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Perspective | Civil discourse and ‘the dying art of disagreement’

The following remarks were given by Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, during the spring 2018 commencement ceremony at South Piedmont Community College.

I begin my remarks by giving you some advice that will be critical for success, your success, in life: Avail yourself of people that don’t agree with you. You don’t know the value of your position until you have to defend it. You may find the certainty that reinforces your views or you may find that your views are indefensible and must be reconsidered.

Perhaps you are wondering what is that about! Why would anyone begin commencement remarks with such stuff? After all, we are here to celebrate your achievement, your gained knowledge. We are here to tell you how smart you now are and how you will achieve great things. 

I am, however, going to take a slightly different course. On this commencement day, I suggest that you are here today to commence a journey toward your goals in your life. We are here to send you off on that journey.

I am also here to commence a campaign. Not an election campaign, not a political campaign, but a campaign to bring back civil discourse to our American way of life and I am asking you to join me. That is precisely why this day and this subject converge.

We are all leaders, some as a result of an election or an appointment, and some as a result of their own actions. You and I represent a constituency and now must give voice to their needs. We will each be called upon to inform, to encourage, and to make decisions in the best interests of others, our friends and supporters, not just ourselves. We are called upon to lead.

Leadership requires us to speak up and speak out. It requires us also to listen and to learn. That requires both perspective and perseverance.

Getting perspective entails gaining historical knowledge and listening to varying opinions. We must also gain perseverance and develop patience. All these can be learned, but not without personal effort.

Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with “A Team of Rivals,” as noted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of the same name. Lincoln was a man with little formal education, but he was imbued with that most uncommon of human attributes, common sense.

The importance of historical perspective can be summed up in one of the most famous quotes of all time.  In 1905, George Santayana, the famous Spanish philosopher and poet said, “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

This quote has been used in various forms again and again. In October 2017 in New York City at the annual conference on Winston Churchill, Lord Alan Watson played off this quote when he said, “Our ignorance of the past can make us reckless in the present and irresponsible in the future.”

Character and integrity, boldness, and determination are the hallmarks of leadership:

  • Character and integrity to do what is right, in spite of all pressures to the contrary.
  • Boldness to be willing to stand alone when necessary.
  • Determination to “never give in, never, never, never, never give in; in anything great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

Having the character and integrity to do what is right in the face of great pressures to the contrary has always been admired, but it has not always been appreciated. Many of us talk a good game on this trait, but we seldom measure up when the chips are down. 

We love it when public leaders stand tall, but only when they stand tall for what we believe. We love it when our elected officials cast an unpopular vote, but only if that vote agrees with our own. And we cheer on the one that marches to a different drummer, but only when we hear the same music. That is human nature, I suppose, but these are the hallmarks of great leadership.

We must steer confidently toward the Gettysburg Ideal of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Elected leaders must be especially proud to be servants of the people and should be ashamed to be their masters.

Character, integrity, boldness, and determination — these are the words synonymous with real leadership.

Let me now talk briefly about civil discourse and the art of disagreement, the theme of my remarks today.

Disagreement is the most vital ingredient of any decent, civilized, and free society.  To say, “I disagree,” “I refuse,” “You are wrong,” is to define our individuality. These words give us freedom, enlarge our perspective, seize our attention, energize our progress and make our democracy real. These words give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. The greatest names in all history have used these words: Mandela, Havel, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Winston Churchill.

These days we disagree on just about everything: racial Issues, immigration issues, bathroom issues, healthcare law, same-sex marriage, and who should be president. Sadly, we do this with rants, screams, interruptions, street protests that are increasingly violent, and personal attacks that are increasing virulent. 

The polarization is geographic, ethnic and political. Polarization is also electronic and digital. We not only have our own opinions, but we also seem to have our own facts. These disagreements can make us more hoarse, but they seldom make us more smart. They rarely sharpen our thinking much less change our minds.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom, published an article about higher education in this country. He entitled the article, “The Closing of the American Mind.” We have lost our way on the way to being educated.

We have lost our way as to how we once listened to understand, and replaced it with listening to object. We have lost our way as to how we treat propositions as sacred and now treat objections as disrespectful. We have lost our way as to how we cultivate the habit of an open mind.

This is nothing new in this story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books, the un-teachability of mankind and constitutes the endless repetition of history.

So, what are we going to do about it?

We must accept that to disagree requires us to understand that with which we disagree and comprehend the opposing view. In other words, to disagree well, we must first understand well. 

This reminds me of a remark by a sports commentator during a Panthers’ Football game played here in Charlotte this past season. Tony Romo, the former quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, talked about playing against Luke Kuechly and the Carolina Panthers. Tony recalled that as he stepped up to the line, he would hear Luke yell out to his teammates the exact play that Tony was about to call. “It was terribly intimidating to come up against an opponent who knew my game plan so well that he could call the play before I did!”

Today, more than half of all college students think that it is acceptable to shout-down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20% think that it is acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking.

The result is that we no longer can even have discussions about issues on which we disagree. This cannot be healthy for our future. We simply brand every opponent as a bigot, often because they now hold an opinion that, just a short time ago, was shared across a broad political spectrum. Even worse, many people will not dare share their opinion for fear of retribution rather than discussion.

Consequently, moral responsibility and social respectability have come to be at odds with each other and our individual freedoms are being lost.

Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet, we now have an entire generation who has never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement and seem to think that freedom-of-speech is a one-way street.  This has resulted in the fraying of our democracy. The media, in case there are any of them here today, bears particular but not sole responsibility. They have not and are not doing anything to improve the state of public discourse; rather they reflect and accelerate its decline.

We Americans are an interesting lot. We have always fought amongst ourselves, we have even broken apart. We disagree constantly, we always have. But, we have always come back together in spite of our differences and sometimes because of them.

Right now, we seem to make our disagreements so toxic that we often refuse to even make eye contact with our opponents or try to see things as they might, or even try to find some middle ground. We seem to have developed a “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality. Compromise has become a one-way street and “change” has come to mean: you change, I don’t.

We fight each other from safe distances and listen intently only to the echoes of ourselves. We take exaggerated and histrionic offense to whatever is said about us, we banish entire lines of thought and speakers without giving them so much as a cursory hearing.

Let us also remind ourselves that we have also come together. We were all together in shock when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas more than 54 years ago. We were all together in 1969 when Neal Armstrong took “One small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” We were all together rooting on Team USA when they beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. We were all together to bring down the wall in 1989. 

And we all stood together in shock and horror on 9-11. Together we have saved the whales, propped up failing democracies, eradicated diseases, and responded to hurricanes and wildfires that devastated our landscapes. We can do this.

Many of us remember the childhood poem, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Well, names do hurt, words mean things.  And sometimes words mean mean-things; and they hurt. Human nature causes us to result in lashing out, pushing back, hurting. And the spiral begins anew. 

The most powerful indicator of human achievement is the quality of human relationships.

It is time for us to come together to stop the bleeding; the bleeding of the very heart of our democracy. It falls to us, each of us in this gathering to quiet down, listen up, pause and reconsider … then speak up. It falls to us to be models of disagreement. Free speech must ultimately be free, in spite of the fact that it can often be unfair.

No country, certainly not this country, can have good government and a healthy public square without high-quality disagreement.

Quality disagreement and quality journalism can help us all distinguish fact from belief and rumor. The purpose of opinion is not to depart from the facts but to use them as a bridge to the truth. Truth cannot be tied to Google hits or Facebook posts, Tweets, or text messages.

We must champion aggressive and objective news that fosters quality debate, opens minds, and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.  That is the only way that our democracy can remain rational, reasonable, and free.

As you commence your journey from this place on this day, I finish with a quote from a mother to a son as he was about to set out on a terrifying journey across a great divide during a stormy time:

She wrote, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great character is formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with great difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant awake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”

These words were written by Abigail Adams, the wife of a future president, to her young son John Quincy, who would also become president, as he was about to depart on a voyage from the New World to the Old in November 1779.

Winston Churchill, in the face of a tyranny greater than man had ever encountered, would admonish his fellow countrymen with words that I think relevant for you on this day:

“Any victory worth winning, must be deserved. And as our victories increase in scale, so must our efforts. We shall win, but not through the evil in our enemies. We shall win only through the merit in ourselves! DESERVE VICTORY! And let that be the touchstone of every thought, word and deed.”

Craig Horn

Hon. Craig Horn serves on the Board of Trustees of Wingate University and is a former member of the North Carolina General Assembly and chairman of the House Education Policy and Appropriations committees. He is a also board member of digiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning to increase personal learning options for students and expand instructional opportunities for teachers and instructors.