John Crawford ’20
Our community needs to come together to discuss our increasingly toxic discourse. It is becoming difficult for us to have substantive dialogues.
Elections seem only to be divisive. Increasingly polarized politics do not foster community dialogue and, instead, they make potential policy solutions harder and harder to address.
Political discussions often remain off-limits between people who disagree. “Pragmatism” and “bipartisanship” have become dirty words for some. We generally divide ourselves among ideological lines, even here at Davidson.
I once had a friend who I was very close to. He and I had a lot in common, but we differed on candidates in the 2016 democratic primary. I supported Hillary Clinton; he supported Bernie Sanders.
Soon after the general election began, this friend told me that he could no longer be friends with me. He told me that he “no longer respected my political opinions” to the extent that he was unable to maintain a friendship with me.
I have never met a single person with whom I agreed on every political issue. Discussing these differences excites me, as I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and attempt to comprehend why they have arrived at a solution that is different from my own.
Even when I find their argument unconvincing, I walk away understanding their point of view better and having developed a closer relationship with them.
The experience of losing a friend due to small political differences shook me. It compelled me to seek any information I could find about how to prevent it from happening again.
What had the most substantial impact was the book The Reunited States of America by Mark Gerzon.
I felt as though politics had become so toxic as to be effectively unworkable, and this book single-handedly convinced me otherwise and inspired me to declare a major in political science.
Taking personal action is at the heart of the book’s conclusion.
Gerzon argues that “instead of complaining about what they should do to fix what’s wrong, it’s far more empowering and energizing to ask what we ourselves can do to bridge the partisan divide.”
So, I began to look for ways I could affect my community at Davidson.
Three and a half years later, I believe my work has only just begun. Many groups on campus are trying to address the problem we have with constructive dialogue or lack thereof.
I am primarily involved with the new Deliberative Citizenship Initiative (DCI), which is a collaboration led by six “co-conveners,” two from the students, faculty, and staff respectively.
We aspire to facilitate and model moments of deliberation in action to the campus community.
The initiative is currently conducting facilitator training, and we hope to begin hosting forums soon.
The faculty co-conveners are also piloting deliberation-themed classes this semester, as well as continuing a research program from this summer that works to identify the effectiveness of deliberation strategies in academic and civic settings.
The DCI will provide spaces for conversations among those whose positions differ on difficult subjects. We do not believe it is our mandate to elevate certain opinions or limit activism on campus, nor do we plan to provide conflict-resolution outside of our programming.
Instead, we hope the DCI will foster spaces where everyone feels respected. While “safe spaces” are necessary and important at times, they also isolate participants from dissenting views.
Therefore, the DCI hopes to create something like a voluntary “respect space” to foster disagreement with an emphasis on civility. The co-conveners believe that disagreement can be engaging rather than wearisome, respectful rather than dismissive, productive rather than polarizing.
I know that this initiative will not solve all of our society’s polarization problems, nor will it be able to single-handedly address the challenges on campus.
Solving these problems will require the campus culture to shift, for all the organizations also concerned about this to work together, and for us to make an active effort to, whenever possible, engage those with whom we disagree.
Making these changes will be hard, but when we dismiss someone’s opinion, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do the same to us. Most people do not go through the world wishing to harm others—and the few who do deserve our help, not our judgment. As an institution of higher education, I believe we can meet this goal in our community.
We are incredibly fortunate to be where we are. I believe David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005 best expresses why.
He tells the story of “two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
Wallace elaborates that we all go through life on our own, rarely questioning the things we see, and this leads to us being frustrated with the world and everyone around us without ever considering their story and viewpoint.
He says that the story of the fish “is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water. This is water.”
We, as a campus community, need to remind ourselves that “this is water.”
We need to confront ourselves with opinions that make us uncomfortable when we can, and, when we fail, we need to admit that failure.
We need to work together to tackle these challenges.
We can do this. But first, we need to talk.
Photo Editor John Crawford ’20 is a political science and French double major from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Contact him at email@example.com.