Calling It Out
In July I wrote in this space about the need for quality community conversations that could help bridge political and social divisions that seem to be tearing at our national fabric.
I still believe those conversations are necessary. And it is heartening that Spokane Faith and Values, in collaboration with others, might be among the facilitators.
But a provocative FāVS coffee talk last weekend started me thinking that those sorts of conversations are not alone sufficient to address our deepest divisions and, in some ways, may be counterproductive.
Political Differences Will Always Be Here
In a political system such as ours, we will always have political differences. Raise taxes or lower taxes? That is a political question. Health care for all or health care based on private enterprise? That is a political question. America first or global player? A political question. Gun control or Second Amendment rights? A tough political question.
Those are the issues that help define a true red/blue divide.
Facilitated conversations between political adversaries that begin with a search for common ground, can bridge that political divide and lead us to something the late social scientist and pollster Daniel Yankelovich called “public judgment.”
But the issues that most truly pose an existential threat to our democratic experiment, are not political. They are philosophical. Trying to shoehorn them into that red/blue divide is to deny reality. Last month’s election provided stark evidence of that truth.
In my July column, I referenced the moral principles of DeMarco and Fox, principles that help distinguish between causes for which reasonable debate has value and those causes that are simply morally wrong and for which no argument can be made.
Is there a political debate to be held on issues of white supremacy? On anti-Semitism? Is there a political debate to be had with people who would force my daughter to give up her wife? Is there really a political debate to be had about issues of systemic racism? Or about immigration policies that put little brown children in cages?
Some Things You Can’t Debate
Denial of basic human rights to some people because of particular, personal qualities is wrong. There are no two sides to that debate.
Those looking to facilitate healing conversations have the best intentions and their efforts should proceed, especially as they deal with traditional political divides.
But what is the value of individual conversations with racists, homophobes, anti-Semites? With anti-anyones?
Yes, individual conversations have the potential to help educate and reform racists and homophobes. Yes, universal love rooted in spirituality can move people into the light.
But the biggest, most divisive issues we face are mass movements not individual failings, and sadly, too often based on a twisted interpretation of religion and spirituality.
Can We Rely on Discussion?
Can we really rely on slow-moving one-to-one interaction to move us in the right direction?
It has not worked in our past. When the KKK experienced a resurgence of support in the early 20th century, especially here in the Northwest, that movement was not thwarted by individual conversations between KKK members and people of color. It was thwarted by concerted political and social action initiated by true heroes who stood up against fear and intimidation to speak for what was right.
The civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not make progress by sitting a southern racist at the table with a civil rights activist in search for common ground. Its successes came at the hands of activist warriors who put their lives on the line to promote meaningful political change.
The reforms (still insufficient) generated by Black Lives Matter did not come as a result of individual conversations between African Americans and single police officers, but rather through massive, largely peaceful street protests that energized those seeking political reform.
A Renaissance of Hate
We are seeing a renaissance of hate in this country. The ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have all documented a frightening proliferation of hate groups and a terrifying increase in hate crimes in the last four years.
Let me be clear; the vast majority of the 74 million voters who supported President Trump last month are not racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, homophobes. But tens of thousands, possibly a few million, are just that, depending on who is doing the count.
Those are the people in our midst who accept the idea that basic human rights can be parceled out on the basis of their own biases. Sitting at the table with a white supremacist or any other hate monger in a search for common ground does nothing more than suggest there are two sides to be debated and so establishing a false equivalence.
Not Subjects for Conversation
Hate and discrimination are not subjects for conversation. They are threats that demand action.
I am not advocating the kind of violent action, demanded by too many on both ends of the spectrum. But there is political action to be taken, in city councils, county commissions and legislatures. There is the power in the vote, as we have seen.
And there is enormous power in our voices. We must speak, not in the spirit of reconciliation but in the spirit of defiance. I have heard the phrase in recent weeks, “call in, not call out,” meaning we should engage quietly and civilly with those whose views are contrary to our own. I reject that notion as it relates to these most divisive issues. See racism, call it out. See a racist, call them out. Apply social pressure. Ostracize and isolate. Make it clear we will not quietly acquiesce to hate in hopes people will embrace universal love and suddenly see the light.
There is a place for conversations that try to bridge the red/blue gap. I would be delighted to participate.
But hate is not red versus blue. It is good versus evil. Believing otherwise is to give it fertile ground in which to grow.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.
Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.
Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.