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Compassionate citizenship: lessons in civility from ken starr

By Sabrina Moyle. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

A month ago, a friend invited to meet Ken Starr. I am politically progressive on most issues and live in San Francisco. I said “yes.” Not only did I say yes, I found common ground with Mr. Starr.

I spent weeks preparing for our meeting. As might be expected, I felt anxious. Mr. Starr had been famously vilified for his role in the Monica Lewinsky investigation, which in turn had provoked the founding of the progressive advocacy organization MoveOn by my friend and collaborator at Living Room Conversations, Joan Blades. He is vocally conservative. During his tenure as President of Baylor University, Texas’ oldest institution of higher learning and the world’s largest Baptist university, a large-scale sexual assault scandal had erupted and is still unfolding.

I chose to start with a clean slate and an open mind. I inquired into my feelings of fear and doubt. I decided to learn more about Mr. Starr in his own words, with the goal of finding common ground.

I started by reading Mr. Starr’s recent memoir about his time at Baylor, Bear Country: The Baylor Story. In it, I discovered a man who is both humble and fiercely dedicated to his principles and to higher education. I discovered a thoughtful man doing his best to live each day according to his Christian faith. I also discovered a man who had served as a charismatic, wise and skilled leader at Baylor, facilitating numerous conflicts that are inevitable at a university that is seeking to grow and transform.

In Bear Country, Mr. Starr speaks affectionately about Stephen L. Carter’s book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. I decided to read it for myself, again seeking common ground.

My effort was rewarded. I discovered that Mr. Carter is a thoughtful, conservative Christian African American scholar at Yale University (I later learned he is a close personal friend of Mr. Starr). In his book, Carter writes beautifully about the many ways in which civility is needed to strengthen our social fabric, support social justice, and maintain our relationships with one another. I loved Carter’s nuanced, principled writing.

A few weeks later, I walked into the Pacific Union Club, a traditional men’s club in San Francisco. I joined a roomful of conservative friends and acquaintances who had gathered to welcome Mr. Starr. Maybe it was my imagination, but as I entered the room I perceived a slight air of anxiety: what might a “San Francisco liberal” potentially say to the conservative and scandal-prone Ken Starr? 

Eventually, I made my way over to Mr. Starr and introduced myself. I expressed my condolences for the tragedy at Baylor and I professed my admiration of Stephen L. Carter.

We shared an instant, heartfelt connection. He struck me as a kind, wise, good humored, and humble man, with jovial, caring eyes. I reveled at his resilience in the face of the public criticism he has endured these many years.

As we talked and joked, Mr. Starr invited me to ask the first question following his remarks about higher education. I agreed. When it was my turn to speak, I invited Mr. Starr to share lessons learned from Baylor about how we can encourage a climate of civility and open-minded discourse on college campuses, particularly in light of the violence around Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College as well as protests on the UC Berkeley Campus.

Mr. Starr’s response was thoughtful and wise. A college should be a place of conversation, he said, where all views are welcome as long as they are expressed with respect and as long as they do not disrupt the college environment, in which case universities should defer to law enforcement. He expressed despair at the state of intolerance and lack of civility that has emerged on college campuses today. Arguments should be heard on their merits, he argued, not based on conformity to ideology.

Mr. Starr recalled a time when he and his friends had protested the Vietnam War peacefully by wearing black armbands (it may be little known that Mr. Starr was a Democrat before he became a Republican and was passed over for a Supreme Court nomination because the H.W. Bush administration feared that he was too liberal). He asserted that peaceful protest is essential to a free society.

Mr. Starr went on to suggest that alumni networks could be an effective way to encourage universities to promote policies that favor free yet respectful dialogue across the political spectrum. 

As I walked home that night, I reflected on how this one exercise in open-minded conversation, empathy, and civility had transformed me. The person who had received the invitation was one who had uncritically reduced Ken Starr to a villainous caricature. The person who left that evening was inspired and humbled by our commonality, while aware of our differences. The narrative of fear and blame that had been ignited by decades of media crossfire had been replaced by a ripe seed of compassion for Mr. Starr as a fellow human being, equally worthy of dignity, love and respect.

I was able to relate to Mr. Starr in large part due to Living Room Conversations. I have hosted several United or Divided? conversations, through which I have honed the skills of listening and respect for differences, grounded in trust, curiosity, and a shared desire to find common ground. And, I have learned that bridging divides is inspiring, transformative, and fun.

Just like me, Mr. Starr is on a lifelong journey of growth and leaning. Just like me, he is letting his life speak according to his own highest principles. This does not mean that we will agree on everything; principled people can and do disagree. But, as Mr. Starr himself observed, we must first and foremost respect our mutual, innate human dignity. 

If we can remember that, we can create more a compassionate citizenship.

Sabrina Moyle is Co-Founder of Hello!Lucky and The Write_On Campaign and serves on the Board of The Mosaic Project. She is a mom of three and blogs on Medium @sabrinamoyle