By Rich Harwood
This Friday, I’m heading to Orlando to speak at the American Library Association conference about the role of libraries in transforming communities. As I prepare for my trip, my mind keeps turning to the recent massacre there and how a community—and the nation—can respond.
Unfortunately, the current debate over guns on Capitol Hill leaves little hope for much of any response—whatever course it might take—other than more gridlock and name calling. Both the tone and substance of the debate is cause for real concern. But something even more fundamental plagues the discussion and demands our urgent attention.
The response to the Orlando tragedy is in part a function of something much larger, insidious and corrosive taking place in our society. Hate now seems to be enveloping us. Our public discourse is infused with it. A sense of common purpose undermined by it. When hate permeates a society to this extent, it must be confronted head on. Our ability to make progress depends upon making a significant course correction. We must not delay.
There are numerous examples of the spread of hate. Exhibit A is the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which continually stokes people’s fears. Meanwhile, leaders of his own party stand-by in hopes that they will not be asked to comment on the latest incendiary tactic or to take a definitive stand. Mr. Trump’s strategy of playing on people’s fears is dangerous.
But blaming Mr. Trump alone is too easy. And if we are not careful, we will once more miss the frustration and anger that many of his supporters feel.
The problem is that across the nation, various organizations and groups, political parties and leaders from all sides are at loggerheads. We risk descending into fragmented tribes, each protecting their own good, with little regard for the common good. Sadly, the name of the game now is to push one’s opponent into a corner. Raise voices. Point fingers. Cast aspersions. Far too little listening is happening. Too many opportunities for progress are getting choked off.
Our nation finds itself at an ugly impasse. When this happens, trust disappears, fear reigns, and there is little hope for major breakthroughs.
So what shall we do?
First and foremost, we must take a firm stand against hate. This will require that we make the choice to see and hear one another. That we commit to a modicum of empathy toward one another. That we seek to find openings for productive actions that can lead to growing our collective civic confidence that change, however small at first, is possible.
People of good will do not wish to idly stand on the sidelines and watch the ratcheting up of hate and the further fragmentation of society. They believe we can do better—that individually and collectively, we can be better. I know this because I witness such desire and the actions it produces each day in my work with people in communities across the nation.
The fundamental task here is to reclaim, together, what we value and the kind of communities we seek to create. This cannot be an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a fight—a fight against hate and the further fragmentation of our society. To battle hate, we must each examine where we stand, our actions, our willingness to truly see and hear one another, and make a firm declaration of our intentions.