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Maintaining the culture of our democracy

John Rogers

Letting ideas spread freely 


October 7, 2020

Humanities Senior Instructor John Rogers spoke during the Sept. 30 all-school meeting about the upcoming presidential election and the current state of politics in the country. This is his talk.

Good afternoon. I’m nervous, but honored, to speak to you today during this important Culver ceremony about an important American ritual. As we all know – or will come to know – Culver is a school filled with powerful ceremonies, which, collectively, work to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us to achieve them. It is within that spirit of reflection and aspiration that I share these words about the upcoming presidential election.  

I find it troubling that less than a third of American millennials – my generation – believe it’s essential to live in a democracy. I believe it’s both an honor and a challenge to have a say. We are fortunate that those who hold office do so because they have won a free and fair election; I get to have a hand in that. And yet it is a challenge because I don’t always get my way, and I have to live among those who disagreed with me.

While democracies in general – and America’s in particular – have their issues, I’ll take my chances in a country where I have a voice, where the legitimacy of our leaders is built from our input (and where our voices can’t be legally silenced by the government), rather than a legitimacy built from a leader’s charisma, or where obedience of citizens is maintained through fear. My grandparents – who lived through the Great Depression, fought fascism in World War II, and saw the downfall of the USSR – would be confused that we even need to have this debate about democracy once again.

But America has a legitimacy crisis right now, and I worry about this election and its lasting impact on our country’s political culture. I could go down lots of rabbit holes – mistrust of our political institutions, low voter turnout, weak civics’ education – but the one I want to hit on today is our hyper-partisan politics.

Our country appears to be more deeply polarized than ever before. Miss (Jennifer) Cerny shared with me a brief newsclip from CBS that captures this problem well. In the clip, a news anchor is interviewing a number of Republicans and Democrats, who were all given the same video to watch. I imagine many of you saw the video this summer; two New York City police cars are stopped as a number of protestors stand in front of the officers’ vehicles. Shortly into the video, the two police cars begin driving forward, running into several protestors.

If you have seen the video already, I’m sure you had an emotional reaction; I did. All viewers agree that the video was horrible. But when asked who was the aggressor, Republicans interviewed quickly blamed the protestors – these were rioters, not protestors; what do you expect to happen when you’re slamming the top of a police car? – while Democrats who watched the clip immediately saw the cops as behaving irresponsibly – why are you running into protestors exercising their first amendment rights to assemble?

Those two very different responses might, or might not, surprise you, but what was revealing was how people reacted when asked if there was another way to see this video. Republicans said that they couldn’t imagine how anybody could see fault lying with the police. And the Democrats could not imagine how the protestors could be at fault. These U.S. citizens saw the same video, came to completely opposite conclusions, and – here’s the kicker – could not imagine that someone could look at that evidence and legitimately interpret it differently.

The problem here isn’t the different interpretations. The problem is the certainty. The clip is short and it’s from one angle. We have no audio. I had my immediate interpretation, but now I wonder: Is it possible that both the officers and the protestors should shoulder some of the blame for this terrible moment? I don’t know. But these voting citizens did not hesitate to blame those that they saw on “the other side.”

What happens when we can’t even imagine that people who disagree with us might have a valid point? We see them and their “team” as stupid or evil; we grow to hate our fellow citizens, to assume that they have bad intentions; we begin to see them as our greatest enemy and as less than fully human. That phenomenon is what we are seeing in America. I want to make clear that this is no single group or individual’s fault. There is lots of blame to go around, including human nature.

We are drawn to stories and events that will anger us, and in a fractured media environment, news outlets are doing what they can to keep people’s attention – so they tap into our anger, helping to pit Republicans against Democrats (and Democrats against Republicans). In fact, interestingly, it is well documented that our feeling of loyalty to our political parties has more to do with our hatred of the other side than any real love for our own – this is known as negative partisanship, and it – I believe – is one of the great challenges of our moment.

We on this campus are not immune to the political climate; at least, I fall prey to self-righteous outrage from time to time. As the election gets closer, I worry about how we will respond to each other. November 2016 was uncomfortable at Culver; there was a malaise and mistrust between students and faculty of all political stripes. It slowly died down, but I never got the sense that it left. I think we have a greater range of political views compared to the normal community. That could be a source of strength. But it felt like a point of fracture last time.

I know the easy answer to all this political talk is just to avoid conversations about politics all together. Don’t engage. Even in class. It’s the polite thing to do in mixed company. But the easy solution will not help us think better, which is, ultimately, what we aim to do at Culver.

In John Stuart Mill’s canonical treatise On Liberty, his second chapter is all about developing a culture where ideas spread freely, recognizing that any bad idea can be, and should be, refuted with a better argument. But if we feel pushed to remain silent in mixed political company, then we all lose out. Minds are not challenged, neither side’s arguments become more refined, and an opportunity to get closer to a better idea is lost. Silence means a missed opportunity.

And remaining quiet will not help us collectively see the humanity in those with whom we disagree, not help us temper our disgust. Back in 2016, Mr. (Ibrahim) Fetuga gave a speech to the whole school, reminding us that we are all Eagles.

I challenge us again to see the humanity in our fellow Eagles. Even if we have very different opinions about what the country needs, I hope we are willing to share a thought or two, and when we hear something that we don’t like, pause, ask a question, and listen; you might learn something. I don’t expect that many – if any of us – will change our minds about the election by listening, by being curious rather than judging immediately, but I hope we can become a little more humble in our interpretation of events, a little less certain about our political positions, and a little more generous in our characterization of those on the opposing side. We owe this to each other as fellow Eagles and fellow citizens.

This October and November, I challenge us to be better than the nation.

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