United We Stand, Divided We Fall
April 26, 2018
“I want to know what you as a Senator are doing to discourage blind partisanship. Do you have any specific examples of other bills you sponsored or votes you cast where you crossed the aisle based on what you think is right? What are you doing to encourage your colleagues to do so? What can I, a constituent, do to encourage bi-partisanship?
I hope you will assure me that you are taking measures to discourage this unproductive trend, and I hope to hear back from you soon.
Sincerely, Kitt Urdang”
This is how I closed a letter to my Senator at home in Connecticut, Chris Murphy. It’s dated April 21, 2016, from my freshman year and many months before I came to Holderness. I wrote to him as a part of my ninth-grade civics class project, hoping for the automatic A+ that I’d receive if he wrote back. He did.
Senator Murphy wrote me back, and I was so proud to get a letter from the United States Senate, marked “official business”. He emphasized his responsibility to act with regard to the good of the country and Connecticut constituency. Senator Murphy explained his past accomplishments in co-chairing a caucus dedicated to creating friendships and sharing ideas between members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
If you’re wondering why the name Chris Murphy sounds familiar, it’s because he is a Connecticut senator known for his push for common-sense gun control. A senator since 2013, Murphy represented Connecticut’s fifth congressional district in the House in 2012, when the Sandy Hook Elementary School was attacked by a deranged gunman. He is known throughout the country as a pioneer in the common-sense gun control movement because his constituents suffered one of the most heartbreaking tragedies imaginable. I often find myself wondering if there is anything that will lead to gun stricter control because If 20 dead six and seven-year-olds didn’t wake up the country, what will? Is there any point where all of America can come together and say “enough is enough’? It’s enough to make someone lose faith in democracy altogether.
Thankfully, I haven’t.
Although I feel a serious connection to the gun control movement, I won’t be writing much about my personal beliefs. Not today, not here. Today is for something bigger than me, bigger than an Instagram comment, bigger than liberals versus conservatives. It’s for a plea for cultural change.
And it all starts here at Holderness.
I believe that the Holderness community is not conducive to civil discourse, as there are few opportunities to engage in meaningful political conversation. This is not unique to Holderness, but rather a product of ambiguity in schools and a polarized national setting. Holderness, like other schools, does not establish programs or set times dedicated to civil discourse. This leads to a school-wide culture where politics are not discussed, leaving each individual to retreat further into their own narrow viewpoint. When the topic comes up, it is often in a casual argument where emotions run high and facts are an afterthought.
I have been promoting a solution to this frustrating ambiguity for months now, and my full ideas are explained in Across the Aisle: An Analysis of Holderness Politics, an article Will Harker and I wrote in February. In that article, Will and I suggest a class that provides a place for these tough conversations. Across the country, the two political parties seem to distance themselves more each day, making it nearly impossible to reach a middle ground. Citizens tend to retreat behind their walls– looking at articles, watching news stations, and liking Facebook pages that reinforce their beliefs. My ideas may not change the broken system, but they may change a few young people entering the system, and that’s all I can truly hope for.
Recently, I read an Instagram comment that criticized a gun march I organized and participated in. The writer was frustrated, and I gathered that he felt like his viewpoints were being ignored by the students and the school. I think his commentary only proves the point that Will and I are trying to make: Holderness needs a new way to discuss politics; one that won’t lead to resentment and hurtful internet posts. If we had a better way to make our voices heard, to develop our ideas, to research possible solutions, there might be no need for online comments.
To be clear, I’m pretty sure that social media political fights might be the worse thing to happen to democracy. When I read a comment thread, I find myself thinking “this is how it happens. This is exactly when the fabric of productive society begins to unravel. Maybe one day I’ll tell my kids how it all fell apart back when I was in high school: with social media fights.”
However, at least people are talking. I am grateful for the comment even though it felt like a personal attack — it got people thinking. Thinking about which side they are on, about what they can do to step up, and it got me thinking about how we can find a middle ground through conversations. The first time I was ever asked a political question at sit-down dinner was in response to the march, the comment, and Mr. Weymouth’s chapel talk. As the only girl at a table with a group of boys I didn’t know particularly well, I was nervous when they began to bombard me with questions. They asked me why the comment upset me, why I felt the need to march, if I thought that stricter gun laws would actually do anything, if I thought anyone should be able to own a gun. They were clearly nervous, and I was too. But together, I think we found a place of mutual respect where they asked me reasonable questions, and I gave them my best shot at answers. I tried very hard to emphasize that productive discussions are the first step, to clearly state that my words were my own opinions and feelings and didn’t need to be theirs. All I asked was respectful, scholarly conversation in their counter-arguments. And for the most part, they obliged.
I know firsthand how hard it can be to keep conversations civil. My first draft of this article read more like a public roast of a fellow student than this societal critique I decided to write. I was only stopped from publishing the harsh flagellation by a reminder that my goal was to create an environment for discourse, not to prove why I was “right”, a move that would have further polarized our community.
This whole situation reminds me a lot of sportsmanship in athletics. When something does not go your way, it’s easy to yell at the ref, spit, swear, or throw your stick. However, the game is bigger than your frustrations, and you have a responsibility to your team to keep your cool and play your game despite the anger you feel. Debating with someone with opposing views is one of the hardest undertakings I can think of, and it requires the same kind of attitude as the one needed in a game against your bitter rival: one of respect for others and yourself. This is the kind of environment that we need to build at Holderness: not just one of respect but also of curiosity, of understanding, of willingness to accept that there is often no “right” answer.