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Guiding principles for this election season

It’s already October, which means Election Day on November 3 will be here before we know it. Given the profoundly challenging circumstances in which we are living — an ongoing pandemic, racial injustices, health disparities, economic loss, physical loss, and so much more — this election carries mounting significance for all of us. The candidates we choose — both locally and nationally — will need to make critical decisions for the future of this country, some of which will have a direct impact on our individual lives and wellbeing, and some of which will have a global impact. 

And yet, because of the gravity this election holds, we find ourselves still extremely polarized about the aforementioned issues and the platforms on which our candidates are running. That polarization has been seemingly compounded by the pandemic and other recent current events — a COVID-19 death toll of 215,000 in the United States, police violence against Black people, sweeping job loss, tension at our borders, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to name a few. With each passing day, the news compels new opportunities to debate pivotal issues and advocate for one party or candidate over another. Unfortunately, those debates can all too quickly become personal, divisive, and feel as if they are an attack on one’s identity. 

On our campuses and throughout our community, there are times when our words and actions can also feel like personal attacks. Indeed, we are not immune to the challenges this political season brings or our society’s tendencies to polarize the issues. But, rather than saying these divisive qualities are simply part of our cultural norms and sweep them under the rug as an unbreachable status quo, here at Washington University, I challenge us to do better as we navigate this election season, the pending results, and the future that awaits us.

At Washington University, we are a diverse community comprising students, faculty, and staff from myriad backgrounds and experiences, each of whom represent unique perspectives and identities. None of us is the same, and we celebrate our diversity as an essential component of our ethos and a mark of distinction. 

As a diverse community, we are not all going to agree. And that’s a good thing! Because diverse perspectives help us learn, grow, and uncover knowledge and truth in a way that homogeneity simply cannot. Even though we know and believe this to be true, the reality is that we still find ourselves in debates and dialogues that seem to reflect exactly the opposite — a place in which we are so far polarized that we have difficulty coming to the table and challenging our own notions and biases in an attempt to become better versions of ourselves. Instead, we have the potential to find ourselves in a place of defensiveness and closed-mindedness.

Members of the Washington University community, the latter is not the community we aspire to be. Instead, we aspire to be the former. And now is our chance to model for the world what it can look like to live, study, and work in a community that lives up to those aspirations. That’s why, leading up to this election, I want to share a set of community guiding principles that I believe can help guide us toward this vision of what community can and should be — even in the midst of such political polarization. As I outline them below, I hope you’ll notice that they intentionally bring together ideas that are frequently posed as mutually exclusive — in order to remind us that we are a community capable of rising above those dichotomies.

  1. We are a community that values freedom of speech AND we are a community that rejects hateful speech and words and actions that seek to harm rather than uplift. There have been many discussions over the years about the role of freedom of speech, not only in our country but also on our campuses (in fact, it is the topic of the course I’m co-teaching with Professor Lee Epstein this semester). At Washington University, we value freedom of speech for the reasons mentioned above — it allows us to hear and learn from a variety of perspectives in order to gain deeper knowledge and understanding. By the same token, we are also a community that values civility and the humanity of our peers and colleagues — and so we are careful to use our words and the freedoms we have been given with immense privilege and care for all people. To that end, I challenge us not to use our freedom of speech to attack, but rather to inquire and seek understanding through intellectual curiosity, empathy, and reasoning. 
  2. We are a community that values highly intellectual debate and dialogue AND we are a community that values mutual respect and dignity. These are absolutely not mutually exclusive. We can — and should — be able to disagree while still respecting one another for the talents and perspectives each of us brings to this community. To that end, I challenge us to come to the table with high regard for one another’s humanity, and with humility, integrity, understanding, and grace.

  3. We are a community that values individuality AND we are a community that values collaboration and partnership. When we exercise our right to vote, it is often a personal choice that can reflect — to some degree — our individual beliefs and stances. Individually, we also contribute to public discourse through our words and actions. As individuals, we must recognize that we do so as part of a collective effort greater than ourselves. Here at Washington University, while we bring our individual beliefs to the ballot box, and we continue to be a diverse community with strongly held and often divergent views, we will need to find a way to unite as a community before and after the election. We cannot let this election divide us. Instead, we need to find ways to come together in order to heal from the wounds that this election season has both exposed and exacerbated. In addition, we have work to do at WashU to advance our mission, and it is paramount that we do that work together.

  4. We are a community that values the right to vote AND we are a community with a keen understanding that civic engagement is more than a check mark every election. Indeed, we must do our part, both on Election Day and beyond, to help enact the changes we wish to see. I am incredibly proud of our community for recognizing and acting on the value of civic responsibility and community engagement. Our faculty, staff, and students are often on the front lines of leadership through local involvement, informing policy through research, activism, and more. With that in mind, this election season I challenge us to strengthen our resolve to do more, not just one day of the year, but 365 days of the year to make this country a better and more equitable place for all of us to live. 

In the days, weeks, and months to come, I hope we can use these guiding principles as a roadmap for our daily interactions, conversations, and actions — including on social media. It won’t always be easy — in fact it will take great courage, dedication, and cooperation. Of course, there will also be times when we are going to fall short. And when that happens, I challenge us not to fall back into old patterns, but instead to learn from our mistakes — to seek to overcome our shortcomings in order to grow. For us, this may mean being intentional about “calling each other in” versus calling people out, asking clarifying questions, entering into dialogue to comprehend rather than convince, and seeking growth by trying again. 

As I reflect on these important aspects of our community and shared values, I can’t help but think about our beloved Chancellor-Emeritus Bill Danforth who recently passed away. Bill was a champion for these qualities and the role Washington University plays in educating leaders who go on to serve important roles in citizenship, progress, and the very fabric of our democratic society. In fact, Bill’s words remind me exactly why we do this important work when, in his Thanksgiving letter in 1979, he said this:

“Major universities are a vital part of our modern democratic nation. They are essential for supplying the coming generations with the technical and intellectual skills to run our complex society. Even more important, our graduates will be citizens in the world’s leading democracy, charged with making difficult decisions that will affect the future of all humankind.” 

This is precisely why we do what we do — why we enter into difficult dialogues across our differences, why we remain active and involved, and why we continue the search for truth through our education, research, and patient care mission. May this election season be yet another reminder of that vision as we use this time as an opportunity to hone our leadership skills, our intellectual and human capacity, and our convictions. 

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read and reflect on these words and our community guiding principles. I’m incredibly grateful for each of you and the many layers of perspective, context, and talent you bring to our incredibly vibrant and distinctive community. May we remember these important aspects of one another’s humanity as we enter into courageous dialogue, civic responsibility, and action — this election season and always.