Editor's note: This is the speech Coeur d'Alene School District Trustee Tom Hamilton gave Thursday to the Kootenai County Republican Women. When he was done, Hamilton received a rare standing ovation.
Good afternoon. Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. I was asked to address issues of interest related to the Coeur d'Alene School District and my role as a trustee. But before I begin with that, I'd like to ask that you indulge me for a bit as I share something that has been on my heart of late. In the end, I hope that it all ties together.
I recently finished reading a book called "The Intolerance of Tolerance" by D.A. Carson. In this book the author does a remarkable job of describing how tolerance has changed from the acceptance of the existence of different beliefs to a new tolerance which requires that we accept or even endorse beliefs different than our own. In other words, we have no right to say that our belief is any more "true" than the belief of any other and as such we have deteriorated as a society to a boggy mire of moral relativism. The new tolerance, Mr. Carson asserts, suggests that actually accepting another's position means believing that position to be true, or at least, as true as your own. We move from the free expression of contrary opinions, from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to an insistence that all beliefs and claims must be declared equally valid.
The problem that this creates, at least for me, is that this is not how our country was founded.
The Founding Fathers were passionate men, many gifted orators and writers who clung to their beliefs and moral principles as though their lives depended on them... and often they did. This did not mean, however, that they always agreed or that they each shared the same beliefs or values.
While Jefferson is often credited with writing the Declaration of Independence it was in fact written largely by a committee of five men and went through no less than 86 changes before the final version was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. Jefferson did not get everything he wanted but by the sharing of ideas between these remarkable men, We the People were all gifted with perhaps the most poignant dissertation on individual liberty ever written.
The Federalists and Anti-Federalists were often at loggerheads when drafting the Constitution and debated with great passion such important issues as states' rights and the appropriate role of a central government. While the Federalists were more organized in their efforts and likely could have imposed their will, the passionate arguments and demands of the Anti-Federalists brought us such important things as the separation of powers and eventually the Bill of Rights. What would our country have been had those important articles not been included?
What is remarkable about the accomplishments of these men is that they clung to a view of tolerance that required three assumptions. First is that there is objective truth out there and that it is our moral duty to pursue that truth. Second, various parties in any given dispute both think that they know the truth even though they sharply disagree. Third, that we hold the best chance of uncovering objective truth by the unhindered exchange of ideas, no matter how wrong those ideas may appear. This third assumption DEMANDS that all sides insist that their opponents must not be silenced or crushed... that free inquiry must be encouraged in order to arrive at a truth that will convince most people that they were correct.
Boy, haven't we lost that today? Debate in the public square, even passionate, heated, angry debate is the FOUNDATION of this remarkable experiment we call the United States of America. And yet debate like this is no longer allowed. The role of the media has been reduced to stomping out opinions deemed intolerant and stifling the free exchange of ideas. Dare to speak an opinion that may not be viewed as correct and you will be faced with the label INTOLERANT, thereby marginalizing your belief as irrelevant. The public discussion of ideas is no longer about those ideas, but about the labels applied to those who hold them.
In his book "Why the Rest Hates the West," Meic Pearse describes it as follows:
"The currency of the term tolerance has recently become badly debased. Where it used to mean the respecting of real, hard differences it has come to mean instead a dogmatic abdication of truth-claims and a moralistic adherence to moral relativism - departure from which is stigmatized as intolerance... Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religion and morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock that all indoors as matters of private judgment; the public square must be given over to indistinctiveness."
Mr. Carson sums up the problem when he says that "the crises we face in domains as diverse as education, politics and law... spring from the decline of the old tolerance and triumph of the new. For the sad reality is that ethical neutrality, this new tolerance, is impossible but as long as it is pursued it cripples policy choices and abolishes principled choices because it has banished the framework of truth and morality upon which true tolerance depends."
What does this have to do with the Coeur d'Alene School District? What does this have to do with my role as a Trustee?
Last year (prior to the election) our Board decided that it was time our district dealt with bullies. Our school culture has become one that does not feel safe to many kids, where survival and not learning is the focus. I have heard it described that one cannot learn if they spend the first half of a class in pain because of what was said or done to them on the way to class and then spend the second half of class in fear of what is to come when they once again have to venture into the hallway. Sadly, this is the reality of our schools for too many of our students leading many to drop out and worse, some to see no way out but to take their own life.
The Anti-Bullying Task Force was formed, drawing community members, district staff and trustees together for hard discussions and hard work. Policy was written and re-written, programs such as Stand Up/Speak Up were instituted and curriculum was identified and purchased to help our kids recognize and deal with bullying.
Through the process I think many of us realized that while what we were doing was necessary and good work, it in many ways represented what had already been done with arguably little success. Write policy, try to enforce it, hold people accountable and hope to God that things change. We aren't the only district to face these challenges and we aren't the only district to wonder why we fail more often than we succeed in this endeavor.
Out of the Anti-Bully Task Force the decision was made to invite a man named Steven Wessler to come and work with our schools. An internationally recognized expert on the subject, Mr. Wessler is a man who spent the first part of his career in the law as a prosecutor. His focus was on human rights and punishing those who broke the law in violation of those human rights. By his own admission, he came to the conclusion that he was dealing with the wrong end of the problem. Punishment is necessary but by the time you came to that stage, the damage was already done and could not be undone.
He soon left the law and devoted his time and talent to prevention rather than prosecution. Mr. Wessler visited our schools in the fall of last year and found that we are not different in many ways from what he sees other places; that bullying and harassment exists in our schools and that we have a culture that allows that to continue.
Knowing Mr. Wessler's background and focus, I will admit that I was a skeptic. I assumed that he would come in speaking of human rights and tolerance, boiling our problem down to intolerant kids with intolerant parents.
However, he addressed our Board Monday night and he moved me. I doubt there is much that Steve and I would agree on politically, religiously or maybe philosophically. I don't know that for certain because Steve refuses to address it. It simply doesn't matter.
What is remarkable to me about what he said is that our bullying problem is not about beliefs but about behavior. He said that we don't have to agree on things where we can't find agreement, but we do have to learn to treat each other with dignity and respect. Sounds a lot like the "old" tolerance to me.
That is when it struck me. Dignity and respect is what is missing from our conversation. I see it every day in our community. We all see it most certainly in our nation. Sadly, I have to admit that I can see it more often than I should when I look in the mirror. We have modeled this for our children in our public lives and we wonder why they have not learned to treat each other with dignity and respect. We have created bullies because in some ways, we have become bullies.
Mr. Wessler's approach is unique, but I can see the merit and am quite intrigued to see it implemented. Steve says that discipline is important and that clear boundaries must be drawn and enforced. He also says, however, that punitive measures alone will never solve the problem. We have a cultural issue in our schools and the only ones that are going to change that culture are its members.
Mr. Wessler is currently working with Respect Teams of both students and teachers in our schools who will be equipped not only to recognize and address bullying but to train others how to do it as well. We will solve the bullying issue in our schools when our kids say "ENOUGH! We aren't going to do this anymore."
That movement seems already to have begun.
Mr. Wessler has said to us that one thing he found in our schools that is missing so many other places is empathy. Our students truly see the harm and pain that bullying causes and I have faith and hope that this empathy, coupled with guidance, training and encouragement from staff truly could change the culture of our schools.
I am asked quite often what it has been like serving with these new Board members. The answer surprises even me. It's good. Much better than I expected.
Dave Eubanks said during his campaign that he would strive to "build consensus!" He said it with passion and conviction and I remember muttering under my breath "bullpucky!" Every politician says that during election time and it is quickly forgotten once the votes are tallied. But I've got to tell you, Dave meant it and he's good at it. A man I had determined I wasn't going to like and one whom I was certain I wouldn't be able to work with has quickly become a man I respect and now call "friend."
Our Board has also this year undertaken a Strategic Planning Initiative to define the mission, vision and goals of the Coeur d'Alene School District. Our Board is comprised of five people with diverse opinions, political views and perhaps even moral convictions. We are a group of five people that I think many suspected would not be able to work together. I suspect that some even hoped that our differences would turn to bitter fighting since that seems to be the stuff that sells newspapers and online advertising these days.
However, if we focused on where we were different we would lose the opportunity to understand where we are the same. We all want the absolute best for our kids. We want the best teachers. We want to give our students what they need to succeed, the ability to live out their own version of the American Dream.
Mr. Eubanks said very early in the process that we had a great opportunity in front of us. He knew we weren't going to always agree. He knew there were times we would be passionate in our debate. He also understands very well the divided nature of our community and that we are no longer defined by our beliefs but by our behaviors. We have become a community of bullies.
Knowing all of that, he also was going to demand that we work until we reached consensus. He posed it as a challenge and a question: "What would it say to our community if this Board modeled how we all should behave?"
What he meant was, it's going to be OK to disagree, it's going to be OK to argue, but we ARE going to listen to each other, we ARE going to allow the free exchange of ideas, and most importantly, we ARE going to treat each other with dignity and respect and reach a decision with which we all can live.
The Strategic Planning effort has involved focus groups of students, teachers and district staff where ideas have been freely shared, discussed and sometimes passionately debated. We have now developed a draft Mission Statement which we will soon be bringing to the community at large to gather your input as well. It is our hope that this public discussion will be framed by the free exchange of ideas, by impassioned debate where it is appropriate but that we hold these debates in a public square whose foundation is one of ensuring all participants the dignity and respect they deserve.
I know that to many my words may sound weak. The perception could be that I've decided to "go along to get along." So many of us think we have to fight until we win, that truth is on our side, not seeing that in the fighting we have lost our voice. We know we are right and as such we vociferously shout down any opposition to our opinion, in our arrogance not realizing that no one is listening. All they see is our anger... the label we have allowed to be pasted to our forehead. We are no longer heard and the free exchange of ideas and debate in the public square that founded our great nation has evaporated. I want to play my part in bringing that back.
Consensus does not need to mean capitulation. I do not have to compromise my morals, values or beliefs in order to achieve what I believe is necessary. But I would like to be defined by my beliefs and not by a label or worse, by my behavior. In that context, my beliefs are given the validity that they deserve.
Yes, I know that this is not how the other side behaves. For every time a good conservative holds their tongue they can find five angry liberals wagging theirs. But I've come to the realization that I have to take the advice which I always give to my kids. I cannot change how others act, I can only change how it is that I react. It's been a tough journey and I know that I haven't fully arrived.
Leslie (Damiano), I do realize that this is perhaps not what you expected me to cover and I do apologize for my pontification. With that, I'll freely admit that I have addressed what is of interest to me and open it up to those things which interest you...