What follows is the text of a speech that I gave to the Harwood Union High School student body during an Assembly on Dec 5, 2016.
Since the election I have received numerous messages from Harwood students – from many of you in the audience and from many alumni. As a response I feel called to offer up some reflections on this election and on our democracy today.
This is one of the most significant elections of our lifetimes. Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of this vote, we are now in an unprecedented situation in American history. Let me just mention just a few facts to put this election in context:
- Although Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency, she won the popular vote by over 2 million votes. Her lead in the popular vote exceeded the winning percentages of seven elected Presidents.
- This is not the first time that the individual who won the popular vote lost the election; however, this large vote differential makes Donald Trump the least popular winner of the American presidency in the past 192 years.
- Only 57.9 % of eligible voters participated in this election-yet that means 43% of eligible individuals did not vote, and this is a frightening thought
- Clinton received 49% of the vote while Trump garnered 48%. We are a nation divided –perhaps more so than any time in our recent history. Indeed, we are a nation at war with each other in many ways.
Hate Crimes and public displays of bigotry and prejudice are on the rise. The FBI reported that attacks against American Muslims are surging , and hate crimes are on the rise across the country. There were 5,818 hate crimes in 2015 — an increase of 6 % over the previous year. This includes assaults, bombings, threats, and property destruction directed against minorities, women and LGBTQ individuals. Two weeks ago, Nazi swastikas appeared on a local Jewish community center in Middlebury VT, and on the dorm door of a Muslim student at Middlebury College someone spray-painted the words “F you— Muslims– go home.”
We know that democracy is fragile, and that democracies can be lost. We have a course here at Harwood that examines the reasons why the Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic fell. And yes… as an answer to those of you who have asked me about the health of our democracy, I do see that the same factors that fractured these Ancient democracies are salient today- such as the development of factions, growing inequality, the rise of extremism and the loss of the middle ground, the rise of demagogues who play on emotion rather than reason, and changing of the meaning of words. How many of you how Thucydides warned the Athenians when he commented, “They were willing to do away with Justice when it suited their purpose”? Most importantly, I believe that the loss of dialogue and civil discourse presents a real threat to our Republic- and yet this is an issue that we can most easily address in our own lives.
Our country is more divided than ever: Republican vs. Democrat, rural vs. urban, straight vs. gay, rich vs. poor, white vs. black. What is unfortunate is that people see those who do not agree with them not only as “different”, but also as “dangerous.” It is clear that to move forward as a nation- we will have to work with people we disagree with on virtually every political issue.
But how do we do this?
I am struck by how often how political talk- indeed how all talk about others takes place when those “others” are not in the room. We talk about those Republicans, those Democrats, those kids from the Valley, those jocks, those teachers –we often talk ABOUT ‘those people”, but we rarely talk WITH them. We talk mostly with people who reinforce our own beliefs and values. This may be natural, but when we interact only with those who have the same mindset, this reinforces the US vs. THEM divide.
Let me ask you–What was the last time you solved a problem by talking about people who were not in the room?
When we listen only to those who we agree with, when we read only news sources and visit Internet sites that strengthen our existing beliefs we create an echo chamber. We become more and more convinced of the fact that we are right and that others are wrong- Echo chambers are not healthy; they make us hard of hearing. We need to have conversations with those who feel differently than we do –and to do so we need to put in our hearing aids.
Many of you know that I am deeply committed to the process of creating more authentic classroom dialogue and democratic participation in schools. We need your voices in the classroom, driving the discussion, asking the essential questions, questioning one other and questioning teachers and administrators. To learn from others in community, to listen deeply to each other, to think critically, and to disagree with respect – this is the heart of democracy. If the behavior of the candidates in this last election has taught me anything it is that the role models for civil discourse are not “out there” as shining examples; we each have to begin the work of democracy ourselves, in our daily lives.
Whether you were elated or depressed by the results of this election, this moment in history is a clarion call to listen to and learn from others who feel differently than you do. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. You- or I- do not have to agree with others’ beliefs and values, but if we want others to listen to us, we need to learn to listen to them. Nobody owns the whole truth. We often know less than we think about why other people feel the way they does. When we forget that, trouble begins.
Ask yourself right now- when was the last time you really listened to someone whose personal beliefs or political views are different than yours? It is much easier to call someone a “nasty woman” or a “deplorable” and shame and blame those who do not agree with us than to remain present in relationship- but that is what democracy and human relationships require. Democracy begins with how we treat the people around us every day- with dignity, tolerance respect, and honesty.
Let me be clear- Bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and sexism, are NOT democratic values, and they it should never be tolerated. Silence is dangerous. We must speak up for we believe in and for others who can’t speak for themselves. But we must be careful of how we speak. To emulate our presidential candidates is to demean the privilege of democracy. Your voice is the only thing that no one can every take away from you- it is your most potent weapon and your greatest strength. Use it wisely. Justice doesn’t live in the pages of a book. Inch by inch, page-by-page, step-by-step, and day-by-day you have to live the promise of democracy to keep it alive.
When Democracy is working as it should, it is a complex and confusing mess. However, if we can put in our hearing aids instead of our earplugs, we a better chance of moving our
In these times, we might seek inspiration from our current President. When Obama was asked what he told his daughters about the results of the election he responded:
“What I said to (my kids) is that people are complicated. Societies and cultures are really complicated . . .. This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or that may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop . . .. You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say,” O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward? The running thread through my career, has been this notion that when ordinary people get engaged, pay attention, learn about the forces that affect their lives and are able to join up with others, good stuff happens.”
I agree, and I invite you all to join me in this work. Thank you.