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Shunning people won't make them change

Dear progressives: If we want people we don't agree with to evolve and change, the last thing we should do is shun them.

Friday morning, I woke up to the news that the president had called off a missile strike on Iran at the last minute. A missile attack that was a consequence of the Trump administration’s decision to turn away from a diplomatic agreement with Iran. In place of the diplomatic agreement, President Donald Trump has implemented a “maximum pressure” approach defined by tough economic sanctions and belligerent rhetoric that amounts to telling Iran they are a horrible country and only when they do exactly as the USA wants can we work together.

Earlier in the week, many Democratic presidential candidates pounced on Joe Biden for trumpeting his ability to work with anyone, even segregationists. Mr. Biden’s detractors made clear how they would do business, which is to say they won’t do business with those they dislike. In the criticism of Mr. Biden was a clear message: Progressives won’t deal with you until you accept everything they want.

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It sounds downright Trumpian. And I say this as a progressive.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ speaking passionately and forcefully in support of reparations one day, then joining the cacophony against Mr. Biden the next, is counter-productive. Progressives are embracing reparations, which is bold and noble; it’s divisive too. There are people with lots of questions regarding reparations. If the progressive attitude is for people to accept reparations or not, full stop, then non-acceptance is going to win out.

Moms and Dads don’t grow and become better parents by ignoring their kids’ questions, mistakes or bad behavior. Marriages don’t grow and improve when husbands and wives refuse to speak with one another. A society enmeshed with systemic racism doesn’t adopt reparations by ostracizing skeptics. If we want people to evolve and change, the last thing we should do is shun them.

I hate segregationists, and I don’t care for theocratic states like Iran. But, I am also a teacher. I’ve spent the last 10 months stressed out, riddled with anxiety and worry over the ignorance, insubordination and disrespect I feel frequently. Still, I show up — along with millions of other teachers — and work to fix it. The idea that our leaders in this country are touting leadership styles that amount to thrashing around on the floor with plugged ears screaming, “Not listening!” is a disgrace.

We don’t have to like each other, but we do have to work together. A senator from Delaware has no influence over who the citizens of Alabama, Georgia or any other state send to Washington. We are equally incapable of selecting Iran’s leaders. But, whoever shows up, every senator’s job is to work together to improve this country and all its communities.

This Us vs. Them attitude held by our country’s leadership is an existential threat. On the macro level, we should do two things. First, we need mandatory national service. Service can come in many forms from volunteering in homeless shelters to fighting wildfires to teaching in disadvantaged neighborhoods and beyond. In the age of hyper-partisanship and social media, we’ve lost any sense of national cohesion. We need to get it back. Second, we need congressional term limits. Hyper-partisanship means re-election is the goal instead of improving the country. Let’s eliminate re-election as an impediment to progress.

But this isn’t just a problem for our leaders to grapple with. We, as citizens, enable this behavior. The candidates know if they can browbeat their opponent over a real or perceived transgression from now or yesteryear, it can boost them to victory. All too often, we dismiss these actions as political immaturity or entertainment. They’re neither. Instead of excusing poor leadership, we can do things as citizens to restrain the worst instincts of our leaders. We can send emails to our representatives, our friends and our families urging collective action and engagement. We can show up to community forums and city/county council meetings to let our leaders know our feelings. We can call. We can listen. We can vote. And, in the end, we can disagree. But, we have got to be in this together.

Adam Sutton (mistersutton1@gmail.com) is a parent, husband, community member and teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools.

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