There is more that unites us than holds us apart

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

As we conclude one year and begin anew, we must learn from lessons of the past to make a better future. The year 2016 seemed to be characterized by an elevated level of vitriol, as though the general population has been holding in decades of frustration, shame and rage, and it has all suddenly come pouring out of every corner of society.

A vivid example was the recent news about the Orange Coast College professor who, during a class discussion following the election, referred to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory as an “act of terrorism.” That comment and others were secretly recorded by a student in the class who then posted the video on the internet.

What followed, according to reports, were more than a thousand critical messages, many threatening her personally, even posting a photo of her home and her address. Her name was added to a “Professor Watchlist” website — a sort of cyber hit list which claims to list the “names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”

It’s a reflection of the times that a classroom discussion quickly devolved into cyberbullying and worse, and that a teacher’s disclosure of her fears for her country was labeled as her “radical agenda.”

I believe it’s fair to conclude that many Trump voters felt as though they were scraping by in an economic environment worse than they deserved and for which they were not responsible. They decided that a big change was warranted because the system wasn’t working for them. And I think many of those Americans who did not vote for Trump felt the same way, but did not trust that the big change he promised would improve their lives or was worth the risk.

In other words, many Trump voters and many non-Trump voters share a similar frustration, shame and rage about a system that simply isn’t working for them. And it’s doubtful that will change as long as we all keep ignoring those powerful similarities. A political strategy based on turning the people against one another has for centuries worked to keep economic elitists and demagogues in power. That won’t change until we collectively demand it change.

What we should do is listen to each other, listen to the pain we feel, listen to the difficulties we face, and listen to our hopes for ourselves and our families. In doing so I think we force ourselves to acknowledge each other’s humanity and, conversation by conversation, begin to peel back the layers of suspicion, mistrust and unfair characterization that fuel hate and disrespect.

Perhaps as divided as we seem, the election provides an unexpected opportunity for us to unite around values we share and issues we agree upon. On all sides, working Americans communicated their unwillingness to be excluded any longer from sharing in our nation’s economic growth.

Some entrenched politicians, and those who profit greatly from the status quo, will continue to try to pit working Americans against each other. We can overcome them by focusing on what unites us and treating each other with respect and dignity.

Perhaps in the case of the community college professor, this is an opportunity for the new administration to lead by example. Incoming First Lady Melania Trump has expressed a desire to stop cyberbullying. There is a professor in Orange County who has not been able to leave her house for a month for fear threats made online to kill her will become a reality. Here’s a great opportunity to change that.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: January 6, 2017