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  • Reverend James Squire

Safety And Is It 6 Yet?

I gave a presentation at a book signing for This Too Shall Pass on Thursday night with a group of EA parents from three classes of alumni. I was moved by the turnout. Part of the evening included a presentation by me where issues that are based in human nature were covered, some stories to highlight some points, as well as guidelines on how we can help others by indicating what people need to know so that they could get more adept at counseling others. Counseling is more of an art form that all people can learn to do, and its heartbeat is empathy and unconditional positive regard.

I knew the people there and the back story for a good many as well. One of my themes was from Rabbi Kushner that “tragedy doesn’t have a ticket into our lives. It has a box seat. We will all experience it.”

When I finished, people began to share their back stories with me but more important with one another. Some knew each other and some others didn’t. I think we could have gone on forever and was glad when the hostess transitioned to the book signing itself in a timely fashion.

I told some stories about being the Chaplain of EA dealing with division in our school community. When I invited conservative speakers such as John Yoo, an alumnus who I taught in my ethics class who became a lawyer for President Bush, the liberal side of our community thought I committed heresy. When I had Chris Matthews in to speak, the conservative members of our school were aghast at my lack of judgement. I had our first transgender speaker in chapel to begin alumni weekend since she was the unanimous choice of the 50 th reunion class which was all male. I heard again from a group of parents who didn’t think that was a good idea. It became a rocky road, but I agreed to meet with parents who didn’t see it my way. People kept track of how many women vs. how many men were chapel speakers as well as how many conservatives vs. liberals spoke. All of the above speakers received outstanding applause and a warm welcome from those parents who came, faculty, alumni, and students. The transgender alumnus who spoke was in tears when my wife and I had dinner with her at the 50th class reunion dinner. She had never received a warmer welcome.

So, what made the difference at the book signing group and the people who attended the speeches by the above-mentioned people that resulted in a warm welcome? I think the people got the message from me that all points of view are welcome and you are safe to share where you are in life. It is no different than what I did in an ethics classroom where classes are diverse and we cover some very controversial issues. Safety to express your ideas brings about civil discourse, something that is lacking in our country.

There are some additional things that are needed? Why would an all-male class with different political views want a transgender classmate to be their choice to speak and were unanimous in their decision? Their classmate said when he called me to make the request that the class knew her to be a wonderful person who has done marvelous work as an attorney in Colorado. If you get to know someone different in some way from you, labels leave. I also believe that if you try to be all things to all people you may wind up being nothing to anyone. Know yourself and be yourself. Don’t compromise your values. Dialogue promotes growth. The key whether it was at the book signing, classroom or anywhere, people need to feel safe before growth and acceptance takes place. My personal philosophy is to give students an experience of different points of view as long as everything is handled with civil discourse. There also can be no “you accept my point of view or you are less of a person.” No friends or family etc. can be mentioned. People referred to must be in the public domain. There can be no ad hominen attacks where you demean another. You can disagree with a point of view, but not disparage a classmate. One speaker at a time can make their contribution.

The absence of the above is what is happening at Penn State with the President who chose another way to promote racial justice for the school and not to have a center built that has already been chosen to promote racial justice. Nothing she has said in stating her reasons for her decision (which is part of the problem) has been fully embraced. Groups are entrenched armed with opinion camps. The politicians use an opposite phrase from promoting safety. They judge others as a cancel culture where your ideas don’t exist. My take on the situation is that the President wants to do something that will have a more direct impact on the Penn State Community.

The number of different groups in our nation has increased by more attacks on their lives. There were murders at a gay night club in Colorado Springs over the weekend. Antisemitic attacks are increasing as well in our nation as well as many of other “isms.” We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the high percentage of conversative students in colleges and universities who are afraid to voice their perspective in classes recently regarding affirmative action. This has been documented in recent research. They are afraid that they will be called racists. Armed camps accomplish nothing. It has turned into a permanent mind set which means that this will be seen as just the way we should be doing business with one another ad infinitum. Better models of behavior have been relegated to the past.

So, what’s the answer? Years ago, I had Arlen Specter, a great Republican/Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania from 1981 to 2011 and Joe Biden, our current President address chapel on what works and what doesn’t in Washington politics focusing on political ethics. Let me give you the short version of the anecdotal situations that they described to our school community.

Both agreed that the major problem in Washington was that “nobody went out to dinner together anymore.” Their only context for doing business had too little “everyday sharing between people about life with a personal dimension.” Relationships will die if not nourished by normal interpersonal communication.

If I only see you as the opposition and don’t know you at some personal level, we will always seek solutions with conflict and not with conversations about working together. Think Lindsey Graham (in his past political life) and John McCain were the closest of friends who did a lot of traveling together on political missions as well as just getting together beyond Washington.

Let me offer another example to support the above sentiment. When Chris Matthews came to speak at EA, I was in the middle of reading his book, Tip and Gipper: When Politics Worked. It is the story of when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan worked together to avoid congressional gridlock. Tip was Speaker of the House, and Reagan was the President. Both were highly regarded. Both could argue their points of view with passion and compassion. At the end of the day as the dinner hour approached, however, they would call each other at 6 after leading debates all day over the issues of the day and ask, “is it after 6?” They would then demonstrate the respect that they had for each other by talking about everything but politics.

The two men demonstrated a model of how to get things done and is so noted by historians, politicians, and journalists. They were the epitome of how political opposites got things done between 1980 and 1986.

People need to feel safe in order to connect with others regarding the most important issues whether it be in class, in a chapel address, or at a book signing to move forward to solutions whose bedrock is respecting others. Trust me. It is the only thing that ever works!

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