Worth Watching: A Discussion About Our Common Values

Worth Watching: A Discussion About Our Common Values

Dec 22, 2020 Debi Ghate

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a fun and robust discussion called “Our Common Values: Three Different Visions?” The idea for this webinar arose after I saw three different statements from various groups, all centering on a similar theme: What can we do about the intense division, naming and shaming, and cancel culture we’ve seen accelerate leading up to this year’s election? 

What prompted the Roundtable to host this discussion? We are committed to strengthening a free society. We work with the largest network of donors advancing liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility. But as I read these statements, it seemed that there was a sense that we aren’t even able to talk about these things constructively today. The fact that these statements were issued, by quite a wide range of signers, indicated that the road to reclaiming and restoring American values is up for debate—if we can even agree on what those common values are.  

The three statements I’m referring to and which were the subject of our discussion were: 

  1. The Harper’s Magazine Statement. In July, an open letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, signed by academics and writers expressing concern about the consequences of silencing those with different views. Most of those signers could be described as center-left. Here’s a quote to give you a sense of what it was about: 

    “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.” 

  1. The Philadelphia Statement. In August, the Philadelphia Statement was released. One of its signers was the Roundtable’s president and CEO, Elise Westhoff. It had a similar theme but with a different perspective and a very different group of signers, many of whom are associated with the center-right. Here’s a snippet from it: 

    “We must ask ourselves: Is this the country we want? Surely not. We want—and to be true to ourselves we need—to be a nation in which we and our fellow citizens of many different faiths, philosophies, and persuasions can speak their minds and honor their deepest convictions without fear of punishment and retaliation.”    

  1. The Liberty and Justice for All Statement. Lastly, in September a third statement called Liberty and Justice for All was published. Its signers were primarily academics and intellectuals from the right. Again, similar in theme but very different in content: 

    “We stand at the crossroads. Over the next several years, the noble sentiments and ideas that gave birth to the United States will either be repudiated or reaffirmed. The fateful choice before us will result either in the death of a grand hope or a recommitment to an extraordinary political experiment whose full flowering we have yet to realize. The choice will involve either contempt and despair or gratitude and the self-respect worthy of a free people who know long labors lie before them and who proceed with hope toward a dignified future.”  

At the Roundtable, we compared the signers of all three statements and saw there was very little overlap. So we invited three people who signed at least one of these statements to discuss what they have in common and where they differ. Our guests—John McWhorter, Nadine Strossen, and Robert Shibley—did not disappoint! They tackled some tough questions from me, including whether they disagreed with anything in the statements they signed, whether any topics are off limits when it comes to free speech, and whether any of the language in the statements themselves reflects the very behavior they were criticizing, namely the demonization of those who disagree. As you might expect, their answers were honest, nuanced, and direct. They agreed on much, but they also helped each other view the issue in a different light. 

Most importantly, John, Nadine, and Robert demonstrated that we should be able to talk about these topics in addition to issuing statements. As you may know, we recently launched a podcast at the Roundtable called “Can We Talk About It?” to help us engage in tough conversations and find a way to constructively engage when it seems too hard to do. 

I’m excited to share that John, Nadine, and Robert have all eagerly agreed to have a follow-up conversation in the spring, and we’re already looking forward to it.