Story and Photo By Josie Cox-Saleh
Shortly after being named a Knight-Bagehot Fellow by Columbia University’s School of Journalism, I had a discussion with a friend who graduated from CBS a few years earlier. Through the Fellowship Program, I would be taking classes at the business school and was eager for advice. What she said caught me by surprise: “Be careful when talking about politics. There’s no place like America.”
I’m a journalist. I’m curious for a living. I’ve spent the last few years writing about the culture of business, specifically diversity and inclusion, and its particular challenges and opportunities. I’m passionate about these issues, and I speak up loudly when I think somebody is being silenced unjustly.
I was admittedly blindsided by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but I’ve since worked hard to build my own awareness of what’s happening outside the liberal metropolitan media bubble, also known as my comfort zone.
I know how to talk about politics, I wanted to tell my friend. But she was right. This is different.
When I moved to New York from London on March 13, I found myself discombobulated by the transatlantic move and the sudden onset of a global pandemic. I could also feel that the country was at a monumental inflection point—America’s racial injustice problem was becoming painfully blatant, and it felt like we were living inside a powder keg.
Intent on finding out how the U.S. got to this fragile point, I was determined to seek conversations with those who don’t share my views, and I knew that doing so would involve listening to and truly hearing the perspectives of many people with whom I don’t agree.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which emotions would challenge my ability to listen with an open mind. My resolve to engage in constructive conversations with those who had the opposite outlook proved far more feeble than I originally expected. Up to this point, I’d considered myself to be a great champion of political tolerance who makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard, but I was discovering that this was only the case if that voice didn’t belong to someone extolling the virtues of a politician on the other side of the aisle.
In the aftermath of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, as Amy Coney Barrett assumed her seat on the Supreme Court, I shared in the grief-turned-rage that many across America and the world felt. As those emotions lingered, I realized I had to work harder than ever to demonstrate the values I thought came naturally to me. When politics becomes deeply and undeniably personal, like it has in 2020, emotion-driven instinct can supplant rational rhyme and reason without us even noticing.
The election race and Covid-19 have taught us lessons aplenty about both good and bad leadership. We’ve learned about the value of strong communication and what happens when it falters. But perhaps the greatest lesson we’ve learned is to stay true to your own values and standards, no matter how difficult that may be.
Fierce disagreement does not have to mean disrespect. Vehement political opposition does not have to breed intolerance of another’s opinion. True inclusivity involves the inclusion of people who don’t think like you and don’t vote like you. It means displaying respect and being courteous when you might want to scream.
America is enduring one of its toughest values tests yet. Regardless of whether we voted for Trump, voted for Biden, or—like me—couldn’t vote at all, it’s incumbent upon us to set examples for those who follow. As students, humans and leaders, we must practice cutting through the noise and remember who we want to be and what we want to be known for. Politics will change. Power will shift. But the behaviors we model will persist. Let’s make sure we get this right.