Haverford College was a special place for me, and I continue to feel its influence in my life nearly a quarter century since graduation. Its Quaker foundations were self evident without being overbearing, more the medium for the culture of a flourishing community than a rigid behavioral directive.
Among its notable attributes was a self enforcing honor code, a commitment to consensus, and an obligation to dialogue. The latter proved a challenging concept, for to do it well meant to be open to new insight gained through engagement, while also confronting difficult issues and relationships with clear-eyed candor.
Some of my classmates were predisposed toward confrontation rather than dialogue, and more at home speaking truth to power instead of listening and reflecting closely. Others became paralyzed by self reflection, unable to navigate the existential crisis that often attends a dawning awareness of complicity in systems of power and privilege. I tried to find the center of these extremes, though not always successfully, and not always risking the more uncomfortable, but perhaps more candid approach.
Since my time at Haverford, I have grappled with the implications of the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel;
"...indifference to evil is worse than evil itself...in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."
I come at this from the perspective of one who prefers - in fact, who has found it professionally quite useful - to find common ground with those who may hold other values quite different from my own. There are readers of this blog who share my love of history but not my politics. There are friends of mine in the reenacting community whose company I greatly enjoy, but who hold certain beliefs and share things on Facebook that make me cringe: statements with which I have no wish to be associated.
Social media, and Facebook in particular, offer the quick and the simple over the thoughtful and nuanced. It is not a forum for serious and searching debate. It wants to sort and group us (and market to us based on those associations). It rewards our every utterance with "Likes" from a collective of "friends" who in aggregate may have very few points of common interest or continuity in our lives. In fact, I suspect that having all of my Facebook Friends get together for a social function might prove less successful than just asking 400 random people to drop by for food and conversation and letting the chips fall as they invariably may.
On the other hand, having a dozen of my reenacting friends who did not previously know each other come down the shore for a weekend of sun and discovery together last year worked far better. People made connections and found they shared interests beyond this hobby, and our conversations did not devolve to spurious quotes, political rants, or occasionally tone deaf humor, as tends to happen with social media.
This is understandable. People behave differently when the conventions of courtesy and hospitality apply to social interaction. We do not wipe our muddy feet on our host's carpet, but what gets posted on one wall ends up in a friend's feed, and sometimes it has a similar effect.
Walt Whitman was comfortable with his own shifting viewpoints; "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." I think the obligation to dialogue that I learned at Haverford requires conviction leavened by humility. There are a few absolutes that for me remain immutable. Cross those lines and I risk "indifference to evil". Beyond that, though, there are many, many, many ways to approach ideas that challenge my own and make me uncomfortable. It doesn't work so well when I am defensive, or tired, or lack the time to give a thoughtful and considered reaction. Sometimes I have to sit with that feeling and puzzle it out.
I was raised by two loving parents who are staunchly non violent. I love living history and reenact Revolutionary War battles. It does not follow that I support the NRA, or vote 100% for one party over another, or even understand the Constitution and our Founding generation the way that others may. There are not enough data points in this sample for someone to make those assumptions about me, and I try to accord others the same courtesy.
I am reaching the point, however, where I am no longer willing just to ignore or block the tone and content of what sometimes gets shared on Facebook about 2nd amendment rights. I add things up differently, and for me nothing trumps 20 murdered first graders and six fine educators, each killed by multiple rounds fired from a legally obtained semi automatic rifle.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times precisely because times change and the Founders, however wise and farsighted, were not omniscient. I see a need today to reconcile an individual's right to bear arms with the need for reasonable and prudent safeguards to apply to legal gun ownership.
If that ends up meaning that as a result of new legislation, I require a firearms permit for my replica antique flintlock, and some sort of firearms safety training, and even a background check, before I take the field to play at war with my friends, I am willing to abide by those conditions if it means our children and grandchildren are safer at school. I do not believe that if we give an inch on gun safety laws we will lose our right to bear arms, but I do believe we cannot replace the lives of those children, and too many others, who are killed in gun violence every day in this country.
I find I still have an obligation to dialogue on this and other difficult, challenging issues - respectful, direct, courageous and sincere dialogue. Facebook is not the place for that, and it probably won't happen in the comments to this blog post either. The next time you and I get together, though, around a campfire or across the dinner table, we can talk about this stuff. We have to. I promise to listen to you and consider your words carefully. I hope despite what differences may remain, that we continue to hold each other in respect and will remain friends,in the truest sense of that word.