Election Day and Civility Stress

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with permission. This cartoon first appeared earlier this Fall in a post entitled Bombasticball: Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home” )

At the end of this post I have included an excerpt from my email to faculty and staff today, as well as a “Prayer for Civil Debate”, which I wrote for an assembly in which students debated key issues during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. While relevant then, the prayer almost seems quaint now given the extreme vitriol of this election season. The topic of civility has been on my mind for many months and indeed it was the topic of my letter (“An Ask for Civility”) to the St. George’s Independent School community in advance of this school year.

As Head of an independent school, an Episcopal school, I am not called to or inclined to support one party over another or one candidate over another publicly. However, I do believe I am called and educators everywhere are called to announce that we can and must seek a higher bar for discourse in our country. This Presidential campaign has created appalling moments, many of them. It is not business as usual and it is not OK. If we enter into debates (not simply the debates we see on television and social media, but any place where people debate charged topics) with only intent to speak, we will never hear and we will find ourselves shouting. At some point in such an environment, the desire to win at any cost comes to dwarf the desire to tell the truth and to find the best answers to the challenges that face us.

We speak often of character education in our schools. We have appropriately high expectations regarding how to engage other people and how to be a part of a community together. I love the character education aspect of our work because fundamentally I believe that civility, humility, and kindness must be present to balance our passions, beliefs, and opinions. Our emphasis on this balance is vital and relevant in part because history teaches over and over again that it is never an easy thing to achieve AND very little can be accomplished without it.

Our nation has a long and mixed history of success in challenging debates. In the end, however, we have survived because our debates, at times after long enmity, have led to a recognition that we can and must be stronger as a result of each other rather than corroded by presence of each other. In the end we have been our best as a nation when we have been as willing to learn as we are to speak, teach or preach. Too many voices, loud shouting voices, have been telling us recently that it is weakness to seek or try to engage in thoughtful dialogue. If it is a weakness, then the great statesmen and women of history, and specifically our national history, were weak. To assert this is as obscene as it is untrue.

An excerpt from my Friday email to Faculty and staff:
I found myself wincing, not for the first time, last night reviewing the headlines. If you are like me, you are feeling election stress. While the existence of this stress is not unprecedented in general, it is unprecedented in degree this year–it has been a deeply bruising campaign season.
Given all this, it is vital to remember our important role with the young people in our charge even when those around us are dropping their guard. All the simple things good teachers do, regardless of the age of the students in the room, make a difference at a time when we know adults are not the only ones feeling stress. Kids feel it in powerful, often unspoken and hidden ways. So..for our students, please remember… Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are naming them as God’s children, and we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.
Prayer for Civil Debate

Dear Lord, during this season of negative TV ad buys, sniping bumper stickers, relentless media cycles, righteous indignation, overly abundant and overly heated cheap shots, AND during this time of strong feelings, earnest conversations, party platforms, red, white, and blue yard signs, and intelligent debates…

Please help us to remember you and help us to keep an eye on the issues that transcend the political issues of the day. In these moments when we are pushed to delineate what separates us, to name where we disagree, help us to keep an eye on what connects us and what unites us, and let us honor you through the way we honor each other—particularly in those moments when we disagree with each other. Help us to keep an eye on what is bigger than the moment, and give us ears to hear even when we are perhaps looking far more to use our lips to speak.

As we barrel toward the November election, let us, in the words of the psalmist, seek to make the “words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” AMEN

My Candidate Questions Haven’t Changed

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Just over a year ago I posted a list called “Nonpartisan Questions for Presidential Candidates.” What a year it has been since then! I have revised that original post and expanded it. I was reminded of this post when I read a story this morning indicating that as many as 100 million people would tune in to the first debate this evening. 

We are a country that is uncomfortable in our own skin. We are at odds; there is powerful friction between us. We are wrestling with our identity to a degree that has at times driven thoughtful consideration of candidate positions and character under the wheel of the campaign bus. While the list of questions below may seem naive in the context of what is happening in this campaign, I stand by them.

In part, my desire to post my questions is a result of disappointment with the news media for failing to play its full and necessary role. It has too often defaulted to soundbites and a strange kind of pretend that it can play its vital part as the fourth estate through 140 character posts and gotcha video clips. As print journalism seems to be starving less because of access to quality reporting than because of lack of readership, we see coming to fruition the flaw of television and internet journalism, that is, it often prioritizes entertainment and partisan advocacy ahead of delivering news as accurately and completely as possible. With only few exceptions individual media outlets seek to grow, solidify, and sustain market share by working more to preach to the choir of their specific audience than to tell the story before them as truthfully as possible. As a result over time that audience becomes more extreme in its views and more righteous in its expression of them.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of questions I would like the candidates to answer. What questions would you add to the list?

  • What is your definition of the American Dream?
  • What percentage of your income do you donate to causes other than political campaigns?
  • What are you reading? What book has had the greatest impact on you?
  • When did you and how have you reached out to someone or to some group with viewpoints different than your own?
  • As president, which would you value more: the responsibility to represent the people who voted for you or the people of the United States?
  • When have you gone against the majority in your own party?
  • Give an example of when you have chosen the hard right over the easy wrong?
  • What contribution do you most want to make during your presidency and what makes you think you can accomplish it?
  • Imagine you can add or delete one amendment to the constitution: what would you delete or add?
  • How do you spend your limited free time? (question suggested by a former student, John Kutteh, St. George’s Independent School Class of 2016)
  • To whom do you go for good counsel?
  • Describe a mistake you have made and reflect on how you would go about approaching the same situation differently now?
  • What is a lesson you learned as a young person that has stayed with you?
  • What is the most important lesson you have learned about yourself in the last five years?
  • Imagine you can construct your cabinet from only historical figures–who do you put in the cabinet? Who is Secretary of State? Defense Secretary? Etc.

Nonpartisan Questions for Presidential Candidates

The coverage of the 2016 Presidential campaign is getting me down. No matter your particular political views, the race to the bottom on all sides is exhausting, if not surprising.  With this in mind, I have started to compile a list of questions I would like to ask candidates. Doubtlessly, some of the answers would be fascinating and informative. Some questions, I believe, would produce awkward pauses and vacuous responses from a few (or more than a few) candidates. What questions would you add to the list?

  • What is your definition of the American Dream?
  • What percentage of your income do you donate to causes other than political campaigns?
  • What are you reading? What novel has had the greatest impact on you?
  • When did you and how have you reached out to someone or to some group with viewpoints different than your own?
  • As president, which would you value more the responsibility to represent the people who voted for you or the people of the United States?
  • When have you gone against the majority in your own party?
  • Give an example of when you have chosen the hard right over the easy wrong?
  • What contribution do you most want to make during your presidency and what makes you think you can accomplish it?
  • Imagine you can add or delete one amendment to the constitution: what would you delete or add?
  • To whom do you go for good counsel?
  • What is the most important lesson you have learned about yourself in the last five years?
  • Imagine you can construct your cabinet from only historical figures–who do you put in the cabinet? Who is Secretary of State? Defense Secretary? Etc.