Return of civil discourse
Advocate for a robust civics education in public schools so that students understand our government and our obligations as citizens.
Look for opportunities to bring people together to discuss conspiracy theories and how to debunk them.
Provide opportunities for reasoned discussion of opposing viewpoints on the burning cultural and domestic issues of the day to try to achieve consensus. Some examples: No one wants abortion to happen; can both sides come together to advocate for access to birth control? There could be some great conversations around Black Lives Matter, the police, immigration reform and what it should look like, climate change, etc. Provide people with the opportunity to discuss what they are afraid of and why. Vaccines might be a good place to start.
If done well, perhaps these can be recorded and shared to help our legislative bodies remember what compromise really looks like.
Andrea Sholler, Stockbridge
Listen to others’ experience
In response to this important initiative, I’d suggest finding ways to bring truth into the process of reconciliation. By truth, I don’t mean which point of view is more accurate, but rather what are the personal truths everyone is carrying around about what this year has been like for them. What are the stories? How have those stories and their backstories shaped where people are coming from?
A space for this kind of conversation can lead to learning — about the other person and about oneself — and it can also lead to understanding. As I see it, dealing with our polarization means we need to engage with, rather than pull away from, each other.
If we do that, genuine reconciliation might well occur, perhaps more as an outcome than the primary goal. Models for this kind of dialogue exist and could be adapted to our situation here in the Berkshires. I think we should give it a try.
Gerard Fromm, Lenox
The writer is a clinical and organizational psychologist, and the current president of the International Dialogue Initiative.
Country over party
Sure, our nation is divided, but our politics is making it much worse by dividing into two teams that too often put party over country.
Citizens differ in our opinions but the unwillingness to compromise, the vitriol and toxicity and tendency to vilify the “other side” — that starts at the top. But I think the solutions will come from the bottom up. We need to change how we engage with each other. We need to surround ourselves with people with differing opinions and we need to engage in discussions about those differences but in an effort to learn more, not score points. We need to learn the facts, be willing to change our minds, acknowledge and accept our differences, and recognize that people can think different things but still like and respect each other — our diversity is what makes this country great.
Thanks for helping to start the discussion.
Maya MacGuineas, Washington, D.C.
The writer is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The pitfalls of anonymity
The profound polarization that we are all living under is deeply exacerbated by anonymity.
One of the darker outcomes of our beloved social media platforms is that they have developed, even encouraged, commentary that requires no direct personal responsibility or accountability. I suppose it’s freeing, somehow, to occupy an interactive space where you can take pot-shots at your perceived enemy without having to identify yourself; but this space has become a haven for extremists and cowards, frankly, who derive pleasure from ridiculing others peoples’ points of view.
Our president’s tweeting content can be divisive, but you at least know where it’s coming from.
So, one small solution is that when people talk to each other (and they should be willing to, regardless of their respective political beliefs and economic circumstances, or differences in color, sexual orientation, gender or age), they take full responsibility for their opinions. Say your name!
Peter Smith, Williamstown
Big money muddles politics
I believe that the first step toward national reconciliation after Election Day is to fix the way our politics are financed.
More than $11 billion have been spent on 2020 political races, primarily by the super-rich, who have far more radical views on politics and policy than the average voter.
If we want to address polarization, we need to get rid of this constant stream of political advertising and manipulation funded by those who only care about their own interests. And if we want to have a government that truly works for the people, we need to make sure politicians don’t have an incentive to chase campaign contributions from the wealthy and ignore the everyday Americans they’re supposed to represent.
Sam Thorpe, Williamstown
We always need respect
Both times when I ran for mayor of North Adams in 2017 and 2019, there were Trump supporters who signed my nomination papers. Why was that? Very simply, I believe when you treat each person with respect and acknowledge each person’s dignity, you can listen to each other and share your differing positions. And then, I say, “Thank you for talking with me,” which preserves the common decency for both individuals.
Rachel I. Branch, North Adams
Issues are multidimensional
I think that the central problem lies in people’s difficulty to consider two seemingly contrary ideas or viewpoints at the same time. Ruth Bass’ insightful article on how we Americans see our flag offers a good example.
Some folks see our flag as a symbol of democracy and freedom, as it flew above our valiant troops at Valley Forge, in the Ardennes in World War I, and most memorably at Iwo Jima — forever immortalized in our collective memory in Washington.
Others can acknowledge such moments, while also considering that that same flag flew while we Americans intentionally exterminated the native inhabitants of this country, used waterboarding in suppressing resistance in our newly acquired colony of the Philippines, massacred countless civilians with napalm in Vietnam, and oppressed people of color since they first arrived as slaves in this country.
Dialogue in America will only occur when both perspectives are given equal voice, and are acknowledged as fact. That will take humility, courage, and a genuine desire to heal our wounded nation. May God grant us the grace to do just that.
Dick Magenis, Sheffield
This common ground
We stop divisiveness when we stop feeding it. We interrupt the habitual mental-emotional preferences and reactions by stopping — then respond by listening.
What do we share in this common ground? How do we solve our mutual problems considerately, inclusively? By using our better natures we cultivate living in this higher common ground.
Wisdom excerpted from “Sometimes” by David Whyte is excellent medicine now:
“... Requests to stop what you are doing right now
and to stop what you are becoming while you do it
questions that make or unmake a life
questions that have patiently waited for you
questions that have no right to go away”
Cynthia H. Felleisen, Pittsfield
At the same time The Eagle published its request for reader input as to how our nation can move past the bitter partisanship we have been mired in, one of the many periodicals I subscribe to arrived with an excellent article titled “Decency” by the presidential biographer and author Jon Meacham.
Throughout the article, Mr. Meacham quotes notable individuals from across the political spectrum. His final paragraph contains an excerpt from a letter George H.W. Bush wrote to his mother in which Mr. Bush “outlined a life code.”
Mr. Bush wrote, “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” Like so many of us, Mr. Meacham realizes “the path back to a decent America won’t be short or smooth. But it can, and should, begin with those words.”
I could not agree more.
Melissa Bye, Sandisfield
Our pursuit of happiness
The candidates for President have offered strikingly different approaches to the needs of America at this time. Whoever wins will need to marshal the forces of the American character as we face an uncertain future.
One of the most helpful ingredients for the healing that is evidently needed is a better understanding of our birthright. Americans are a people of unbounded potential organized for action in history. Ever since we broke away from England, we have been stubborn. Each of us likes to go their own way. Yet engaging in “the pursuit of happiness,” one of the truths we hold, is a high standard needing constant attention. The happiness we pursue is not individual, temporal or based on feelings. The happiness Americans are dedicated to is collective, moral and all-encompassing.
Robert M. Kelly, Lee
Considering our labels
A liberal is defined as open to new behaviors or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.
A conservative is defined as averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.
All of our friends and families comprise liberals and conservatives.
What do we have in common and how can we find the common ground between us given our seemingly opposite outlooks?
Our common ground lies in that we all care deeply about each other as friends and family. We care deeply about what kind of country we live in and how safe our earth is to raise the next generation in. That is a huge common ground.
Let us start with recognizing that what separates us is not our core values but our approaches in reaching them.
Let us elect leaders who honestly present the choices and address what each side might fear, who show examples of what has succeeded and at what cost, and what has failed and why. What is at stake.
Joanne Cooney, Great Barrington
The art of getting together
I commend The Eagle for engaging its readers in efforts to heal after a bruising electoral season. There are many initiatives our communities can stand up collectively to help us reconnect as Berkshire residents.
Despite COVID and the cold, we can design opportunities that unite us as neighbors and lovers of this area, and that model a positive path forward whatever the election’s outcome. We can design a series of community gatherings (virtual or in person) over meals, music, film and art that leverage our myriad culinary and cultural institutions and talent to shine a light on what we share rather than what separates us, to gather us over what we love rather than what we hate or fear.
We can celebrate our area’s natural beauty together. But, to succeed, we must mobilize our civil, cultural, business and governmental institutions to co-create, sustain and model what a united Berkshires can be.
Suzette Brooks Masters, Canaan, N.Y.
All in the same boat
I often think about the story of the two fellows adrift at sea in a lifeboat. One suddenly starts drilling an enormous hole in the floor of the boat. The horrified second fellow cries out, “What the heck are you doing?” The fellow with the drill replies, “It doesn’t concern you because I’m drilling only on my side of the boat.”
Like the two fellows, we Americans are all in this together. The problems of a pandemic, insufficient health care, lack of opportunity, homelessness, rising poverty, lack of a livable minimum wage, environmental degradation, catastrophic climate change, unending wars, racial injustice, and corporate takeover of our democratic institutions require all of us working toward solutions.
We are all in the same boat, and what one does often affects us all. And we need to use our government as the tool that allows us to accomplish things we cannot do individually.
Henry Rose, M.D., Dalton
10 steps to limit polarization
Here is a 10-step program to reduce polarization.
• Vote like your vote will decide the contest; because it will.
• Believe that all are equal in rights and in responsibilities and act accordingly.
• Recognize that yelling conclusions is not a reasoned argument.
• Recognize that lies are not free speech, but are libel and slander as they always were.
• Distinguish between those who seek to serve and those who seek status or gain.
• Distinguish between free speech and speech which is bought and paid for.
• Agree that single-issue groups should not control how we vote.
• Agree that elected officials are responsible to all the voters, not to political parties or their base.
• Support a nonpartisan way to draw legislative districts.
• Perform your individual duty as a citizen to preserve, protect and defend the liberty of all.
Bill Ketcham, Adams
Engage across the aisle
Cross the aisle in our own lives.
We frequently say we want our elected leaders to do so, and now we must model that ethos for them. One way to start is to vocally celebrate the people we respect in our lives who think and vote differently than we do (for example, I think of my parents).
It’s harder to demonize an entire political party when you’ve identified people within it that you admire. Find a family member, politician or thinker of an opposing ideology who shares your values. Consider their arguments and share in their insights. Demonstrate your appetite for pluralism and reject the sources in your life (whether people or media) who stoke partisan rage.
We can’t individually lower the stakes, but we can individually lower the temperature.
Brian Schaefer, Ancram, N.Y.
Education — a concerted effort to uncover uncomfortable truths for students of all ages, from kids celebrating Thanksgiving in kindergarten to children studying slavery in elementary school to students of American history in high school to college courses examining American politics to adults via TV, print and online media.
We need to take an honest look at the origins of the United States, the destruction of the peoples and cultures left in its wake that continues to create divisions among us. Donald Trump has laid open the ugly underbelly of hatred, suspicion and untruths in our “great” country. This is a perfect opportunity to chase down and understand the origins of the intolerance he has brought into such sharp relief. It’s also time to resurrect survey of world cultures and survey of world religions courses. How can I embrace my culture or beliefs, if I don’t understand yours? Knowledge matters.
Heather Clemow, Williamstown
A prerequisite for reconciliation is a desire to restore amicable relationships.
Our current aching polarization questions whether reconciliation is achievable. We may not get to “Go.”
What might help us get there? How about some fun. We could all use a collective deep exhale.
Towns might consider sponsoring a community day with food, hikes, music and dance, or work days assisting with various community projects. Working together in common endeavor emphasizes our similarities; differences recede.
I am a liberal politically, with many similarly inclined friends, but when my child spent months and even years in Boston hospitals it was Republican friends who opened their home to us.
Similarly, my neighbor’s politics are opposite mine. After working together on our abutting properties, we have developed a genuine warmth and regard for one another’s families. I have bumped up against my own prejudgments. They imprison us. We are better off acknowledging them, saying goodbye, and moving on.
Roger Goldin, Pittsfield
Neighbors, not opponents
And then there was Nov. 4, or 7, or Dec. 1, and finally the people knew who had been elected, and understood which voters in which states had voted for which candidate. There was distrust about the outcome. But there was sleep.
People continued to put signs on their lawns and didn’t talk to each other. They hated people for one sign or the other sign. They stole each other’s signs and wrote angry words on social media.
About half were heartbroken, the first layer put down before anger. Then something happened. One person with one sign called a neighbor with the other sign and they had a coffee together outside.
First they told a few throw-away jokes. Then the person whose team had won listened to the other one. Then they switched. They still had their beliefs and heartbreak. But something in the neighborhood had changed.
Judith Monachina, Stockbridge
People, not caricatures
Americans are divided. What’s even more concerning is how easy it is to divide us. It’s easy to divide us, I believe, because we don’t know each other. People are not cartoons. None of us really fits in a box. Few accept all of what others tell us about someone or something we know, let alone all of what either political party is selling. Yet we are quick to accept just about anything about anyone unfamiliar. It’s hard to attack someone whose hand you’ve shaken.
We need reconciliation. But reconciliation will be neither real nor lasting if we don’t address and overcome the barriers that keep us from knowing one another. Segregation and racism. Anti-Semitism and religious bigotry. How we associate poverty with the unrelated concept of fault. Regional snobbery. Ignorance is usually at the root of these and similar barriers. Surmounting it requires educating ourselves, in the way Louis Pasteur described education, as “learning to listen to anything, without losing your temper or your self confidence.” It’s one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the importance of national service.
Being American is enough to unite us — if that means more than appearance, behavior or ritual. It ought to mean sharing respect for enduring American values of equality, opportunity and fair play, the values that make liberty possible. And when you get right down to it, everyone we know and everything we are wants peace, respect and a fair chance to prosper. There is room to argue over how best to deliver on America’s promises. I doubt there is little real argument over whether we should.
Deval Patrick, Richmond
The writer is a former governor of Massachusetts.
Berkshire County has a heritage of pulling together in the face of challenges, as demonstrated most recently by the collective response to help our neighbors most impacted by the pandemic.
The high levels of cooperation and compassion that characterize our communities are evident in the large number of organizations and initiatives formed over time to achieve shared goals that advance the common good.
This inherent strength of togetherness can promote healing at the local level. We need to turn toward each other and build off things that draw us together — educating and preparing our kids for the future, caring for the most vulnerable, connecting through our abundant arts and creativity and the quest for justice.
From these common endeavors, we will strengthen the social ties that enable us to bridge political differences, bolster civility, confront inequality, close disparities and restore widespread trust over time.
Peter Taylor, Great Barrington
The writer is president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
Start with the facts
As a professional mediator, I’m in the business of forging reconciliations. Essential to this work is coaxing mediating parties to acknowledge a common set of facts. Until or unless that happens, compromise is very difficult to achieve.
Thus, I’m not brimming with optimism about healing this country’s deep wounds after the election. Our chasmic divisions are not so much a function of political disagreements. Such differences have been central to our politics since the Revolution, and the melding of them into law and public policy has created a more perfect union.
Yes, reasonable minds will always differ on issues like abortion, taxation, immigration and international relations but in the past we’ve been able to debate these issues respectfully, and our lawmakers have worked cooperatively, often forging genuine friendships across the aisle. Not any more.
So what has changed? Among other things, we have abandoned our commitment to a fact-based dialogue. Many politicians have no reluctance about speaking untruths, more commonly known as lying, and many “news” outlets turn a profit by reporting those and other lies as fact. Armed with their own propaganda, the right has come to view the left as socialists who want to deprive them of their personal liberties, and the left has come to view the right as gun-toting racists. Demonizing “the other side” is facilitated by the spreading of falsehoods.
Do we need Superman to lead us back to truth, justice and the American way? Probably, but we ordinary citizens are not helpless. One thing we can do is to support the free press, the purpose of which is to educate us, not merely entertain us. As Thomas Jefferson said, freedom will be “a short-lived possession” unless the people are informed.
David Burbank, Pittsfield
Unity through service
An idea that separates America from other great nations is the idea that America wants “a better future — not just for itself but other people,” as Nader Mousavizadeh was quoted as saying in a recent column by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times.
The Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild Western Europe after World War II is a compelling example of this trait.
Let us identify a short list of projects in Berkshire County that benefit an entire community, not just a segment or two, and commit to accomplishing them through voluntary participation. Shore up a decaying building in Clarksburg, fix an athletic field in Sandisfield, or create a community flower garden in Pittsfield.
Small, but concrete, projects can bring people of varying backgrounds together for a few work sessions where preconceived notions might give way to the need of an extra hand and the joy of doing something that is obviously good. When barriers are removed, even temporarily, listening can begin.
Businesses often undertake similar projects to assist in team building.
Community team-building might bring us closer to our essential American roots and allow some conversations to start.
Fredric Rutberg, Stockbridge
The writer is president and publisher of The Berkshire Eagle.