The election is over – sort of.
Issue and candidate races appear to be resolved even as we observe the charade that is President Trump’s effort to overturn a properly and legally held election. He is unlikely to prevail and at some point, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take office.
The transition will not be smooth. But the real challenge confronting all of us remains the deep political and social divisions in our society. The election did nothing to bridge the divide and likely made it worse.
In this environment, all of us tend to view those opposed to our deeply held personal opinions as wrong, and in these times, even evil. That black-and-white construct makes civil dialogue all but impossible.
Can we accept the notion that people who see the world differently can be sincere – but also wrong. And on what basis can we determine rightness and wrongness? Is such a calculation possible?
My mass media ethics course at the University of Idaho was built around development of a personal ethical decision-making process based on reconciliation of conflicting personal and professional values. At the heart of any ethical dilemma are clashing values that must be reconciled before the problem can be resolved.
That same process of resolving clashing values is at the heart of problem solving at all levels of community – local, state, and national.
In my teaching, I referenced the work of Joseph DeMarco and Richard Fox and their book “Moral Reasoning.” They write of three universal values that have been accepted in human society across time and geography.
n Do no harm: We should not harm others. We should not harm ourselves.
n Do not be unfair: Fairness is defined as being judged or dealt with in the same way, by the same rules or standards used in judging or treating others in the same or similar circumstances.
n Do not violate another’s freedom, meaning people should not interfere with another person’s freedom of action. But this value does not condone morally bad acts just because they were freely chosen.
The DeMarco and Fox principles provide a framework for determining if a cause is morally right or wrong or has elements of both. And their application can help us find common ground when dealing with our most troublesome social issues.
Is there a solution to any problem that minimizes unfairness to stakeholders? That minimizes harm to stakeholders? That protects the freedom of stakeholders?
Managing that sort of calculation requires civil discourse between those who disagree and a willingness to compromise, the hallmark of a civil society.
But let us be clear, some causes are simply and explicitly morally wrong. Issues of racial justice, LGBTQ rights, economic inequality, to name a few, have no countervailing views that can be defended ethically. Yes, those who believe in white supremacy may be sincere in their beliefs. But their cause is morally wrong, violating all three DeMarco and Fox principles. And so, supremacy advocates – advocates of evil – must be opposed at every turn.
In these times, we must separate those absolutes from the more nuanced issues and then find the common ground that represents collaborative compromise, if not consensus. Clearly that is not going to in the halls of government where self-serving political leaders of all stripes have caved to the extremes. But it could happen locally, on a small scale.
What if we could establish a self-generating network of civic discussion groups modeled on those ubiquitous Oprah-inspired book clubs?
In Moscow, the University of Idaho could take on the challenge if there are administrators and academics bold enough to try. Wedding such an initiative to bona fide academic research might even open the door to grants or other financial resources.
Could there be a more appropriate role for a public university that views itself as a citizen of its community and which is, by law and tradition, a neutral player?
The election did little or nothing to bridge the deep divisions in Moscow and Latah County. It is fair to say there is considerable anger in some parts of the community, even among winners. But genuine civic – and civil – conversations can help residents find common ground and that could lead to resolution of the clashing values that hinder community problem solving.
It will not be easy. Then community building in a noisy, fractious society has never been easy. Who is willing to try?
Steven A. Smith, formerly of Moscow now living in Spokane, is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho and was a professional journalist for 40 years. He retired from full-time teaching in May.