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?