Let me introduce you to my daughter. She is kind. She is sincere. She is witty. She takes care of her siblings with nary a complaint. She is everything a teenager should be … bright, fresh-faced and stepping onto the precipice of adulthood with great hope for her future.
Last spring she applied to be part of a delegation of youth heading to our capitol to participate in a citizenship focused leadership conference. She jumped at this opportunity to learn about our government from lawmakers, ambassadors and cabinet members.
She thought it would be amazing to tour national monuments and get to attend the presidential inauguration. And she was eyeing up dresses for the planned inaugural ball long before she even knew if she’d been accepted.
She carefully completed the lengthy application and essay questions. She collected glowing letters of reference from adults and peers who could speak to her leadership abilities. She spent hours reviewing civics and history in preparation for her the interview round of the application process.
And ultimately, she was selected to go.
Per the trip requirements, she logged hours watching debates, following news stories and participating in online learning modules related to government. And when the time came, she joined five hundred youth from all over our nation for this incredible experience.
These are the very cream of the crop 4-H youth and I am bursting with pride that my daughter is among them.
But I am also heavy hearted. Because having my daughter so intimately tuned into this election cycle has made me acutely aware of the political landscape we are presenting to our children.
There is plenty for me to be concerned about.
From a sheer safety standpoint, I wondered if it was wise to send my daughter to the inaugural events given news of vitriolic protests planned with intent to destroy property, block roads and wreak havoc on the proceedings.
After all the time she invested in preparation, I was disheartened that there were people out there who would do everything in their power to stop her from going and potentially cause her harm.
I wouldn’t dream of sending my teen into a politically unstable country where violent protests are expected during political transitions. But you’d think I wouldn’t have to worry about sending her to our own capitol to experience what should be our incredible and beautiful tradition of a peaceful exchange of power.
I understand the unease and disappointment with the outcome of the last election. And I don’t begrudge anyone their right to exercise free speech and peaceful assembly. But from what I could tell, the assembly and speech planned were intended to create chaos and division.
This is not the political legacy I hope we leave our children.
I’m hopeful that the media predictions of protests were exaggerated. But honestly, I was discouraged long before news of rowdy protests surfaced. Because I worry we are losing our way as a diverse but united nation.
Politically divergent views and the balance of their power are some of our country’s greatest assets. I have been challenged, sharpened and even won over by thinkers with radically different views than my own.
We need each other to protect this country from one ideology running the show.
So what is most alarming to me is the way our exposure to alternative viewpoints is waning. Thanks to algorithms and our online behavior, we increasingly curate news feeds that simply mirror our own perspective. We are losing the benefit of balance as we airily hide posts we don’t agree with and like posts we do.
If you follow news and political sources, ask yourself if you ever thoughtfully read, or even consider other perspectives – other than to build a case for your own.
It seems to me that we are simply becoming our own echo chambers, turning a deaf ear to other views and shutting down discourse.
Furthering the divide is the way it has become taboo to discuss politics with your friends and family – at least the ones of a different political persuasion – lest you offend or alienate a loved one.
Instead of real life conversations, we increasingly express political views via memes, blogs and articles shared and liked ad nauseam online. We are told its the new water cooler. And its where these debates belong.
I find nothing wrong with using social media to educate and promote ideologies and causes dear to our hearts. And I can laugh at political satire with the best of them. Even when it pokes fun at my candidate.
But we are being sold a false bill of goods when we are told that social media is the new water cooler.
People have to behave themselves at the water cooler.
Posting an inflammatory piece does nothing to diminish the potential to offend. It increases it. And it seems counterproductive. Because, at best you just turned off an audience you are hoping to persuade and at worst you are baiting others into comment threads laced with insults and venom.
Don’t ever forget that the next generation is watching our online behavior.
They are seeing our comments and they note the headlines of the articles we post. They see when we preach unity on one hand and perpetuate dissonance on the other. They see when we disparage politicians on the same timelines where we cry for tolerance. They see the derogatory (and sometimes downright lewd) memes and the profanity in our remarks.
They see it all.
Each of us has a responsibility to look in the mirror and ask what we are doing to contribute to the hostile political climate. We’d do well to remember that anyone can say nice things about folks they agree with. True peacemakers build bridges with those they don’t.
What would happen if, rather than surrounding yourself and your newsfeed with folks who think and vote the way you do, you intentionally seek out the viewpoints of others?
What if, rather than fearing political conversations with our friends and family, we embraced them. Imagine heartfelt conversations held in a spirit of, “Help me understand why you vote and think the way you did and I will do the same.”
This face to face interaction with a loved one or peer would temper the potential to offend in a way a computer screen never could. And it certainly will do more to advance a cause than a Facebook post.
My daughter did not vote for either candidate. But she is still a citizen and she has a stake in the future of the country. And she is paying attention.
Lets show her and the rest of the youth that are watching us what unity looks like. Lets discuss intelligently, calmly and thoughtfully the issues that affect their future. Let’s express our disappointment in election results in positive and productive ways.
And let’s teach them we can find common ground.