Sorting through hundreds of responses to my op-ed A Nation Unsettled and on the Brink, which appeared in Saturday’s edition of The Hill a week ago, I learned that what I’d written had touched a nerve. One thousand five hundred comments, hundreds of emails, and more than a thousand “shares” representing a broad range of readers and opinions affirmed the deep divisions in our nation, where the battle lines have been drawn, and what we can do to defuse civil unrest.
What I had to say about putting the well-being of our nation above our own fears and anger, finding ways to disagree respectfully, listening to one another and our shared responsibility for practicing restraint and finding common ground resonated with a great many people from every part of our country. In addition to the general public, there were responses from community leaders, politicians, and celebrities from both parties who expressed everything from their deep appreciation and support to their utter disdain.
Here are a few more things that I learned from writing this Op-Ed for The Hill:
- By passionately expressing my thoughts about the state of politics on a national stage in front of millions who read The Hill on the weekend before the president of the United States goes on trial to be removed from office, I “agreed” to be a public persona. This made me fair game for everything from adoration to hatred. This also made me more empathetic to what some of our nation’s more outspoken leaders have to deal with every day of their lives.
- I underestimated just how politically entrenched some of my fellow Americans are, how deep these divisions are, and just how much a part of our history this incivility has been. Some of my readers thoughtful comments gave me a historical perspective on some of the ethnic, racial, religious, and regional underpinnings of our division. Factoring in the extent to which some folks are simply unreachable; and the need to recalibrate my understanding, expectations, and approach, were helpful. By prioritizing and directing my time and energy to those who are willing, capable, and open to building rather than tearing down bridges, I have a better chance of making a difference.
Similar to the children I described as having been “caught in the cross fire of their parents’ animosity,” some readers who chose to comment on my op-ed were so steeped in their own rage and righteous anger, so seemingly brainwashed, and so entrenched in their own echo chambers, that they viewed my piece only as an opportunity to spew social-media vitriol.
- I have put the wide range of comments I received into three categories, vitriol, instructive and complementary. The vitriol-based comments were demeaning personal attacks on me and some of the other readers who commented. As one person put it, “These comments are deeply disturbing. The people who wrote them didn’t get the essence of your invitation. Rather, they are real-time examples of your very warning.” These comments consisted primarily of name calling, shaming and derogatory comparisons, and they lacked any real substance.
I was grateful for, and learned a good deal from, the people in the second category, who offered constructive criticism. References to specific periods and instances of civil discord in American history, for example, gave me a broader perspective of how deeply embedded institutional racism, misogyny and other forms of bias can be. These comments also helped me see how resilient we are as a nation, how effectively we have championed social justice and moved forward despite tremendous division, and how we need to do so once again in 2020. Reminders that there is “bias on both sides that undermines any hope of constructive dialogue” and “we need to learn how to slow down and listen to one another” were also helpful.
Finally, I was deeply grateful for the comments and emails in the third category that were complimentary and affirmed my goal of steering America away from a civil war and finding common ground on which we can build a stronger nation. Words of encouragement including “A beautiful message to America,” “Spot on,” “Very thoughtful,” “Well done,” “Incredibly wise,” “You said what needed to be said about doing this for the sake of our nation, and said it well,” and “You were able to avoid blaming anyone, something most people do not do” were all deeply assuring.
- Each of the comments discussed above affirmed the importance of opening the conversation about “A Nation Unsettled and On the Brink” and taking responsibility for our part in America’s future. This means thinking critically about and taking action to avoid perpetuating the problem and be part of the solution. As one of my readers put it, “The action steps at the end of your article were much appreciated, as we so often leave feeling ‘Now what?’”
Civic engagement is hard work, requiring that we make sacrifices, swallow our pride, bite out tongues, practice restraint, listen respectfully, get out of our echo chambers and reach across the aisle and compromise rather than spewing vitriol at someone who has a divergent opinion. “To your point,” another reader commented, “I need to extend an open hand with humility and patience — and remind myself that we all have more commonalities than differences.” Another person commented, “I may hate Trump for how he’s hurting our country and fight to get him out of office, but I cannot allow myself to become the kind of person who viciously attacks and discredits his supporters.”
- It is on us as much, if not more, than our leaders to bring back our nation from the brink. A scholarly colleague who read my op-ed explained, “I’m not convinced that change is possible from governments. They’re concerned with holding power, protecting their people, and tending to a massive bureaucracy. Nor is it possible for religion to bring our nation together. Religious bodies are too focused on being right and advancing a singular ideology.” “Real change,” he advised, “will come if and when we the people rise up and speak out in defense of what we believe—and then come together to work through our differences. Each side will have to listen, learn, discover, and make sacrifices in the interest of a common good we can agree on.”
By submitting an op-ed to The Hill, a nonpartisan Washington, DC–based publication read by opinion leaders (including congressional offices, the White House, political pundits, association executives, lobbyists, and corporate leaders), I was bold, spoke my heart, put myself on the line, and did my best to defuse the political wars that are raging in our country. I am a student of life and a work in progress as I learn about things like civility, unity, peace, patience and restraint. Reminding myself to listen and learn, speak my heart, call out those who I believe are detracting from our nation, refrain from words and deeds of self-righteous incivility, keep the faith and to do more of the things that effectively forge peace, make you and me part of the solution, not the problem.