Have we become a nation addicted to conflict?
We see it in virtually every area of public discourse — the fight to nominate a replacement to the Supreme Court, the mudslinging during Republican presidential debates, the demonizing of Hilary Clinton, the unmasked hate of people who burn crosses and the rising discontent among those who applaud the proposal to build a wall to control immigration.
Once upon a time, our fights were private. People were skilled at hiding political ideologies in an attempt to minimize tension among co-workers and friends. We were told not to talk about politics, religion and sex. Today, we freely talk about all three.
Does anyone really care about communicating beyond differences? Or, is winning more important than change? What does change look like? The answer to these questions depends on which team is holding the microphone.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway connected student protest at MU with unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown.
“From rioting at Ferguson to the unrest at the University of Missouri, to rising murder rates all around our state, Missouri is facing an epidemic of lawlessness,” Hanaway said in a statement released before the UM Board of Curators fired Melissa Click.
Hanaway’s perspective resonates with many Missouri residents. It’s a common theme fueling an agenda to punish MU administrators for failing to control the actions of students.
Rather than embracing the activism of students and conceding the legitimacy of their complaints, lawmakers and residents want to punish students for disrupting order. They want rules that protect fans from future boycotts. They want to discipline faculty and staff who promote what they view as lawlessness.
This perspective refuses to honor the stories of black students perplexed by racism at MU. Hanaway fails to acknowledge a system stacked against black people.
In the opinion of many Missourians, there is no justification to complain after the death of Michael Brown or for having the privilege to gain an MU education.
Hanaway represents the view of those who see no need to negotiate change. They want their campus to return to what they knew before protest.
On the other side are those committed to a different type of change. Theirs is change rooted in both a historical and personal association with racism. Their demands are weighed from the context of things not changed. Black students, faculty and staff are seeking authentic inclusion.
Then there are those in the middle. They are working fiercely to promote change while being forced to contend with divergent views regarding what needs to be changed.
"If you sincerely want better relationships, the time for demands, threats and arbitrary deadlines is over — you don't need them," Interim Vice Chancellor Chuck Henson responded to renewed demands from Concerned Student 1950.
UM System Interim President Mike Middleton reiterated Henson's response to student demands.
"The time for demands has passed," Middleton said.
Henson and Middleton are calling for a different strategy. If this is the season of change, it will require an approach that utilizes compromise, communication and collaboration versus ongoing criticism and attacks against the status quo.
It has to begin somewhere. Change can’t happen until people are willing to listen. How can you do that when winning is more important than change?
Where will it stop? Will members of the faculty seek the removal of Interim Chancellor Hank Foley after he sided with the Board of Curators in removing Melissa Click? Will the debate regarding faculty governance resurrect like the ghost of former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin?
Will the dispute involving Click's dismissal, questions of academic freedom, pressure from the state General Assembly, discussions on who becomes the next system president and chancellor and the continuing movement toward making MU a more inclusive community be sabotaged by a culture enamored with contention?
Even more problematic is finding a place to begin. How do you structure the setting for change when the players have hindered trust? How do you do the heavy lifting when the players in the room are viewed as symbols of the problem, rather than for being committed to the building of a new and improved community?
The beginning of change acknowledges a simple truth. The confusion that rifts the soul of progress is larger than the people in the room. The enemies of change are history, cultural difference, the failure to listen and embrace the burden of things we have been taught and a mound of unfounded assumptions.
What does it take to fix things at MU?
It helps accepting Hank Foley did not create the problems we face. Michael Middleton and Chuck Henson did not create this awful situation. They are given the challenge of standing in the middle of conflicting views regarding what needs to be changed. Their role is to be public faces of what it takes to realize change.
Their role is to help us believe it is possible. Middleton and Henson, as black men, are given the awkward task of convincing white people there are significant reasons to do things different. All while persuading black people they haven’t compromised for a paycheck and upgraded title.
Henson and Middleton asked students to stop making demands. In other words, trust us to do our jobs.
To that I add the same for faculty and state legislators. Give them space to do their jobs.
There’s one problem. How do you do that within this new climate of contention?
When winning is the goal, we may be stuck with a culture enamored with contention.