Partisanship is killing us from within

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Jacobs

We, the reasonable people, must rise above the forces that are dividing us. 

Last week's statements by school board member John Keen that RBHS Tolerance Week was left-wing and Riverside resident Chris Robling that it was a blatantly ideological activity are highly divisive because they allege partisanship without supporting evidence. 

It would be wrong to question their motives – Keen volunteers much of his time as a school board member, and Robling epitomizes the politically active citizen – but it is critical to evaluate their wisdom in the specific context of our times.

A trend that has been years in the making, we find ourselves more divided today than at any time since the Civil War. We are loath to talk to people from the other side and unfriend them on social media. 

We keep retracting deeper and deeper into the silos of our news and information sources, which only confirm the beliefs and values we already hold. Rather than finding common ground in the middle, we are moving further apart.

Can we agree that what makes trying to make progress on the many political issues of our time so difficult is that our communities are succumbing to a debilitating form of societal cancer, namely partisanship?

Partisanship is a cancer, because it is purely destructive. It renders immediate judgment about bad motives, and it effectively shuts down reason and thoughtful engagement by exploiting our biases. It taps into our tribal instincts at the expense of encouraging true political dialogue. 

Unfortunately, we have also allowed the term "political" to become a dirty word, forgetting that the success of our free form of self-governance is dependent on citizens taking their political duties – being well informed, debating, and voting, among many others –  seriously.

Let's take a look at gender equality, one of the issues RBHS Tolerance Week shed a light on. What messers Keen and Robling liken to "pushing an ideology" is spelled out in the Declaration of Independence – that all men are created equal. 

How could this be a partisan issue? The American experiment is rooted in this aspiration, and since we have not achieved this goal yet, who would question the motives of engaged high school students intent on improving the union? Unwise partisans would.

Environmental awareness was part of Tolerance Week also. Which part of the 97 percent scientific consensus on the very urgent need for action to counteract climate change is partisan? Who would question the motives of students who are raising awareness for a livable planet for all, conservatives and liberals alike? Unwise partisans would.

As reasonable citizens, we must not stand by idly when partisans attempt to divide us. It will serve all members of our community well to pay attention to Mr. Keen's words and actions in office, and to recall them the next time we go to the polls to hold him to account.

With regard to Mr. Robling, it is up to him to clarify his statement that the Tolerance Week activities "practiced intolerance of any divergent views" since he did not offer any examples in the article. 

In the absence of a thoughtful addition to the needed dialogue he will remain exposed as a mere partisan more interested in division and partisan gain than reasonable common solutions.

As to Tosin Olowu – if you end up reading this -- please know how inspiring the actions of you and your friends are to me. You are a true leader, and the reason I am hopeful about the future. I cannot wait to cast my vote for you when you eventually run for office.

Tom Jacobs is a Riverside resident, architect and founder of Architects Advocate, a nonpartisan grassroots effort to work across party lines for solutions to climate change.

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Howard Brundage  

Posted: December 5th, 2017 4:34 PM

Mr. Jacobs, Years ago, I read Prof. Haidt's, The Righteous Mind. I loved it and in a bipartisan way, recommend it to all, especially those most panicked that half the country is insane and/or evil. I've watched most of his online lectures, too. Haidt provides a very convincing framework for understanding both the source of our differences and the way that society is strengthened by them. I also follow his Heterodox Academy, which defines the problem of collegiate leftist academic hegemony and seeks to correct it, by recruiting scholarship that has long been ideologically exiled. The Heterodox Academy website provides this quote, from John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859): "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion? Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them?he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form." Over issues treated during Tolerance Week, it's clear that ideological competition exists; if not, why the appeal to tolerance? Based on what I've garnered over the years, since the "Day of Silence" was launched and morphed into Tolerance Week, I suspect that views commonly associated with a loosely defined "social justice" agenda were promoted. Rather than protesting the material presented, it's probably fair to say that Board Member Keen, Mr. Robling, and many others remain unconvinced that Mill's "opposite side" received any hearing, much less, a hearing presented in its "most plausible and persuasive form". With sincere goodwill towards all, I share their concerns, a

Thomas Jacobs  

Posted: November 30th, 2017 9:52 PM

Dear Mr. Brundage: I very much respect you sharing your views which are entirely reasonable. What if we aren't as different as we think? The most relevant and insightful research on the left/right divide which I have recently come by is by Jonathan Haidt, whose work on the causes of political differences is eye-opening. He gave a TED talk on the topic in 2008 titled the moral roots of liberals and conservatives which you can watch online. I found it enormously helpful in understanding why our political convictions are so different, and at the same time how close our overall values actually are. If you watch it, let me know what you think.

Howard Brundage  

Posted: November 30th, 2017 4:16 PM

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mr. Jacobs. I've been in the community for 22 years of my adult life and had a kid graduate from RB, so I I've followed the discussion about Tolerance Week, for years. I have a daughter in a STEM field, where females are woefully under-represented. Unfortunately, she's experienced both discrimination and the harassment, which make me both sick & angry. If the purpose of Tolerance Week is to educate students about the problem, so they don't become either victims or perpetrators, I'm all for it. Depending on which climate model or expert one believes, good people, who love the environment, can disagree about the pace and best way to clean up & heal the planet. If Tolerance Week presented conservation & environmental improvement solutions, I'm all for it. With much greater certainty than climate science hypotheses, 100% of doctors can define a boy or girl. While equal in terms of dignity, they aren't equal in terms of physical form. Their differences are complimentary, with unique features designed for specific biological purposes. I know that believing so has gone out of vogue, particularly in academia, not because the facts were disproven, but because mostly left-leaning proponents of "gender theory" favor relativistic and subjective factors, over the empirical. My concern is that this novel philosophy was promoted, while more traditional/scientific understandings were ignored. Above all, I know that my number one duty is to love my neighbor, in the broadest sense of the word, regardless of disagreements about social policy. Those neighbors include every student and teacher at RB. Every one of them possesses indelible human dignity, but that doesn't mean that disagreements don't exist. I agree with much of what you wrote and respect your many efforts to improve the community. I only ask that respect & understanding be afforded to those who aren't 100% behind Tolerance Week. We're neither unreasonable nor

Thomas Jacobs  

Posted: November 29th, 2017 9:42 PM

Mr. Brundage: My definition of partisanship is reflexively accusing the other side without expressing supporting arguments of one's point of view. Maybe I didn't supply enough arguments to the specific topics discussed in the article, fair enough. In terms of gender equality, for instance, I think we need to find a way to assure women get paid as much as men for the same work. What are your thoughts on the topic? I am genuinely interested to learn what about the gender equality discussion you take issue with. On the environment and climate change, I believe we need to act quickly so that our kids and their grandkids can prosper and grow up healthy, because a very large majority of scientists, who we rely on for just about everything else in our civilization, suggest we do so. Investing in a low-carbon economy is an enormous growth market opportunity that can create many jobs, particularly in rural areas where many other industries have left. I don't see what we lose by moving in this direction, but the potential downside is significant. Please let me know your thoughts on this, too.

Jon Points  

Posted: November 29th, 2017 9:37 PM

Mr. Brundage, thank you for so eloquently affirming Mr. Jacobs's point. You grapple for proof that Tolerance Week would conflict with your conservative and Catholic beliefs, even though you were not present. If some of the content did conflict with your views, it does not make it wrong, partisan, prejudice, or bias. It is just a different point of view that does not negatively affect you. If someone came forward who was at Tolerance Week, would you accept that person's statements if they said that none of the content or events conflicted with your conservative or Catholic beliefs? Or, would you say they were wrong because it does not fit into your preconceived ideas. People like you, both conservative and liberals, are the cancer of our society. Aristotle said that "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." Hopefully, more people can be more like Aristotle, which I feel would eradicate the cancers in our society.

Howard Brundage  

Posted: November 29th, 2017 1:46 PM

If partisanship can be defined as a prejudice or bias in favor of a movement or idea, I'm afraid that Mr. Jacobs displays an extreme form of it; specifically, the form that blinds one to perspectives outside of one's own. Seemingly perplexed, he wonders, "How could this be a partisan issue?" with regard to "gender equality". Likewise, he asks, "Which part of the 97 percent scientific consensus on the very urgent need for action to counteract climate change is partisan?" Self-identifying with "the reasonable people" & 97% of scientists, he seems incapable of comprehending that alternative points of view even exist. Apparently, he feels that those of us that suspect Tolerance Week activities are a form of contemporary, secular, left-leaning proselytization, fall outside the definition of reasonable people, scoff at science, and ignore the wisdom of the Declaration of Independence. I wasn't at RB during Tolerance Week, but I'm pretty confident that at least some of the material presented, during some parts of the week, would conflict with my conservative and Catholic beliefs. Witnesses to the events, please correct me, if I'm wrong. Of course, I wouldn't expect any support for a public school curriculum, based on my religious and political beliefs. That said, pretending that the views of people, like Mr. Jacobs & the architects of Tolerance Week, are universally held, immune to controversy, and invulnerable to argument doesn't make them so. If Mr. Jacobs is incapable of identifying his own blinding bias, but keenly aware of the biases & partisan motives of others, perhaps it's his own ability to tolerate that partisanship is killing.

Toni Parker  

Posted: November 28th, 2017 10:43 PM

Bravo, Mr. Jacobs. Well said.

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