Oped: Toward (re)erecting a bridge of values

Erec Smith

One does not have to observe too keenly to see that the several cracks in the foundation of our society are fissures of racial, political, religious, and socio-economic divisiveness. America seems to be split into various factions that, on the surface, seem tragically opposed to one another. The 2016 Presidential election exposed widened gaps between these factions, and Trump’s impending presidency has apparently created two overarching groups: Trump-haters and Trump-supporters.

Dr. Erec Smith, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, teaches a class at York College of Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Although the differences between the two groups are apparent, might we be focusing too much on difference? Is American citizenry the only thing these groups share? Can we find commonalities and use them to begin to rescue a society on the verge of civic collapse?

Perhaps that American citizenry is enough of a commonality.

I believe it’s worth a try.

In a class I teach at York College of Pennsylvania, “Communication in Professional Cultures,” I discuss how students can better negotiate relationships in the workplace by focusing on shared values and virtues. That is, if one can find and emphasize common ground with coworkers—even the ones with whom one disagrees—the workplace will benefit.

Why not apply this principle to our society. More accurately, let’s remember the principles of our society.

As Americans, most of us should value the salient words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…,” and the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” These words, alone, express the major values of America. Who among us does not want these things for ourselves and our families?

Whether for or against Trump, we as Americans share these values; they just manifest differently. The black inner city youth and the rural white conservative share the American Creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Although these values may present differently, we can still get somewhere by recognizing this initial commonality and starting from there.

In a New Yorker article titled “The Health of a Nation,” Antul Gawande writes,

"How dependent are our fundamental values — values such as decency, reason, and compassion — on the fellow we’ve elected President? Maybe less than we imagine. To be sure, the country voted for a leader who lives by the opposite code — it will be a long and dark winter — but the signs are that voters were not rejecting these values. They were rejecting élites, out of fear and fury that, when it came to them, these values had been abandoned."[i]

Perhaps people were so focused on these values that they overshadowed the more deplorable aspects of the Trump campaign. I am not saying such blindness to those aspects is not problematic. However, I am suggesting that those shared values can be a starting point to for dialogue.

These shared values may also remind people that plights, too, are shared. In fact, these values are made more apparent by the lack of apparatuses that assist citizens in maintaining family values and hard work. In his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance talks of the similarities between two groups traditionally deemed mutually exclusive. Upon reading William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, a book about those left behind by post-industry and outsourcing, he realized, “That [the book] resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia — he was writing about black people in the inner cities.” [ii] We share values that are being threatened by a lack of care and support from our leaders. So, how can people — seemingly disparate people — work together to rebuild the institutions that can bolster these values for ALL of us?

Although I value diversity, let the coming years bring on an era of commonality. Diversity of ethnicity and culture need not be relinquished, but we must not forget that we have strong and fundamental commonalities. In addition, these very commonalities can serve as bridges that connect otherwise disparate factions. I am not naïve enough to believe that this would work for all of us.

America’s more fundamentalist citizens may be hard to reach due to fundamentalism’s very nature of being unquestionably dogmatic and unwavering. However, Trump-haters and supporters are, each, a diverse group with different reasons for their stances. Among them, perhaps we can explore how shared values manifest so differently. I agree with Mark Lilla, professor of Humanities at Columbia University, when he writes “National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”[iii]

So now what? What are the first steps toward creating this bridge of values?

First, let’s create places to discuss such things. A conversation can be had in local churches and community centers as well as homes and back yards.

Next, we need to tell our stories. We each have a narrative of how we arrived in our current stance and how our values got us there. Because we have the same values, the stories of how and why they may have manifested differently can promote the understanding and empathy necessary to spark productive conversation unhindered by assumptions.

Lastly, we must not fear conflict; in fact, we must embrace it. Conflict — disagreement based on differing beliefs and interests that can have a profound mental and emotional impact — is often inevitable. However, being open to the inevitability of conflict can open us up to the benefits of conflict. Then and only then will be able to co-construct new stories in which shared values are focal, beneficial beliefs for all are enacted, and social gaps are bridged.

— Erec Smith is a professor of rhetoric and composition at York College. He is a member of the YWCA Racial Justice Committee and a member of the York Dispatch Editorial Advisory Board.


[i] Antul Gawande, “The Health of a Nation,” The New Yorker, 21 Nov. 2016, accessed 27 Nov. 2016,

[ii] J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 144.

[iii] Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2016, accessed 27 Nov. 2016,