Overcoming nation's divisions will take honesty, courage, and civic engagement

Jamahl Ephraim of Philadelphia lights a sky lantern during a vigil / rally on Paine Plaza, across from City Hall, in response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Our country is at a crossroad and is being tested to overcome the divisions, distrust, and discord tearing at its very fabric. We can be weakened by pursuing a self-destructive path or strengthened by addressing our problems constructively. Doing the latter requires pursuing a course of action that combines honesty, courage, and civic engagement.

Addressing our problems begins with distilling truths that can be understood only by being honest with ourselves. Honesty forces us to recognize the anger, disillusionment, and despair of vast numbers of Americans. First, there are those who believe that wrongs against them — discrimination and prejudice, in particular — continue to take a daily toll on their lives. They believe that injustice is pervasive; that their opportunities are limited and their future bleak.

Second, some believe that their values and way of life, their quality of life, and the face of their country are changing rapidly for the worse, and that they are being overlooked, marginalized, and left behind. Many Americans have lost faith in our country’s leaders, especially elected officials, and believe that the institutional foundation of our society — government, academia, the media, business, organized religion — are corrupt, unfair, and out of touch with reality.

Honesty compels us to admit that, however great our country, it falls seriously short by many measures, and to acknowledge that we share a responsibility to fix what is wrong, however unpleasant. It requires us to understand that hatred and prejudice are not limited to hate groups: that more of these evils exist and more harm can be done beyond the ranks of a relatively small number of hard-core hatemongers; that hate infects blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, and that violence is a feature of the extreme left as well as the extreme right.

Honesty also enables us to admit that hate incidents are too often met with lip service and hypocrisy by our leaders on the one hand, and laziness and indifference on the part of the citizenry on the other; that again and again, in the aftermath of tragic episodes where persons are hurt by hatred, responses to them are often inadequate and rarely sustained.

Addressing our problems also requires action — bold action marked by courage. It takes courage to challenge an idea that is distasteful, offensive, or prejudiced, whether it is expressed by a neighbor, a coworker, teammate, or family member, and especially by a person of prominence. The challenge must be quick, direct, clear, firm, and respectful. It is best focused on the inappropriate action, rather than aimed at the person, and communicated as a desire to help rather than to harm.

By the same token, it takes courage for those who offend others to acknowledge their wrongdoing, and to do so in a forthright and unequivocal manner. Saying, “If I offended anyone, I am sorry” does not cut it. The only way to apologize is to say, “I know that I offended this person or group by my words and actions, and I sincerely apologize for them.”

Rhetoric condemning hatred or prejudice in a general way also falls short, as opposed to criticism of specific individuals who have committed offensive acts. It takes courage to admit that too often we have allowed our leaders to play group against group or to get away with appeals to bigotry, especially if it has been to our benefit. It takes courage to challenge leaders’ hypocrisy when they spout the right words to prove that they are high-minded, only to betray these words by their destructive actions. Character demonstrated by a commitment, both in word and deed, to principles of fairness, justice, and decency should be the first test of individuals entrusted with positions of leadership. Those they lead also need to speak up and act in the face of wrongdoing.

All the honesty and courage in the world, by themselves, are not enough to meet the challenges before us unless we have a healthy sense of ourselves as a nation and a desire to engage with others. We benefit by reminding ourselves that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Too often, we lose sight of the genius, the uniqueness, the richness, and the humanity that our country has stood for and exemplified despite its many flaws and shortcomings and despite the tragic periods and acts of cruelty that have marked its history.

Many do take pride in our country individually. More of us need to do so collectively. As we do so, we need to rekindle or discover a faith in our shared efforts in order to be united and strong to benefit ourselves and our fellow citizens. We need to renew support for, and participation in, vital aspects of American life — electoral, educational, and public service. We need to be able to respect and support law enforcement, other institutions of government, the media, the arts. We need to strive to see our country as having a common set of beliefs, customs, and traditions, all of which center on the individual, and all individuals, and their unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Finally, we need to insist that America remain a beacon to the rest of the world, serving as a model, providing inspiration, and offering leadership in respecting and placing value on the lives of its citizens and all humanity.

Barry Morrison is a human relations consultant and former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Bmorrison545@gmail.com