Not too long ago, perfect strangers aboard a New York subway car found themselves confronted with neo-Nazi graffiti as they made their way home one evening. Everyone, it was reported, stared in silence at the graffiti and each other, uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. It is said that one man stood up and said, “Hand sanitizers get rid of Sharpie,” and found some tissue (and sanitizer) and went to work. Others followed him.
In Tenino, Washington, a black family left for a camping trip, and while they were away vandals covered their home with racial slurs. Neighbors were shocked to see the N-word and “KKK” messaging on the home and a truck owned by the family. Instead of idly standing by, the neighbors erased the messages so the family, upon returning home, would not need to see the crude words and hate speech. Many in the community who knew the family—and some who didn’t—came together to erase hatred.
When I think about the language that bombards us today or the push to choose one side or another or the harsh speech that seems aimed at threatening our objectivity and balance, I am reminded of my maternal grandmother who taught me to love the poetry of Robert Frost. In one of his poems he concludes with this verse:
And steadfast, as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here,
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
The “star” for me in this context is Holy Scripture and the high ideals we all have for those in this community. It encourages us not to be pushed one way or the other by political rhetoric or fear or the sheer volume of prevailing noise. Instead, it emboldens us to choose the star of goodness, kindness, fairness, and—even—love for one another.
At Pepperdine our Christian mission drives our steadfast commitment to loving our neighbor. My faith is so strong that I am not threatened by the beliefs of others; actually, I am strengthened by them. As one writer has noted, “… pluralism suggests … that we can live together in our manyness.” Pepperdine provides the context for our manyness.A few years ago there was a campus conversation about whether we prize civility too much over robust disagreement. The line is fine and important. In fact, I value both and hope to contribute to a university campus where strong, thoughtfully articulated positions are placed in conversation with confidence and vigor. As with most things, however, there is a fairly logical point at which advocacy crosses the line and becomes less valuable and more threatening in nature. For example, the ridicule of political beliefs, faith, or heritage adds nothing to the commonwealth of knowledge or the knitting together of community. It evinces bias and, sadly, fear and ignorance as well.
An invitation to engage in robust, even uncomfortable debate is different for me. It is clearly protected by the First Amendment, it allows steel to sharpen steel, it draws disparate parties into an informative conversation and, at the end, we learn something that is useful.
Let me be clearer: some words and actions are designed to embarrass and denigrate, which should cause all of us to cringe. There are, also, earnest and sometimes awkward invitations to dialogue that may be hard but may foster a breakthrough in understanding. The character Katherine Watson in the film Mona Lisa Smile said in her role as a teacher of young women, “You’re not…required to like it. You are required to consider it.” I try to remember that.
When my colleagues and I met recently to consider Pepperdine’s response to the complex issue of new federal immigration policies, I shared my simple expectations.
First, we will honor the law. Second, we will ask the question, “What if it were your son or your daughter who found themselves ensnared in issues related to these recent executive orders? How would you want them to be treated?” And, that is our standard.
I ran across a phrase recently that I like very much and have used in conversation several times over the past year: convicted civility. As soon as I saw those two words together I knew immediately and exactly what they meant to me. Convicted civility means that we can hear and process words with which we do not agree and that we can be unafraid to refute them with truth, courage, and confidence. It means that as we encounter new thinking and information, we are free to ask hard questions and to pursue answers to questions important to us. Questions should not be threatening, and answers should not be unassailable when given.
I admire strong convictions presented fairly and without elements of ad hominem attack in pursuit of truth and, especially, fairness and justice. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty once said, “People these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.”
While I want to encourage dialogue and the exercise of free speech, I want our community to do what we can to erase hatred, bias, and behavior that are aimed to hurt and maim, not inform and strengthen.
We cannot aspire to speak always with one voice or to agree on all things, but we should seek to find a standard of debate and discourse in all matters that does not chill participation and is not designed to merely silence opposition. Indeed, is silence what we want? Moreover, is it silence that advances learning in community? I do not think so.