After Charlottesville: Reassessing our Fundamental American Values

Last year, I wrote a column entitled “Beyond tolerance: Our fractured world needs respect.

I was moved to write this piece amidst a refugee crisis, a series of terrorist attacks, and a U.S. presidential election that degraded the national dialogue with each passing day.

Today, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, the need to revisit and reaffirm our core values as a country has taken on an even greater urgency.

I am an unabashed critic of tolerance.

Hear me out. For decades, our civic leaders have preached that we should set the goal of building a world where all colors, creeds, and political beliefs are tolerated.

What a low bar that is.

Tolerance asks us to passively accept others as they are, to let our disagreements, prejudices and anger simmer, as long as they do not boil over.

This is too little to ask.

It doesn’t demand that we understand each other, that we embrace diversity of background and thought, or that we put ourselves in the shoes of those who are different and see the world from their perspective.

Unless we take this extra step, we can never solve the problems that divide us and “make gentle the life of this world,” as Robert F. Kennedy called on us to do.

We need more than tolerance – we need respect.

While America is built on a number of core values, none is more fundamental than our belief that all are created equal. This was the truth our founders described as self-evident.

And while the founders’ definition of equality was notably flawed, it has been the central work of our democracy to broaden this definition. Generation by generation, we have fought, and many have died, to construct a more perfect union.

Another core American value, inscribed in our Constitution, is the right to free speech. Yes, this right is critical for a healthy democracy. But in some cases, we have treated the right to free speech as a free pass to ignore and threaten our other values.

This conflict came into stark relief in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when the American Civil Liberties Union, long a favorite cause of the left, sued the City of Charlottesville on behalf of white supremacists.

We can only accept the logic and righteousness of this action if we determine that freedom of speech is a right that supersedes all others – including the right of equal treatment for all people to be treated equal.

I, for one, do not accept this premise.

I believe that the essence of Americanness begins with respect for our differences. If we accept that the right to equal treatment is the most fundamental of our values, we can allow for differences to be debated openly and productively in the public sphere.

On the other hand, if we allow the anger of a vulgar few to drown out the quiet resolve of the many, we are permitting our public sphere and our public discourse to become asymmetrical, and we allow inequality to fester and grow.

Let’s resolve to be clear on this: hate speech is un-American.

Let’s allow free speech in our nation to flourish, so long as it is grounded in that most fundamental value that all of us are created equal.

Let’s rise above this moment and find higher ground, common ground, that honors our differences and our diversity.

All of us have a role to play: our elected officials must be willing to put partisanship aside in moments of national crisis; our private sector leaders must have the courage to accept their new authority in what I’ve described as the Age of the CEO Statesman; and all Americans must take the role of the “follower” seriously by holding our leaders accountable for achieving results.

It’s time for all of us to be proactive about making our imperfect nation a little more perfect each and every day.

Alan Fleischmann is founder and CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for leaders, CEOs and their C-suite. He is a board member of the Atlantic Council, the Jane Goodall Institute and the Deepak Chopra Foundation.

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