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Talking (and listening) to the Other, Next Edition

Some months ago I wrote a post that argued the importance of face-to-face conversations with those who are very different from ourselves. With such conversations we can see “the other” not merely as an opposing ideology or a threatening culture or race, but as a human being.

Each of us has had life experiences that have shaped our worldview. Some of these have shaped our conception of our own life possibilities. Others have provided us our beliefs about the desirable attributes of our country. Still others have shaped our sense of what is fair and of the relative importance of the individual and his/her group.

Interacting with someone with very different life experiences who has very different basic beliefs can help us understand them (and ourselves) better. Sometimes we can even imagine how we might think differently, had we experienced what they had experienced.

Last year, members the Provost’s Committee for Diversity took on the project of designing and mounting student dialogues across different race/ethnicity groups. They seem to have been quite useful, especially for those students whose past life experiences robbed them of the opportunity of exposure to different ways of thinking.

The events of the past year, in my mind, have only reinforced the view that more of us could profit from such dialogue.

In that regard, I am increasingly heartened by grassroots efforts around the country to construct effective environments to have such dialogues. Some are real neighborhood or community efforts, created by those formerly not involved in such activities. These initiatives have ambitions to build up a culture of greater understanding from the bottom up – first, building stronger communities on these issues, and then gradually affecting the whole society. Paralleling this are quiet efforts going on behind closed doors by elected officials who find the toxic environment in city councils, legislatures, and government agencies contrary to their motivations to serve the American public.

I wonder whether, at this moment, universities have a unique responsibility to learn from these efforts and expand their reach. Of course, at Georgetown we are fortunate to have a multi-decade set of experiences and rich human resources that have propelled our inter-group dialogues forward. This raises this question: What could Georgetown do practically to further our country’s ability to foster such dialogue?

When two people of highly conflicting viewpoints want to listen and talk to one another, what are the necessary ground rules?

How do we listen to viewpoints that are viscerally opposed to ours, in a search for understanding those beliefs?

There is a common belief that those who hold minority opinions (or believe that their opinions are in the minority) disproportionately hold back, failing to honestly report their beliefs in presence of the majority. How do we present our own beliefs to another who opposes them without fear of rebuke?

How do we build an environment in which all sides feel free to express their real beliefs in one-on-one interaction?

Given the high emotions that seem to accompany all beliefs these days, it might be useful to first discuss methods rather than content. For those who are working on these dialogues, what have they learned as more people seek the experience of talking to those who view the world very differently? How can these grassroots efforts be expanded to involve more and more people?

4 thoughts on “Talking (and listening) to the Other, Next Edition

  1. I respectfully disagree. As far as speakers through the years there has been a great diversity to stimulate discussion. I’ve heard Paul Ryan talk of his ideas on the budget. One of the best things I witnessed in my time on the hilltop was a dialogue with former First Ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. It was civil and pleasant to hear. If others especially our politicians would speak civilly with each other we might have a more functional government and country. You may be correct about the faculty needing to be more politically diverse but there have been great discussions by all on The hilltop with many ideas represented. Just my thought .

  2. Georgetown, in my opinion, does a very good job promoting diversity and dialogue with respect to race, ethnicity and gender. Our work in such regard is vitally important, and should be continued, strengthened and expanded.

    What we (and our peer institutions) sorely lack is sufficient intellectual and political diversity. As a lifelong Democrat from Massachusetts, I found very few “others” on campus with whom to dialogue. Republicans, conservatives and Red Staters (even moderate ones) are largely absent from our faculty, administration, student body and campus speakers.

    While I was glad to have most everyone on my side, this is ultimately an unhealthy situation, and a microcosm of a serious problem effecting our entire national fabric. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. We as a nation desperately need the dialogue Provost Groves describes. We at Georgetown do, as he suggests, have a responsibility as a major university (especially a Jesuit one situated in the national capital) to conduct and expand such dialogue. We should be leaders in such regard.

    But there can be no dialogue with an “other” who is not present.
    Accordingly, here at Georgetown, we need to begin by reaching out to that missing societal element and recruiting more of its constituents to join our intellectual community–as students, faculty, administrators and campus speakers.

    A productive first step might a speaker series featuring our own alumni who hold views that differ from those generally prevailing on campus. I recently heard Congressman Rooney (R-Florida, C ’78) on a panel in Gaston Hall. He was excellent, but we don’t bring in many like him. Let’s get more. Alumni like Senators Murkowski (R-Alaska, C ’80) and Barrasso (R-Wyoming, C ’74) and former Governor Daniels (R-Indiana, L ’78, currently President of Purdue University), to name just a few among many possibilities, would considerably enhance the dialogue we conduct.

  3. To my mind, this is one of the most important posts to date, given the deeply fractious nature of many contemporary societies and the relative neglect of a genuine apprenticeship of dialog with those very other Others, whether within or across borders or cultures. Yet another reason for strengthening the role of the Humanities at Georgetown.

  4. Excellent questions ! Always should remember God gave us two ears and one mouth to remind us one should be used twice as much as the other. Good advice for dialogue.

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