Difference is at the heart of what makes this country great.
Our political system recognizes and relies on a rich, deliberate exchange of varied perspectives. Our three branches of government are an additional acknowledgment that balance and strength are achieved through a healthy interaction of disparate interests.
Recognizing the value of difference is the bridge across what seems to be an ever-growing crevice of divisive rhetoric, extreme partisan policies, and disenfranchisement.
For me, a 53-year-old liberal daughter of a retired West Point-educated Air Force colonel, I am only now starting to truly appreciate the degree to which the values my father lived by making up the foundation of my own public service in democratic politics, government and community organizing.
Privately and publicly, it is easy these days, awash with negative, rhetoric-filled rants in our public discourse, to lose track of how common ground can be found in difference. Dad and I spend many holidays tip-toeing around each other, wanting to engage and discuss the things we care about and are afraid of, but also knowing that there is potential for hurt and misunderstanding everywhere.
I’ve learned, though, that when we are on opposite sides, I can come from a place of generosity and respect, and call on his sense of justice and truthfulness to bridge the gap.
While the histories and backgrounds of those who choose a life of military service are as dissimilar as President Trump and President Obama, I see now that the overall mission and values of the United States Air Force are common threads woven through both the lives of those in the military, and also of many in democratic politics and community development work. It is in the finding and appreciating these threads that connections are made.
West Point, the premier United States Military Academy, is shaped by its motto of duty, honor and country, and provides some guidance on how soldiers might choose to be acknowledged.
While the definitions and applications of its code have been shaped by centuries of history and politics within the institution itself, a definition that took hold at West Point in 1931 defines honor as “…a fundamental principle of character — a virtue which implies loyalty and courage, truthfulness and self-respect, justice and generosity.”
The vision of the U.S. Air Force is: Our differences make us stronger. Our values make us one. Further, the Air Force Academy, which educates many of those who serve under the umbrella of this Air Force vision has the following stated values: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. Imagine if we all were to actively seek bridges across difference by consciously shifting our political rhetoric to reflect Air Force values.
Imagine how public discourse might shift if President Trump began his public statements on topics such as Mexico, Muslim immigrants, or Nancy Pelosi with acknowledgments that differences make us stronger.
It’s interesting to think about how public policies on political fundraising and political district boundary-setting might shift if integrity first was the stated and practiced guiding principle of the efforts.
I wonder what public policies would emerge if service before self was the standard from which we developed them.
Every day we can choose to honor ourselves and those who serve our country by reflecting on our own actions and by demonstrating that we appreciate and are changed by theirs.