February 18, 2019

Information Fosters Civility

       "For me, civic education is the key to inspiring kids to want to stay involved in making a difference."

                 --Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court

In multiple episodes over the last two months on her TV program “Matter of Fact,” host Soledad O’Brien has aired segments of her interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  The Justice and some of her colleagues on the High Court have taken up the mantle of support for civics education in American society.

I caught last week's episode on the radio over the weekend.  In it, Justice Sotomayor warns that a lack of civics education is damaging the very fabric of America's democracy by fueling hyper-partisanship and incivility--all roadblocks to finding common ground.

The Justice then goes on to describe the collegial relationship the members of the Supreme Court have and how they can disagree with each other on matters of the law, but respect each other and even care for each other as persons.  

When asked how the country can overcome the partisan chasm that divides us, the Justice responded that, "Civics helps that. I think civic engagement does because it teaches people how to talk about issues, how to debate them, but do so in a civil way and how to do it from a basis of information. Because you need information to be persuasive about an argument.”

She describes the horror of watching the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and said that she saw a woman from the Midwest being interviewed on television about the aftermath of the attack.  The woman said, “’you know, those New Yorkers, they’re just like we are.’”

That moment has always stayed with me because I don’t know what her image of New Yorkers was like before September 11, but I know it was not positive. But I think we all forget our commonalities. We spent so much time concentrating on our differences that we forget to look at all the things that are the same for all of us: Love of family, loyalty to friends, our respect for community, and our sense of wanting to be good and to give good things to others.  We disagree on the details of how to do that, but fundamentally we are more the same than different.”

Whether those differences are our skin color or the way we speak, our language, or how our eyes look, those things are very superficial. If you look at how we live our lives, virtually every community is tied to their family in one way or another and that tie is fiercely close…

We are here to support this country, to make it better, to improve this democracy. But if you can look at the person across the land with respect at least, you can engage and talk. And if you engage in talk, you can eventually come to compromise. Sometimes you do it—I know a lot of people don’t agree with this—because you begin to understand the other person’s needs. Once you do that, you begin to appreciate where compromises can come.

I highly recommend the whole series of interviews on this topic, here.

The image is from the iCivics web page, here, an educational resource founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and now championed by her colleagues.


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