By Lana D. Benatovich and Glenn S. Jackson
In America, we don’t have to agree. In fact, it’s not expected we ever will. That is one of the basic tenets on which this country was founded. It is why our Constitution codifies, among others, our rights to free speech, religion, assembly and privacy. We don’t have the Bill of Rights to dictate that we all be the same; we have it so that we can think, feel, believe, say and simply be who we are.
However, we are a nation; we’re not simply a geographically denoted country, but a group of people who, despite our many differences and diverse experiences, share a common bond – the unique and profound identity of being American. We walk together, for good and for bad, in the social experiment that is America. What affects us as people affects us as a nation, and it is why our rights as individuals end where another American’s rights begin.
No one group owns the identity of being American. No one group in America owns freedom of speech, or freedom of religion, or freedom of the press. We share these, and that is by design. Those who enshrined our rights in the Constitution understood that in order to achieve the more perfect union they envisioned, we would have to work together.
America is a promise, but it is also a challenge – to unite, despite our many differences, passions, beliefs and ideas, and build something for the betterment of all.
Much progress has been made on that front, but it remains a challenge we have yet to overcome. We have removed many of the barriers that divide us, but we keep in place many of the social constructs that we use to keep ourselves apart as a people. We still see each other as “other.” We judge. We vilify. We mock. We see ourselves as better than. And we see those who disagree with us as wrong, foolish, unstable or even evil. We see them as being less than us; perhaps not even deserving of the title “American.”
With each election cycle, local or national, presidential or midterm, it seems that the level of animosity, of discord, of acrimony is increasing.
We at the National Federation for Just Communities feel we must end this American tradition. We need to stop the judging, belittling, name-calling and labeling.
We write this today as a call for civil discourse in our political system and in our communities. While we are supposed to disagree, passionately, fervently, even loudly, we are meant to do so with respect for others’ beliefs, ideas and rights. Difference in ideology does not equate to difference in nature, and we must resist the temptation to castigate those who simply disagree with us.
We must learn to have dialogue, not just debate. We must hear and know each other, and work to find common ground. We must recognize each other’s humanity, and honor our shared identity, no matter our difference(s), as Americans. If we do not, if we do not return civility to our political forum, we will never overcome the challenge of America, and we will continue to fail at meeting its promise.
Lana D. Benatovich is president and Glenn S. Jackson is board chairman of the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York.