The Constitutional Convention led to the creation of our democracy. The Seneca Falls Convention was the start of the women’s suffrage movement. The Geneva Convention was a series of meetings that led to more humane treatment during times of armed conflict.
Conventions can be events that unite us, that bring together diverse groups with a shared goal and — as the examples above show — lead to important progress.
The word has another meaning — “the way in which something is usually done.” Perhaps we most recognize this usage when others are rejecting it – as in “breaking with convention” or “defying convention.”
In a country that reveres and elevates pioneers and rebels this is often seen as a good thing.
Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen these two meanings collide – albeit in different ways. For reasons related to both the reality on the ground (the coronavirus) and by candidate disposition both the Democratic and Republican conventions broke with long-held conventions.
Sometimes breaking with conventions is necessary and prudent. Other times, it just feels wrong. Which one is often in the eye of the beholder.
Acknowledging my own biases, I instead offer the innocent observations of my children. Here are two questions they raised unsolicited, while watching conventions broken at the Democratic and Republican conventions respectively.
“Are they doing this virtually because of the coronavirus and social distancing? That makes sense.”
“Why is he giving his speech at the White House? That doesn’t seem right.”
These are the observations of children aged 8 and 12.
Conventions by definition bring us together – either physically or through agreed upon norms. They keep us safe, set expectations, build trust and respect. We use them to share values, goals, hopes, dreams and too often lately – fears.
When we break convention needlessly and out of self-interest, it creates a slippery slope where others can quickly follow suit. If not careful, more conventions get broken and more of what binds us together becomes democracy’s debris — frayed, tattered and left to the scrapheap of history. Eventually what we get is a chaotic free for all and race to the bottom.
Instead, we should take pause, reflect and question when we see conventions broken — you know like a child might. Asking ourselves, ‘why is this happening?” Only then, rather than join the fray – can we rise above it.