Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of returning to the school that I attended from nursery through twelfth grade, The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr PA, to introduce a speaker that I had brought to town named Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi and the author of My Life After Hate. Arno is a dear friend and a member of the advisory board of my organization Common Party, a non-political social movement that is working to bring our country back together through the celebration of our overwhelming commonality.
In introducing Arno to an assembly of the high school students, I referenced a place on the Shipley campus where I had learned a tremendous amount about the work I was doing with Common Party. I had been granted a terrific education throughout my 15 years at Shipley, but it was in the sandbox behind the preschool in my first years there where I gained some essential wisdom that I feel is sorely lacking in our country today.
The sandbox is where I learned what we refer to as sandbox skills. They are: how to play nicely with the other kids, how to share, how to not throw sand in anyone’s eyes, how to refrain from knocking down other people’s creations, and how to work it out when two or more kids want to play with the same dump truck.
Considering the divisiveness and vitriol that is rampant in our country these days, it seems that many of us grownups either didn’t learn, or have somehow forgotten, these basic sandbox skills. We treat each other like enemies; we scream and kick and bite; we throw sand and we don’t fight fair; we pretend that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is the boogeyman.
This type of polarization and demonization is not our most mature behavior when you think about it, and it is not our best way forward. There are indeed very significant issues that we need to address, but the only way to deal with them responsibly and productively is if we can talk to each other with respect and patience and kindness – you know, those things that they tried to teach us back in preschool.
At Common Party, we believe that the gravest issues in our country at the moment are not primarily political, they are social and emotional . This is not to deny the very serious political issues in our country , but it is to suggest that it is not the problems themselves that are the most significant problem, but rather it is our general inability to deal with problems successfully that is the primary problem. When we say “successfully,” what we mean is mutually, collaboratively, and respectfully.
Somehow, we have forgotten how to speak and deal with people who disagree with us. And that is our most pressing and dangerous issue. Because if there is one thing that is guaranteed, it is that we will be forced to speak and deal with people who disagree with us. That is the very nature of the human experience, that we are going to have to encounter, and negotiate with, conflicting forces.
That process of dialectic tension and exercise is not a bad thing. It is not even a necessary evil. Collaborating with people who see things differently from us is actually a benefit. It enables us to tackle problems from a variety of angles. It ensures a balance of ideas and perspectives. It is an essential quality of the democratic process of checks and balances that enables us to build a society that is representative of all of its various constituencies.
Now it’s true that our country has not yet lived up to that ideal of equal representation on which it was founded. There are still inequities, and there is still much work to be done. But that process requires patience as much as passion and persistence. While resistance and revolution are sometimes necessary catalysts for progress, polarization, radicalization, and demonization have historically led to the fall of societies rather than to their development. And with all of its flaws, we at Common Party believe that this nation is built on very profound and admirable ideals and that it is in the best interest of all of us to strengthen and bolster our foundations rather than tear them down.
Our primary belief is in the goodness of people, not in the righteousness or trustworthiness of politicians. Our focus is on the commonality that we share as human beings and the values we share as Americans. Our strategy is to promote the values of dignity, compassion, and civility so that we can work together as a community with common decency and common sense to pursue our common goals.
After my brief comments about sandbox skills, Arno spoke to over 400 students at Shipley, and later that evening we spoke to 150 students at the University of Pennsylvania where Common Party has launched our first campus chapter. He told his story of how his anger and alienation had made him susceptible to the white power movement, and how the kindness and compassion of those he had been taught to hate rescued him. His primary message was that hurt people hurt people, and that while there is no excuse for violence and hate, and while it is natural and instinctual to match aggression with aggression, we are far more likely to stop hurtful people from hurting us and others further if we can help them to recognize and alleviate their own hurt.
The students at both events were enthusiastic in their applause and scores of them remained long after the talks to ask questions and engage further. Common Party brought Arno to campus not because we are focused on the rescue and rehabilitation of extremists. Rather, we believe that Arno is an important model for these difficult times because he is a walking denial of our tendency to judge people and categorize things neatly in a box. Arno defies our us vs. them reflex, and most importantly, our stubborn insistence that people can’t change.
What we learn from Arno is that we can change ourselves and we can change our world. We do not need to be so entrenched in our certainties and our biases that we are unable to come to new understandings; we do not live in a world that is clear cut and static; we can and must constantly question our beliefs and assumptions about others and ourselves.
It is with this type of consciousness, and with the reintroduction of sandbox skills into our curriculum and our consciousness, that we can and we will be able to overcome the divides that are threatening to tear our country apart.
Join the movement for commonality, civility, and reconciliation at Common Party, www.thecommonparty.com