powers of empathy and understanding. When we listen deeply and attentively —when we learn to listen and listen to learn—we free ourselves from misconceptions, from the narrow limits of our own experience, from error and bias. Scientists in a range of disciplines have begun to catalogue the many forms of bias that warp out thinking: confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, pessimism bias, optimism bias—the list goes on and on.

There is only one way to free ourselves from these: to fully embrace learning. Read widely – and against the grain of our own thinking in order test and refine that thinking. I would challenge you to get out of whatever media bubble you might inhabit, to diversify your reading. If you lean to one side of the political spectrum seek out the best thinkers from the other. Engage openly and generously. Listen deeply to those with different opinions. Be willing to reconsider what you think and change your views—if the discussion and evidence moves you in that direction. That, in my view, is one of the hallmarks of a truly educated person. Practice the scholarly virtues of thoughtfulness: the courage to embrace complexity, uncertainty; the habit of asking questions; the humility to recognize the limits of our own knowledge; the discipline of reason-based, evidence-based civic inquiry and exploration. The world, Deerfield, our classrooms will be better if you do.

Thank you for listening this morning. Please observe physical distancing as you leave, and seniors lead the way.

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