What Do We Do About It?

 

 

I pondered the title of this blog, then decided to leave it alone. Everyone will know what I mean. Strange, isn’t it? But I think the state of the country is on everyone’s mind. Which is good. It’s high time we stopped taking democracy for granted and give civics—the behavior necessary for the preservation and care of democracy—a more prominent place in our school curriculum. We’re also scared and feeling helpless to break the toxic stalemate. What do we do about it?

My first and humble answer is:

  • Talk about it. A friend of mine recently remarked that the political middle is gone. I hope not. I hope that, like me, they’ve been silenced.
  • Second, acknowledge the part our own side played in creating the mess. Which is what I’ve been trying to do in these recent blogs.
  • Recognize the no one can fix it for us. We told King George we could do it ourselves, thank you. Now we must.
  • Get our brains out of lockdown.

The last is not easy, but when I was teaching composition to college freshmen, I found this list of common values, adapted from Browne and Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions, (p.55), surprisingly useful in shifting students’ mindsets.

Ambition
Autonomy
Collective responsibility
Comfort
Competition
Cooperation
Courage
Creativity

Equality of condition

Equality of opportunity

Excellence

Flexibility

Freedom of speech

Generosity

Harmony

Honesty

Justice

Novelty

Order

Patriotism

Peace

Rationality

Security

Spontaneity

Tolerance

Tradition

Wisdom

 

 

I asked the class to read the list and tell me whether any important values were missing or if any on the list weren’t values. This list has changed in more recent editions of the book, but students rarely suggested any change. I then asked them to choose the three that were most important to them and read them out. The result was an eye-opener, to me, initially, and always to them: though some of the values were repeated far more often than others, no two students read the same three.

The point of this exercise in a composition class was to identify the assumptions that underlie arguments, but it also proved useful in recognizing the values that underlie liberal and conservative viewpoints and to recognize that values are shared. It is the priorities that differ.

The opportunity to use this exercise isn’t likely to present itself in those terms, but making your own list is a useful activity in itself. For example, “equality” and “freedom” were listed without modification in the earlier list, suggesting the author’s changed view of the current situation. You may find other variations. If you then prioritize and guess at the rank-ordering of other groups, you may think about them in different terms, freeing you from the toxic lockdown. In my view, those who value equality and justice above all others tend to be liberal. Those who value order and security, tend to be conservative. Competition and cooperation is another opposing pair. Both are simplifications and over generalizations. We may prioritize different values in different situations. The point is simply that it shifts thinking away from the toxic terms currently assigned to the other party and emphasizes the shared list. In a classroom, it generates the mutual respect that makes discussion of other viewpoints possible.

It’s useful to think of your own experience in those terms also. During the Sixties, when protests for social justice exploded university towns, I was a housewife raising children in Ann Arbor. I was in total agreement with the civil rights protests. But as the chaos increased and spread into the schools, I became acutely aware as a parent, of the need for safety and the stability of community. Ours was a small town community where mothers baby-sat for each other served on PTA boards and held community potlucks. We knew each other, and our children ran free with safety. The women who were the chief glue were, I knew, conservatives. When stoned students and discarded needless appeared in the woods our children played in, I came to value the lost stability as I never had before.

I suspect there are few Americans who haven’t experienced such value conflicts. If we examine our lives in those terms, perhaps we can get out of the thinking that has led us into this mess.

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