As I leave for Ponysaurus Brewing in a few short minutes to host a Mayoral Forum with the leading Durham Mayoral Election candidates, I am thinking of civil discourse. I am thinking of argument that allows room for the exchange of ideas. I am thinking of agreeing to disagree. I am thinking to advance society we need to allow for criticism. We need to allow for the right to change one’s mind, the right to learn as we go.
I am reminded of the John Maynard Keynes quote I cited in the first Clarion Content piece ever, “When the facts change, I reserve the right to change my mind.”
Our society has fallen prey to slogans in politics. To shouting. To intolerance of the opinion of others. One of our very own, poet and writer, Chris Vitiello is off at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan with an installation called “The Language is Asleep” that decries this very crisis.
Durham needs to dare to be different. To buck this national trend. We need to be able to have a civil discourse, to disagree with sincerity and intensity, but not anger or vitriol.
In conversation about such, I like to quote an old friend and the co-founder of The Carrack, Laura Ritchie that “Durham is an intentional community.” It is a phrase, a finding, an idea that occurred to us in one of the early Carrack salons. Durham’s difference is built on intent.
Frequently, an intentional community refers to a uniformly religious or cultic community.
In Durham it refers to a community of caring. It is built around love. It refers to a community that cares so much about each other and our rights to free expression that we married ourselves in a massive and very public ceremony. We swore to uphold each other’s dignity and freedom.
Such a contract demands no less than civil discourse and freedom to disagree.
But I am worried enough to issue a reminder and an injunction to keep it up.
The national media and our Washington leadership continue to try to divide us. To tell us what we don’t like about each other. To magnify our differences over our commonality. To assert that disagreement is tantamount to division.
We must not get sucked into the maelstrom of hate.
If Durham is different, if we are an intentional community, it must be built on love of one another.
For many years I have explained Durham as different than the New Jersey/ New York area I grew up on this basis: “In Durham when you say you have an idea, people ask, ‘How can I help?’ Where I grew up in the New York Metro area, when you say you have an idea, people say, ‘Oh yeah, I have a better idea.’”
To me, Durham is epitomized by an ethic of collaboration over cooperation, from the Scrap Exchange to co-working, from zero commission art galleries to Jamnesia. A collaborative ethic has ruled the day during the nearly twenty years I have been here.
We must not lose that vibe.
We are quite likely to face a Durham Mayoral Election in 2017 where the final round pits a black person against a white person, and possibly an older white male versus a younger black male.
Will we sloganize it? Will we become more like everyone else and less like the Durham intentional community gathered around love? Will there be shouting or listening?
I personally support all of the candidates who can lead with an ethic of love. Who can unite Durham. Who recognize our pervasive rich/poor gap, our troubled school system, that many who can afford to opt of do, our unconstitutionally long back-log of inmates awaiting trial in our jail. And that these burdens fall disproportionately on Durham residents of color.
As a man far smarter than me once said, “Love is the answer.”
Love takes work. A marriage takes work. Durham needs work. American democracy needs work.
To me civil discourse is the first step. I was again reminded of such when our Rabbi Daniel Greyber at Beth El Durham quoted this message from Rabbi Ed Feinstein shortly after Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in violence fed by hatred and anger.
“We Americans have apparently forgotten that democracy is fragile. That is the surprise. At the heart of American democracy is our aspiration to build an inclusive, accepting national community, welcoming differences and embracing hyphenated identities. On my street live Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Persian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, Latino-Americans. A dozen languages are spoken in our homes. Neighborhoods sparkle with Christmas, Sukkot, and Halloween decorations. We enjoy sushi, samosas, burritos, and blintzes. The pluralism brings color to our community. America’s great project is to bring the pluralism together into one — e pluribus unum. This is our continuing project. It is daunting. And all the more so when we take it for granted.
The tribalism of Charlottesville is natural. It is democracy that is not natural, not part of our nature. Democracy is learned. Democracy is an expression of our sacred aspiration to rise above our nature, to rise above our reflex to fear the unfamiliar, to blame the outsider, to destroy the Other. Democracy must be taught, re-taught, rehearsed, and renewed daily. Democracy is an ongoing project aimed at reshaping our basic human impulses. It is never finished. It is always demanding more of us. And this week, after the events we have witnessed, it demands more still.”
Democracy is imperfect. And so are we.
But let’s work at them both, Durham, civilly.
We can do it. It won’t come easy.
It’s a marriage. It’s our city. We owe it to each other.