Wesleyan recently hosted a gathering of activists, journalists, academics, students… and other citizens concerned about the condition and future of American democracy. We kicked things off with an extraordinary speech/sermon from Michael Eric Dyson, who challenged us all to protect the potential of our democratic experiment. Hardly uncritical, professor Dyson underscored that we must take responsibility for our public sphere, that we must not let it be poisoned by hate and resentment, and that we must find ways to work with our fellow citizens, despite our disagreements, to make “out of many, one” a promise worth fighting for. We heard from excellent panelists about civic education in these challenging times, about art and activism, and about the role of the media in shaping or distorting our ability to act in the public sphere.
The conference came to a close with a conversation with Anand Giridharadas, who made a passionate case for becoming a persuader in one’s civic life. By this he means listening deeply and finding points of contact between one’s own views and the views of people who differ from you. He argued that if we want to protect our democracy from the forces of authoritarianism, we must appeal to the emotions of people who feel the system has failed them, or just feel adrift in our rapidly changing world. By authentically connecting across differences while making the case for a more democratic and inclusive future, we might be able to resist the forces eroding our democratic norms and potential.
It was an inspiring gathering, and many of us left knowing there was much civic work to do.