Our nation has never fully agreed on much, but it hasn’t always torn itself apart

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Our house is divided. Perhaps more than at any time since the Civil War, Americans seem to occupy two different worlds, suspicious of the other and wary that the view of the “other” represents a threat to cherished, inviolate truths about what America is all about. This tension has humbled a nation whose unity helped win its freedom from the world’s strongest empire nearly 250 years ago, see it through a civil war and defeat fascism and communism.

Where is that unity today or the strength it helps fuel? In its absence, it has come to violence in the very halls of our national capitol.

From our country’s founding, there have been a series of conflicts with one unresolved theme: Slavery, suffrage, and civil rights have the same pressure — an unwillingness to recognize the value and rights of those whom the powerful deem “different.” In our civilization — and every other — there are endless stories of those with power being unwilling to share it.

Yet, our awareness of this weakness from generation to generation has made possible the courage to make steady, incremental change. Let us not forget where we started — with a constitution that counted enslaved human beings as 3/5 of a person and where enfranchisement was limited only to wealthy white men. We are far from the goal of equity, but the sacrificial work of leaders and martyrs has improved our shared plight.

Sacrificial. Lincoln, King, Kennedy and thousands of others who never received fame, paid the ultimate price for this progress.

We are grateful for their courage and commitment, and on their shoulders we stand today as we reach higher to recognize the humanity in those with whom we disagree.

The sacrifice we are called upon to make today is smaller. We must try to understand a viewpoint that doesn’t seem to make sense, and the life experiences that gave rise to it. It can be gut wrenching to do, but it is a necessity for a democracy to survive.

We are justifiably outraged at the ransacking of the Capitol, but we must also ask what led those who did it to believe the presidential election was stolen. We may condemn riots that burn down shops and neighborhoods, but we should ask what leads people to feel they have no other choice. We must ask how we got here — because unless we understand that and address the root causes, we cannot move forward.

No one wins hearts and minds by yelling more loudly than the other side. Both sides lose their hearing.

To be united is not to agree on everything, but to agree that some interests and values rise above all others. Our nation has never fully agreed on much, but it has not always torn itself apart because of it.

This is something we try to model in higher education. To read Marx does not make you a communist. To hear a lecture by Rand Paul does not make you a libertarian. Understanding another perspective can better help you form your own. This can be especially true in trying to understand a perspective that may be totally opposite of your own. Every socialist should read Ayn Rand. Every conservative should read the New York Times editorial page.

Indoctrination is not the goal. Those who have been indoctrinated to a cause are not true believers. They are simply parrots, repeating what they have been told without real understanding or thought. Those with a shallow understanding are scared to confront other beliefs and perspectives. Those with deep understanding and commitment are not.

Those who want to rebuild unity and democracy will seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Being rude on social media or getting in yelling matches on cable TV are acts of those with shallow beliefs and understanding. These are actions of the weak and insecure, who don’t actually understand or care for the significance and gravity of the ideas at hand. We need leaders and citizens who are bigger than that.

John Comerford is president of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Follow on Twitter @Otterbein.

Tags Academic freedom American democracy American Values compromise free speech opposing views Oppression political polarization Rand Paul Understanding

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