Finding Places For Civil Discourse
As we close out another contentious year in our nation’s history, we face troubling divisions in our politics, increases in hate crimes and growing disdain for those with views different than our own. Civility is under attack and we need to create more opportunities and safe places for civil discourse across America.
Our challenges are acute. According to a recent survey, 93 percent of Americans said we have a civility problem in our society. However, 81 percent of respondents believe we can discuss highly controversial topics in civil ways and 71 percent are hopeful for a more civil future.
We need more avenues to understanding one another and less arguing through social media posts. My belief — as a lifelong leader of historical institutions — is that we need to find more ways to be in community with one another.
You see, long before Hillary Clinton popularized the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” I lived in a community where every child was treated like family. We took care of each other in times of need. Unfortunately, many people today still see communities and families through the eyes of a Norman Rockwell painting — a view that has never been representative of a true America.
History museums have a key role to play in this regard as they are well positioned to foster learning and help build bridges across cultures. They remind us that we’ve faced many trying times before. And they point us toward those times in history when we’ve worked together to overcome our differences and make our country a better place.
These institutions are as relevant to the future as they are to our past and they feed the pragmatism in each of us who desire a sense of place and belonging today. A place where we feel most comfortable, most at home, the safest. History holds the power to create senses of place and community that foster civil discourse. So, the museum community — including my own institution Conner Prairie, a Smithsonian affiliate — must do more to engage Americans interested in a more civil future and inclusive communities.
According to a 2017 National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, 78.2 percent of Americans surveyed say history museums are among the most highly credible sources of information. This is more than 10 percentage points higher than daily newspapers. This trust matters.
As Americans look to history museums for credible information, it is also important to take a step back to define history. History is not a series of events to simply remember and regurgitate. It is about the human experience and the conditions that created those events. Astronomer Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” People want to know where they came from — geographically, of course, but maybe even more important, spiritually and intellectually — to answer the age-old question: Who am I and what is my place in this world?
After all, we are a nation of immigrants. My own family immigrated to the United States from Ireland and — like many groups before and after — they were not initially welcomed and quite often despised, but we too soon joined the melting pot of American culture. Why is there no longer room for new ingredients in the melting pot of American freedom and democracy? When did life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised to all humans in our Declaration of Independence become so narrow?
Naturally, because of our different backgrounds, there is tension and conflict. But, an understanding of our past is essential to our future. And with civics largely absent from today’s classrooms, museums can provide the tools we need to have constructive dialogue about social tensions while still respecting other’s thoughts. As a historian, I’m well aware that those who are not informed about their history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.
A time existed, not so long ago, when civil discourse was the norm and people could disagree without being disagreeable, and public debate was fueled by facts and not fiction. As we look ahead to 2019, it’s time to put kindness back into humankind and civility back in civilization. Let’s learn from the past, work together as a community toward healing our divided nation and creating a more civil future. The future of America relies on it.
Norman Burns is the president and CEO of Conner Prairie, a Smithsonian affiliate. He is also the vice chair of the American Association of State and Local History, and a member of the History Relevance steering committee.