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Chairman of Special Olympics and best-selling author Timothy P. Shriver discussed the importance of unity in politics Monday at the Harvard Law School’s Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Shriver said there is a current “pandemic of divisiveness” in politics, which should be addressed by reframing existing methods of storytelling.
“If the dominant story in our culture is about hatred and division, it will drown out the creative energy in this starving majority's hunger for a different story. We've got to find [different] ways to tell these stories,” Shriver said.
In an effort to combat the issue of divisiveness, Shriver launched UNITE, a collaborative dedicated towards bringing Americans together to catalyze solutions to universal issues, earlier this year. Shriver said the current political atmosphere should be restructured by promoting narratives of unity.
“Instead of othering and scapegoating, we need to find ways to transform our pain and our fear into understanding and work and collaboration towards peace and justice,” he said.
Shriver explained that an individual can only become a “uniter” through one’s own volition and choices, rather than through the acquisition of a particular set of skills.
“We are given the choice to be dividers or uniters,” Shriver said. “There is no law, in most places, that can force us to do either. There is no skill that will definitively change how we see one another. There is no story that we can guarantee will create a generation of the uniters. There are choices.”
Shriver identified four core principles of unity: faith, love, anger, and joy. He said faith promotes dignity; love allows for an understanding that “we are all in it together”; anger prevents the acceptance of “humiliation and oppression of others”; and joy grants an appreciation for “the goodness that is possible we repair the breach.”
Robert G. Manson, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote that Shriver’s lecture had “passion, precision, and clarity of purpose.”
“I fully agree with his points about unity. So much of our outlook on life has to do with perspective,” Manson wrote. “Unity is the key to transforming the way people regard others.”
Another event attendee, Marta González-Ruano Calles, wrote that Shriver’s model of unity inspired her to apply these principles in her own life.
“Now, as a young jurist, I’m determined to follow his advice to transform our fears, anxieties, and angers into understanding, to promote a healthier, happier, and flourishing future to our world,” she wrote.
Other attendees, however, critiqued Shriver’s work on unity for its lack of applicability to situations in which disagreement may be necessary.
Sarah Federman, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs, wrote that the unity model forces consensus and discourages individuals from challenging conflicting ideas.
“The challenge I see in ‘unity’ models is that unity discourses tend to push towards consensus building. When people make uncomfortable statements, they’re sometimes told they’re not supporting ‘unity.’ This leaves power structures unchallenged, as those labeled ‘spoilers’ get pushed back into their boxes sometimes by well-intentioned people,” Federman wrote.
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