Civil Discourse: Celebrating, Not Excluding, Diverse Voices: A Reflection From Humanities Teacher, Alick McLean

In response to the events that took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, January 6, Penguin Hall gathered together to reflect, process and respond as a community. As part of our weekly virtual Good Morning APH assemblies, Humanities teacher Alick McLean, shared his reflection on the current state of our nation.

“The Good Morning APH team asked for faculty volunteers ‘to provide some context and more insight on how this (recent events) affect our democracy.’ I agreed to do this despite the fact that I question whether this event is getting more attention than other, more disturbing events of the past year, such as the police murders of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, and of too many other black citizens by the police hired and trained to protect them. My justification is that there are connections, that this week’s events may help us to understand the others, and how we respond may help to address both.

The Good Morning APH team furthermore mentioned that such context and insight may well have been already provided in some of our classes, and so rather than attempting the impossible, to be comprehensive in the brief time we have here, I’d like to address how these events affect our democracy from one specific angle. The danger in witnessing United States citizens carrying US flags to launch a terrorist attack on the central institution of that flag, the US Congress, is a sense of powerlessness, even futility. Five people are dead, four terrorists and one police. Has our country come so far that when losing an election, the response is no longer to respect the will of the majority, but rather to destroy the very institutions representing us all? Tough questions come up for either side of this election: some wonder, could it be that nearly half the population, those that voted for Trump, support this behavior? Or, if we are among those that voted for Trump, assuming we do not accept his encouragement of terrorist behavior, does this moment taint the values and policies we share with him? From another angle—why were terrorists even allowed to enter the precinct, why was the police presence so light and ineffective, even at times supportive, when there were helicopters above and tear gas released amidst peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters this summer? Is our entire system of law enforcement designed to silence some voices, while encouraging others?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I recommend we recover something, ourselves, here, that those storming the capitol, as well as those failing to defend it, lost in the violence. Those marching to the capitol exercised their right to free assembly and speech, and then took the horrible step from citizens to terrorists, from democracy to tyranny: they attempted violently to silence the voices of others, whether those voting for Biden, or even Trump supporters who disagreed with them. Many of you have already participated in political demonstrations, from the woman’s march on Washington, to the march of scientists on Washington, to APH students marching to the Massachusetts State House in Boston protesting climate change, to marching to protest the police murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many other Black Lives slaughtered by those meant to protect us. It is worth observing that while fringe groups unassociated with the BLM movement engaged in looting, supporters of the movement advocate peace, and at no point, ever, have advocated silencing anybody else’s voices. 

This brings me to what we can do, not just during demonstrations, but also during our daily lives, here at APH, or at home or with friends. As the Good Morning APH team has initiated, let’s invite one another to talk about these and other events that trouble us. Not only peaceful marching makes a difference. We can make a difference in the very act of inviting discussion, and, super important, in how we engage in discussion. Embrace, even celebrate, the diversity of points of view that make up our community. Rather than vilify those that disagree with us, provide evidence, facts, to support our points of view, and then let our disagreements reside in how we view facts, not in how we view each other. Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher, put it well when, according to one of his biographers, he stated to a fellow philosopher with whom he disagreed: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire (London: Smith, 1906), 189.)

Practice being outspoken, with facts. Stand up against efforts to ignore important discussions, such as the murders animating Black Lives Matter protests, or attempts to silence any point of view, even those we disagree with. Encourage, rather than silence, others to do the same. Model this for each other, indeed for adults too. We need your help, not only now, in the midst of this crisis, but all the more when you move from students witnessing politics to the next generation of voting citizens and leaders, empowered, through civil discourse, to confront the many challenges we adults have been unable to resolve.