Guest Blog Post: Trustee Steve Sherrill, on the All School Meeting Address He Would Have Given

This weekend, we welcomed our trustees and many other alumni and parents to campus for meetings and also the 137th Andover-Exeter sporting contests.  Over the course of the last several days, I have received a lot of feedback about the All School Meeting address that I gave on Wednesday morning after the presidential election.  One reaction came from an Andover trustee, Stephen Sherrill, Class of 1971.

Steve raised some questions about my address and told me that he would have given a “different” address had he spoken to the students.  In the spirit of open dialogue and with his permission, I am posting below his alternative All School Meeting address.  I believe that now, more than ever, we need to talk constructively with one another when we disagree politically so that we can move forward our nation and our world.  Even as Steve and I plainly disagree in various ways, I embrace his constructive criticism and look forward to more dialogue in future.  Steve’s comments to me follow and appear in italics:

It was interesting to me that a need was felt to address the student body in reaction to an election result. I do not recall such a need being felt in the past. So, why this time? And, if I were called upon to speak, what would I say? Here goes:

We awoke this morning to an unpredicted election result. It has made many on this campus unhappy; it has made many elsewhere in America happy. That fact, above all, we must recognize. Neither side can ignore or discard the views and votes and sentiments, the needs and hopes and pains, no matter how expressed, of 50% of the American electorate. In a democracy all voices must be heard and all viewpoints considered. Whether we like it or not, the political arena is not one in which discourse is necessarily more sensitive and more thoughtful , less attention-seeking and less provocative, than the discourse prevalent in social and entertainment media and unfortunately in private spaces – in each of our “locker rooms”. And political actors on both sides of the aisle seize upon extremist and intemperate statements by the other to amplify rather than mute them.

In this election, the negative campaigning, the focus on personality, the apparent animosity between the candidates, the “attack” language, has been unprecedented and distasteful. The electorate has been uniquely unhappy with both candidates. Both have character flaws that one might view as disqualifying. Many felt both candidates were unsuited for the job. Of those, most voted for Donald Trump, despite the offensiveness of much of his rhetoric (if “tweets” might be given the once elevated title of rhetoric) and personal conduct, especially with respect to women. Obviously, many voters overcame this because of Hillary Clinton’s conduct relating to her maintenance of a personal server, her relationship to donors to the Clinton Foundation and a sense of dishonesty in addressing these issues. More importantly, many felt alienated from the political status quo. They felt their needs were not heard or addressed. Remember, Donald Trump was perhaps the last choice of the Republican establishment – many question whether he is in fact at heart a Republican. Just as Bernie Sanders, who has not in fact been a Democrat, received virtually the same amount of electoral support in the Democratic primaries as Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the fundamental truth of this electoral season has been dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

So what do we focus upon going forward? Clearly, continuing to be knowledgeable about political issues is important. In this respect, we should first challenge the views that we hold, whether they be liberal or conservative. The truth is that the state of affairs that is routinely characterized as “divisiveness” or “gridlock” consists in large part of a difference in strongly held views about what is best for America. Perhaps in better understanding the views of the other side, we will come upon some areas for greater agreement. Perhaps the best solution is not to blame somebody for “gridlock” when the truth is that there is a bona fide disagreement and, perhaps, no real effort has been made to compromise.

Take, for example, the contentious topic of immigration. At one end, as the caricature would hold, are the nativist bigots; at the other, are drug dealers and job-stealers. These are the caricatures that in this election have been used by both sides to attract voters and drive turnout. Of course, these caricatures are misguided. In a more thoughtful characterization, on the one side are Republicans who oppose “amnesty” as benefiting lawbreakers while law abiders wait in line; on the other side are Democrats who will accept no solution without citizenship (i.e., the right to vote). In the middle are the American workers who are dealing with unemployment and lacking income growth and the American economy which is employing immigrant labor. Is there a middle ground? One which legitimizes the presence of hard-working, tax payers without an easy road to citizenship? Perhaps, but only if politically driven messaging by each side can be overcome and the legitimate concerns of all addressed. And let us not ignore the difficulty of the immigration issue: few would deny that a country must have control over who comes to live in it; few would deny that immigrants (including illegal ones) have made valuable contributions to our workforce and culture. Both realities must be recognized for a solution to be realized that will be acceptable to all except those committed only to political gain.

Many voters for Hillary Clinton overcame doubts about her character to vote for the policies for which she stood. And it was probably even more difficult for many voters for Donald Trump (especially women and Hispanics) to overcome his offensive comments to vote for the policy direction which he articulated. (And, by the way, in some important respects, many Trump and Clinton policies seemed the same: infrastructure spending, trade, protection of Social Security.) Those votes do not represent tolerance of the candidate’s character and behavior. And we should recognize that.

We must not seize upon the mistakes and weaknesses of others who are our political antagonists to banish their voices. We must challenge ourselves to think, to be open to viewpoints of others and to focus upon the issues our country faces. We must not accept preconceptions and orthodox opinion. We must not take the easy route of denying the legitimacy of differing viewpoints because of the sometimes offensive manner in which they are expressed. Only listening and considering will we be able to bridge gaps and deal with the issues important to our future.

8 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post: Trustee Steve Sherrill, on the All School Meeting Address He Would Have Given

  1. Well said, Steve. Thank you for taking the time to compose your thoughts and your willingness to share them with the broader community. I particularly liked your comment quoted immediately below, which recognizes the legitimacy of the feelings and concerns of a significant portion of the electorate who have felt for many years that they were being attacked and abandoned, just as Mr. Palfrey believes many members of the Andover community were feeling the morning after the election. (See second quote below.)

    As you also point out, in the brutally competitive world of politics, empathy, kindness, love and support are not the operative values. Hopefully they are and will continue to be within the Andover community, and hopefully members of the Andover community will find a way to extend those values beyond the narrow confines of the very privileged environment in which they live.

    All the best,

    “Neither side can ignore or discard the views and votes and sentiments, the needs and hopes and pains, no matter how expressed, of 50% of the American electorate.”

    “I call on us today, and in the days to come, to can act with the empathy and kindness toward one another that is at the heart of the Non Sibi spirit. That is hard, I am certain, for those who feel attacked and abandoned this morning, and there are many who do. Non Sibi teaches us at Andover to be a community guided by love and tolerance. It is on all of us to ensure that everyone here feels that love and support.”

  2. I do not feel that yours and Steve’s addresses differ in essence. You are just speaking on two different layers: you from the need to preserve our school’s most fundamental values, and Steve from the need to listen to others and understand the whole picture. Both are needed.

  3. Correction to the abovementioned -More than 50% of the electorate voted for Hillary Clinton. I will never equate the use of a private email server as justification for electing a racist, misogynist, and bigot to the highest job in this nation. He is unqualified and unfit to serve.

  4. I agree with Mr. Sherrill’s call to respect viewpoints different from our own in order to address issues facing our country. However, i don’t understand his surprise that there was a need to address the student body after this election results. Many were no doubt reacting to the election of Mr. Trump whose language throughout the campaign was not just offensive but expressed views anathema to the values enshrined in American law and traditions. It is NOT ok to teach students that ALL viewpoints should be respected—-some viewpoints are too egregious to be accepted. Characterizing Mr. Trump’s offensive words as just “rhetoric” denies that we must take people at their word and many of his were not just “expressed offensively” but represented “viewpoints” that should not be respected nomatter whether a Republican or Democrat. I applaud the school for addressing this with the students. Going forward, it is incumbent on us all to call bigotry out when we see it, and not to treat it as just another opinion.

  5. Having seen military tanks and armed National Guard troops storm onto campus at Vanderbilt in the spring of 1968, right after severe rioting broke out in Nashville after MLK was shot and killed in nearby Memphis, I can vividly remember what “Martial Law” looks and feels like. Back then, we got to live through a polarized election on steroids. We saw RFK murdered before he even got the chance to get nominated and fight-the-good-fight for election against not only the eventual winner, a Conservative Republican named Richard Nixon (i.e., “Tricky Dicky” ala Watergate), but two other real-serious, no-nonsense, no-BS fascists, named Governor George Corley Wallace III and General Curtis E. LeMay. Two creepy Independent Conservatives, who eventually won the South (and, thankfully, only the South) on a platform that promised the immediate use of nukes in Vietnam to insure victory, and “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever!” It was a very scary time to be an outspoken “Liberal Yankee Civil Rights Supporter” from PA on a segregated football team, in the segregated SEC, on a just tokenly integrated southern university campus, in a still pretty much white-racist-controlled Tennessee!

    Why do I bring all this up now, you may ask? Because I haven’t been this paranoid and afraid about a presidential election since those deep dark days of Wallace and LeMay, Love It or Leave It, Independent Conservatives for President and Vice President, in ’68! Still, I am hopeful because this time the most liberal candidate actually received slightly more than half the popular vote. Wonderful! Yippee! But we still lost. Still, I am reluctantly heartened to see so many young liberals are still passionate enough about their politics of tolerance and inclusion to get out there and demonstrate and voice their heartfelt concerns about the possibility of ultra-conservative, even fascist, abuses and policies that could be imposed by our obstreperous, new President-Elect.

    But, and here’s the rub: Say, these demonstrations continue. Say, they get a little rowdy at times. Say, some of the protesters curse and profane the “Establishment” and everybody in it. Say, the local police start to get sick and tired of it all, eventually even a little ticked off and short-tempered. Say, all of a sudden there’s a lot more pushing and shoving going on, maybe even a little property damage, here and there. More and more people start getting arrested. And then, lots of people get hurt in several cities, on both sides. But mostly the protesters, mostly the kids. That’s when “Emergency Powers” kicks in due to “uncontrolled civil unrest.” And these powers reside, almost exclusively, in the hands of the Executive Branch, subject only to a timely Congressional Review. Flashback to my time, my experience: itchy, nervous, combat-ready National Guard. Troops and tanks suddenly in the street and on your campus. Dusk-to-dawn curfews. Shoot-on-sight orders. How’s about a little Kent State action and idealistic young coeds getting blown away for tossing flowers in the name of “Peace-and-Love” at jumpy young soldiers? Hey, it happened. Right here in America. And I don’t want to see it happen again. Not that way. No way.

    So, here’s my alternative plan: Lay low now for 3 years. Don’t give Donald that easy automatic opportunity to transform America, overnight, into a police state. Wait and see if he ever hints at trying to suspend Congress because maybe they resist any, and all, Draconian policies he might try to hatch. And yes, I truly believe there are still enough decent Republicans in Congress who will join the Democratic minority and the journalists in order to resist any abusive “Executive Orders” or Trumped-Up Takeover Scams the Donald could try and mount. If they don’t then, of course, all bets are off, and recourse to desperate measures before the next election in 2019, might be in order. But, if the man moderates and tones down his rhetoric, as well as his actions and his policies, then just suffer through it all and lay low for 3 years. Then, by God, come back on out of hibernation and make damn sure we get this guy the hell on out of there. Head this country right back in the “good and kind” direction Barack and Bernie had us headed in. I would say Hillary, but I’m afraid she is hopelessly damaged goods. Sad. Very sad. But now, there’s always Elizabeth or Michelle to shatter that glass ceiling. So I pray they can keep a clean slate between now and then because, as we have seen, even unintentional mistakes can discredit a candidate nowadays.

    As always, I am indebted to Andover and its “Youth from every quarter” tradition for helping shape my own world view, my love of tolerance and inclusion, and an indomitable insistence on the free expression of ideas, as well as fair-and-open debate. A lot of you will be heading off to colleges very soon. I believe many of you will contribute to making America not just great, but “good,” in ways that you might not even imagine. I know. I saw it happen. Not just to me, but to many of my generation. And, with the kind of preparation you’re getting, I have faith you’ll be ready for the challenges of both making your own living and making living, in general, a little bit better for everybody. Hang in there and don’t get depressed.

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