Senator McCain, Civility, and Silent Sam

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I recently read a blog post on Inside Higher Ed that made me think about something that has bothered me about the controversy swirling around Silent Sam.  The post was titled “What Campus Diversity Programs Can Learn From McCain’s Funeral.”  The main point of the post was that Senator McCain disagreed strongly with people on various issues and yet still engaged with them respectfully on those and other issues.  He treated them as political opponents rather than enemies.

Senator McCain ran unsuccessfully against President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and yet he asked them to speak at his funeral.  Both said it was “a high honor.”  Senator McCain somehow “managed to run a lengthy campaign against both Obama and Bush with the highest office in the land at stake and still treat them such that they viewed it as a high honor to speak at his funeral.”  Notwithstanding profound disagreements on policy issues, they respected one another and were able to have civil, constructive discussions.

Do you remember the moment during the 2008 presidential campaign when a woman at a town hall event told McCain that she couldn’t trust Obama because he was an “Arab?”  This happened in the midst of conspiracy claims that Obama was not a natural-born American citizen and therefore was ineligible to be president.  The path of least resistance would have been to do nothing, and that would have pleased the crowd.  McCain responded immediately: “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.  He’s not an Arab.”

Some criticized McCain for failing to point out that it didn’t t matter whether someone is Muslim or Arab.  Fair enough.  Many in the audience booed him for defending Obama.  Most agreed with the Associated Press that McCain’s actions reflected political courage and a strong belief “that partisans should disagree without demonizing each other.”

McCain Takes Microphone Before Correcting Woman’s Statement about Obama

The blog post asks a number of questions for faculty, staff, and students to consider “[a]t a time when various identity groups, on campuses and beyond, view it as a badge of honor to annihilate those with whom they disagree . . . .”

  • “Are there people who you disagree with but still admire? (Another way to put this: Is the only way to earn your admiration to agree with you?)”
  • “Are there people you disagree with who you could nevertheless benefit from engaging with a bit more? What would it take to make creating that space a priority?”
  • “If you do this, would people in your identity/political group view you as a traitor? Are you willing to take the risk?”

What does this have to do with Silent Sam?

I believe those who say the statue and its history make them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable at Carolina.  I also believe many of those who claim that they are not racist, and that the statue honors their heritage.  As Chancellor Folt wrote in her message to the Carolina community, “I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule.”  Unfortunately the battle lines have been drawn and there seems to be little room for genuine dialogue.  People have been focused rigidly on their positions—take it down or leave it up—and have been unwilling to explore whether there is any common ground based on their underlying interests.

 Because many seemingly have wanted “to annihilate those with whom they disagree” on Silent Sam, the issue has not served as a vehicle to improve racial understanding.  So far there has been no “teachable moment.”  That is my greatest disappointment about Silent Sam.  I want Carolina to make progress when it comes to race and other forms of diversity.  I want it to be an inclusive and supportive place for everyone—including those with political viewpoints that differ from the majority.  Symbols can be powerful and emotional, and Silent Sam is a symbol that should no longer occupy a prominent place on our campus.  The question now is whether Carolina can move beyond symbolism and address the underlying issues that the statue has represented for so many people.  It may be even harder because of how Silent Sam was brought down.  Can we become a place that honors civil dialogue and welcomes a diversity of views without demonizing those who disagree with us?

The University must “identify a safe, legal and alternative location for Silent Sam” by November 15.  Already people are taking positions about what should happen to the statue.  My hope is that the campus process somehow brings about a civil dialogue where people can work together respectfully to find the best possible outcome.  It will be much harder with such a short timeline.  Chancellor Folt set the right tone in writing that “[r]econciliation of our past and our present requires us to reach deep into our hearts and across the state to the people we serve.”  Following Senator McCain’s example, I also hope that the participants can disagree without seeing one another as enemies, and that people can respect one another and bring about some greater understanding in the process.

4 thoughts on “Senator McCain, Civility, and Silent Sam

  1. Mike, thank you for sharing this thoughtful post. I agree that civil dialogue is the ideal. But keep in mind that for some, Silent Sam’s fate is not just a policy decision over which reasonable people can disagree. Silent Sam pays homage to a period in our nation’s history that was genocidal, shameful and evil, with enormous social costs felt to this day. Chancellor Folt’s quote that “I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule” is interesting. Why would anyone with an understanding of the Civil War think of confederate soldiers as “their fallen”? I ask this as a person whose family owned slaves and fought in the Civil War. I can’t imagine fully understanding the scourge of slavery and at the same time thinking of confederate ancestors as “their fallen”. This may be where we take a lesson from Germany, which has zero toleration of Nazi commemoration because Germans understand the profound historical malevolence of the Third Reich. Civil dialogue on Silent Sam requires those seeking to “commemorate their fallen” to fully understand the meaning of them doing so. Otherwise, you asking African Americans, who still suffer the effects of racism in the U.S., to argue with those Southerners who wear blinders about their history. I’m not sure that’s a reasonable expectation.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leisha. People who think of confederate soldiers as “their fallen” may misunderstand history and they may be wrong-headed. Some of them may even be racists, but I don’t believe all of them are. Lumping them all together, demonizing them (not saying you are), and refusing to have a civil dialogue does nothing to promote understanding. It makes it harder to address racism today. It may be unreasonable to expect civil dialogue, especially when emotions are running high, but it is essential rather than ideal. It is the only path to progress. Thanks again for weighing in with a different perspective.

  2. I agree that vilifying people is not a solution. But Silent Sam could have taken down by UNC as a matter of right and wrong, without anyone being vilified. I would argue that higher principals are at stake, as illustrated by Governor Nikki Haley removing the confederate flag from the SC State Capital. She made the decision without villifying anyone. If UNC truly values diversity and inclusion, then Silent Sam would have come down a long time ago.

    1. In my post I was mainly trying to focus on how to address Silent Sam going forward. I wish we could have handled things differently before the statue came down, and we just disagree about whether it was reasonable to expect a civil dialogue before that happened. Now that Chancellor Folt has said that it should not be returned to its former location, I do hope people can have a dialogue and come together around a solution.

      I think the statement that Silent Sam would have come down a long time ago if UNC truly valued diversity is unfair, however. I admired Governor Haley’s leadership and courage in proposing to remove the confederate flag from the war memorial on the capitol lawn. According to an article in Politico it evidently had been moved from the statehouse dome in 2000. Governor Haley led an effort to pass a bill in the legislature, and ultimately she agreed to a compromise that directed “the keepers of the Confederate Relic Room–where the flag was to be moved–to come up with a plan for its proper display by January 1, 2015. The fact that she removed the flag with legislative authorization in no way diminishes her leadership on this contentious issue in South Carolina. As Governor, Haley was in a position to propose legislation and she successfully persuaded the legislature to authorize the change. But she did not move the flag unilaterally or without legal authority. Chancellor Folt has faced very different circumstances. The monuments law makes it clear that she did not have the legal authority to move Silent Sam. I know Governor Cooper said in a letter that she had the authority to move it, and therefore I suspect that many people have assumed Chancellor Folt could lawfully move the statue if she had wished. Adam Lovelady was asked by the NC Historical Commission to provide an interpretation of their authority to move monuments under the law, and he concluded that they also lacked the authority to move civil war monuments under the same circumstances. In other words, the law makes it plain that Chancellor Folt lacked the authority to move Silent Sam and Governor Cooper’s letter could not give her that authority. She was faced with a choice of violating the law (which was not the choice faced by Governor Haley) or leaving the statue atop the pedestal. I have heard some say that she should have violated the law anyway as an act of civil disobedience. As much as I disagree with the harmful messages conveyed by Silent Sam over the years, I don’t believe that Chancellor Folt should have violated the law. Given the very different circumstances from those confronting Governor Haley in South Carolina, and given that Chancellor Folt has said that the statue should not be returned to its original location (itself a controversial position with many people), I’m inclined to a more generous view about whether UNC and Chancellor Folt value diversity and inclusion. Similar to the situation faced by South Carolina, we now are under a deadline to propose a safe and legal location for Silent Sam. Back to my original point. I hope we can have a conversation that will lead to an acceptable plan. It certainly won’t please everyone. While we don’t have a Confederate Relic Room, I hope we can find an alternative educational location that will provide historical context about the overall issue and promote healing that leads to progress on diversity and inclusion at Carolina.

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