For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.
This article is part of the #BuildItBackBetter track “The Relational Era: Building a Culture of Connection, Bridging and Belonging” — presented in partnership with Einhorn Collaborative.
Can Americans get along across the political divide? Should they even try? After all, for many left-leaning Americans especially, getting along can mean reinforcing a status quo that is, among other things, miserably inequitable, racist and sexist. So is it possible to bridge divides — to have unity and economic, racial and gender justice?
Achieving these twin goals is no small feat, and it will require work on many different fronts. Perhaps most centrally, it will mean doing two things we rarely do: creating regular opportunities for difficult conversations that advance both of these goals in the places where we spend much of our lives, including schools, workplaces and religious institutions; and having hard conversations about moral principles and creating for these conversations a moral framework.
How do we do this?
One aspect of a moral framework is creating conditions where people can assume that their beliefs — but not their fundamental worth — will be contested. Our research suggests that Americans are willing to talk across the divide, if they feel they will be respected.
In a survey that Making Caring Common, an organization I lead at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted of 1,400 Americans last July, most respondents are having conversations with those who don’t share their political views, but they tend to find these conversations only marginally useful or not useful at all. Yet 80% reported they would be “happy” to engage in conversations with people who have opposing political views if the other person “listens to” them “respectfully.”
But perhaps more important, we will need to create a moral framework that enables us to confront challenges at the heart of our democracy — challenges that we rarely take on squarely in community institutions, workplaces, or schools at any level, including universities. Important as it is to create environments where people feel respected and to encourage multiple views, it’s also critical to protect people from disrespect and degradation. And these two rights — the right to free speech and the right to freedom from discrimination — frequently collide.
Teachers have asked me, for instance, if they should invite diverse views on same-sex relationships in a class when they have religious students who think that homosexuality is a sin along with LGBTQ students who will not only feel attacked by this view but may be subject to harassment outside of class. Many Americans believe that immigrants tend to be criminals or that low-income families lack a work ethic — should they be encouraged to express these views?
Difficult as it is to navigate these topics, it’s hard to imagine that we can rebuild our democracy if we don’t try. And there are guideposts that can mitigate harm and help make a wide range of conversations constructive.
We can create clear norms for these conversations, including challenging ideas rather than people, expecting mistakes, appreciating the complexity of other people as one appreciates one’s own, owning the impact of one’s actions and assuming others’ good intentions. In our recent survey, over half of respondents reported holding back “a lot of things” they want to say out of fear of offending someone unintentionally.” We can also start with simple exercises that build empathy and help to retrieve one another’s humanity.
Those facilitating these conversations can consistently ask what burdens they should be asking people to bear and whom they should be asking to bear them. Should an immigrant student be expected to engage in a conversation about deportation? Should a gay student be expected to endure a conversation about whether homosexuality is a sin? We might use brief surveys to assess participants’ views about discussing highly sensitive topics and give participants opportunities to opt out of certain conversations.
We will need to do the difficult work of creating a moral framework that enables us to discern political arguments that have a strong moral basis from those that do not. Moral relativism, the idea that no moral position is better than another, is rampant in our schools and communities, and it’s dangerous. Universal principles of justice and human rights need to be constant touchstones in these conversations. Many Americans couldn’t distinguish in Charlottesville between marching to degrade human rights and marching to protect them. There are strong arguments, rooted in these principles, both for and against various strategies for limiting immigration. But there isn’t a strong moral argument for separating parents and children at the border, a form of childhood torture and a violation of human rights.
These discussions will be murky and contentious at times—there will be reasonable disagreements, for example, about whether an argument violates human rights—and there will be land mines. But that in itself teaches an important moral lesson. We live in an age of morality lite. Far too often we neglect to teach our children or remind ourselves that being a caring, ethical person isn’t simply about being nice. It’s often about the difficult work of wringing moral truths out of the mud of many views and avoiding the smug, easy gratifications of demonizing others. It’s about staying true to fundamental ethical values—whether free speech or protection from discrimination– even if it means at times angering others and sacrificing harmony and happiness. It’s about being willing to rigorously probe our own biases.
None of this will be easy. But for far too long we’ve avoided these conversations, and it is upon this work that our brave, imperiled democracy depends.
Rick Weissbourd is currently a senior lecturer on education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and at the Kennedy School of Government. He is also the faculty director of the Making Caring Common project and the faculty co-director of the Human Development and Psychology master’s program.