Sunday, December 29, 2013

#145 December 29, 2013- Respect

Respect for Others. . .
We are nearing the end of the "Holiday Season", the months of November and December that are bracketed by Thanksgiving and the start of the New Year.  This is a time of traditions and family, a time when we are reminded of the things that we value most in life.  We gather with family and friends and we celebrate in a wide variety of ways.  Yet, this is also a time of stark contrasts between the shared values of culture, religion and family, and the commercialism and intolerance of our society.

These contrasts are magnified by the current conflicts that we are facing in America.  These aren't new conflicts, but they have been intensified by the recent political, social and economic upheavals.  Inserted into this period of joyful celebration has been an undercurrent of divisiveness and dislike.  It is striking to see the difference between the message of the holidays, and the reality that we observe. 

America is, and always has been, a nation of significant diversity,  This has been a source of strength as well as a source of conflict from the very founding of our nation.  The result of our ongoing effort to incorporate different ideas into our national identity is a system that is supposed to respect and protect a wide variety of beliefs and cultures.  While citizens of the United States identify themselves primarily as either Christian (77% in 2012) or Unaffiliated (15% in 2012), our laws and policies reflect this attempt to honor the original thinking about religion set forth in our Constitution.  The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." and Article VI specifies that "no religions test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

As we have grown and developed as a nation we have seen many different efforts made to protect the rights of those who practice different religions, are of different races, who have different abilities, and who live different lifestyles than those who make up the majority of our population.  We also make the effort to recognize that there is significant diversity of thinking and living within the Christian majority as well.  Without these efforts to respect and protect the diversity of our nation it is unlikely that we would ever have achieved the status that we have in the world.  In fact, it is not unreasonable to think that the United States would never have become a nation had not our founders compromised and built these protections in to our original efforts to unify 13 colonies with very different cultural identities.

Legal protections are one thing, but as we know, it is difficult to mandate tolerance and to legislate acceptance.  As a nation we have always seen a disconnect between our national rhetoric and the reality of our society.  From the very beginning of a nation where "All men are created equal" we saw some men count as 2/3 of a citizen (not to mention the literal meaning of the word men).  In a nation where no religion is officially established, it has been difficult to find a way to respect the wide variety of religious practices that our people observe.  We have struggled to find ways to respect the "minority" while honoring the "majority".  Our history is filled with struggle and conflict as we have grappled with these challenges. 

These challenges of trying to find some common ground are the reason that we have a government and that we attempt, as much as possible, to separate our religious views from our political processes.  There is no way to ever eliminate the impact of our moral, ethical and religious opinions from these processes, and to think we can is to ignore the reality of our human efforts to make sense of the world around us.  What we can do is try to make sure that we have systems in place that allow for debate and discussion in order to achieve the best result for the most people that we possibly can. 

Unfortunately, debate on these moral issues can only lead to compromise and resolution if there is some degree of tolerance and respect for the opinions of others in place.  This is very difficult for some to accept, they truly believe that they know what is right, just and true.  It is because of this that two topics that are taboo in polite conversation are politics and religion.  Yet, if we are to maintain our unity as a nation we need to have these conversations.  We need to continue the ongoing effort to find compromise and to recognize that there is significant diversity of opinion in our nation around many important issues. 

This is why we have the rules that we have.  It isn't to punish any specific viewpoint, despite the hysteria that is generated by extremists on all sides who claim that our nation is headed towards moral or ethical disaster.  No culture, nation or society can survive extremism and still maintain diversity of thought.    In her biography on Voltaire, Hall wrote the phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," and this thinking is the cornerstone of what has made America a successful nation.  The current efforts on the part of the extreme Conservatives threatens to undermine the very foundation of the nation that they claim to love so much.  

For me, this thinking goes beyond a philosophical discussion and gets to the heart of my own moral, ethical and religious beliefs.  If we truly are to live in a nation that we can identify as morally sound, we can't practice intolerance and hatred for those who think or act differently than we do.  To do so is not only foolish from a practical sense, but it also violates what I believe to be the foundation of the religious and ethical beliefs that have guided our nation. 

Those who claim that America is a Christian nation need to carefully consider what that means, and what the Bible tells us about how we should live our lives.  To state that we should "love thy neighbour as thyself," does more than simply imply tolerance.  It means that we should be committed to working towards respecting all people and working to build a society that honors and includes everyone.      

In the end this isn't about who wins the big political or economic battles between Conservatives and Progressives, or Democrats and Republicans.  It is about what kind of nation we, as a people, choose to live in.  The current climate of fear and anger, where individuals and groups are looking for conflict isn't one that promotes equity and justice.  We devote too much time and energy to the wrong conflicts and fail to address the issues that are of utmost importance to our society and the people who live in it.     

Respect for Public Education. . .
Respect isn't just about tolerating others' viewpoints, it is about providing the resources and support to make sure that we create a society that promotes the "general welfare" and recognizes the equality of all under the law.  If we don't put an emphasis on providing equal opportunity and protection for all citizens, then our expressed ideals are simply rhetoric and empty promises.

Education has long been touted as one of our greatest potential resources to accomplish these goals.  The American system of public education can provide the opportunities for all citizens to get the necessary training and education to increase their potential for success.  Our public schools are legally required to provide access to these opportunities for all students, and are mandated to support the diverse needs of every child. 

However, education is more than just an economic resource.  Our schools can also provide outlets for creativity, support for emotional needs and many other things that go beyond the basics or core instruction.  In our public schools students can learn history, experience the arts and meet a variety of people from many different cultures, backgrounds and experiences. 

Unfortunately, the current dialog around our public schools is all about the money and demonstrates a lack of respect for those who work and learn in our schools.  We know that the new year will bring renewed assaults on our public schools.   

These attacks continue despite the lack of evidence that the proposed "reforms" actually do anything to increase student achievement. 

Educating students is challenging work, and educators deserve respect. 

The battles around public education share the same roots, and the same solutions that those in the economic, moral and political spheres have.  We, as a society, need to identify what is important to us, and then devote our full attention and resources to resolving the challenges.  We can't allow a small minority of influential people to dictate the discussion and direction that our efforts take.   

Respect for Labor. . .
America is a land of contradictions.  So far we've explored the discrepancies between our expressed moral beliefs and our frequently amoral actions, and the expressed importance of education and the educational profiteering that drives many of the current educational "reforms".  These inconsistencies share common roots of fear and greed.  We express beliefs in one thing, but find ourselves acting in opposite ways out of a need to protect our own self-interests.  Fear and greed are powerful tools that can be used to manipulate and confuse people to support things that they otherwise wouldn't.

This is true in many aspects of our society and the effects have been magnified by the current political conflicts.  We see opinions and ideals being manipulated in order to advance specific agendas, not to help people.  The efforts to control the dialog about labor is yet another example of this. 

Employment is an important part of our identities as members of society.  We place a tremendous amount of importance on what people do for a living.  Different professions and occupations are given differing degrees of respect, and there is significant competition to be employed in one of the high status occupations.  Lost in this competition is the reality that all labor should be respected.  Every job is a piece of our economy and a part of the system that makes our nation work.  Yet, we consistently degrade some jobs and subsequently dismiss the efforts of those who fill them.  This allows for labor to be divided and weakens the power of the worker in America.

The wealthiest citizens have long recognized this and use the divisions between workers to advance their pro management, anti-labor agendas.  One of the most visible battlefronts in this conflict is the effort to destroy the power of organized labor in the United States. 

If labor unions are eliminated then individual workers will have little power in their workplaces.  The result will be a more precipitous decline in the wages and benefits that employees earn, especially in the least respected fields of work.  We can't allow for labor to be divided, and subsequently conquered.  We can show our support by shopping in worker friendly stores, buying goods made by fairly treated employees and reminding ourselves and our fellow citizens that all labor is valuable.  

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