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Let’s have a conversation together

| Friday, April 11, 2014

When I was little, I hated math. It was unfamiliar and didn’t make sense to me. My father, a chemical engineer, was assigned the task of helping me understand the concepts. Although my father is a man of great patience, I always seemed to try that patience when we would work through problems together. The concepts were so simple to him, and he sometimes couldn’t see why I just didn’t get it. In return, I fought against learning math because sometimes I felt judged for not understanding something I had never been exposed to before. Since basic math is necessary for functioning in society, my father persisted out of love and consideration for my personal development. He found new, relatable ways to present information, allowing me to see from a different perspective. And I grew more receptive, eventually understanding enough to make it into what I consider one of the finest universities in the country. From these memories, considering the situations occurring on campus right now, I can extrapolate several important elements forgotten in the debates occurring.
First, there is nothing inherently wrong with ignorance. In first grade, I was ignorant about mathematical concepts, and, as a child, this was understandable. Often, ignorance is also understandable given an individual’s background. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ignorance is “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education.” Many people judge those who make comments out of ignorance. However, Christ calls us to instruct the ignorant. Ignorance is an invitation ⎯ for education and for asking someone to consider something in a new way. Although statements made in ignorance can be hurtful and offensive (and are in no way justified or acceptable), the correct response is not anger and hatred. Even when difficult, we must begin a respectful dialogue. Judgment and anger breed defensiveness and resentment, halting all forward progress. Rather than making sweeping accusations and assumptions about an individual or group, begin asking “Why?” Finding out why a person holds certain beliefs is key to identifying misunderstandings and initiating change. Incredibly sheltered upon my arrival at Notre Dame, I held beliefs about groups of people that I now realize were ignorant and unfair. But I had only been exposed to one perspective, and I had honestly never thought to question the information given to me by adults. New information widened my perspective in a way that attacking my opinions never would have. No one responds well to condescension and judgment, especially when they might not even realize that there is another reasonable side to the argument.
This being said, bigotry is unacceptable, and, by definition, cannot exist within respectful dialogue. Bigotry is separate from ignorance. A bigot is “a person who is obstinately and intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” Only after rejecting attempts at respectful dialogue without fair consideration does one become a bigot. There is no point engaging in an argument with a bigoted person because a logical argument implies a search for truth, and a person “devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices” has already found his or her truth; all that remains is to stay respectful, while declining unproductive dialogue that will only serve to further spread intolerance.
Second, finding common ground is essential. My father had to get creative when he taught me. It was important enough for me to understand that he tried new ways of presenting the information until something finally made sense. Consider the person next to you, those in your classes, your dorm. All of these people have their own unique stories, but we are also united in our humanity. As we engage in debate, let us not forget this common humanity. Creating an “us vs. them” mentality only tears apart our community, deepening the wounds preventing us from reaching a common understanding or at least loving and respecting one another. Look into your hearts, your lives, your faith, your academic interests, your geeky hobbies or your taste in music (Try Disney movies, those are a pretty good bet). Chances are, the person shares something with you that will humanize them. When we humanize rather than generalize, we empower ourselves to remain respectful despite difference in opinion, because we see the other person as an individual.
Third, we must be receptive to new information. I had to be willing to learn math, although it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. In order to avoid bigotry, we have to be open to dialogue. Dialogue is “an exchange of ideas or opinions.” That doesn’t mean one side telling the other side what to believe. Both sides must recognize that they might not have all the answers. The beauty of dialogue is seeking truth together, not beating someone over the head with an ideology. The emphasis on “I’m right and you’re wrong” is shouted so loudly that it drowns out all else. Even for conflicts that have no resolution because of a fundamental difference in understanding, there is something to be learned from opposing views, and respect remains necessary to make progress. We can learn so much from realizing that we are not always right. In fact, we’re often wrong. But by engaging with multiple perspectives and remaining open to new and valid ideas and opinions, we fulfill the true purpose of a university and can move forward together. I firmly believe we have the potential to find much greater peace through education and unceasing dialogue.
While all problems and misunderstandings in the world are not as simple as explaining why 3/4 is bigger than 5/8, the problems we have placed on the table at Notre Dame are so much more important. They are among the defining issues of our generation, and discussion on such issues makes me incredibly proud of our wonderful University. Everyone wants to defend his or her beliefs, and we are striving to shape the world we live in. However, the hatred and vitriol I have seen directed towards other members of our Notre Dame family in some of the Viewpoint articles and their comments both sadden and disappoint me. Our collective ignorance cries out for understanding. Love one another by educating one another; don’t contribute through belittlement to the hatred you are trying to prevent. I know we, as a student body, are capable of so much more, and I challenge those who decide to speak up to do so with respect and openness, as well as humility. Let us not begin to shout louder and louder until we are a sea of incoherency, unable to hear truth that is spoken. Instead, let’s begin a conversation together.

Samantha Lessen
Lewis Hall
April 11

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


About Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor can be submitted by all members of the Notre Dame community. To submit a letter to the Viewpoint Editor, email viewpoint@ndsmcobserver.com

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  • Guest

    This is a very sane and hopeful call for dialogue. One of the problems though is that some sides and some people are just completely wrong, and they deserve to be called out. This is not a simple as “I have my belief, you have yours, and our beliefs are equal.” For instance, criticizing racism at Notre Dame is a matter of dealing with cold, hard facts, this is not just a matter of free speech and personal opinions. Rejecting Ann Coulter’s bombastic and racist rhetoric is a matter of facts and reality, not just the political persuasions of one particular student group. In our efforts to be civil, let us not cheapen our free speech and commitment to deeply held beliefs by making ALL opinions, even the most disgusting and reprehensible, equal to each other. They are not. Let’s not descend into childish relativism. We aren’t talking about food and fashion preferences. Mutual respect for each other demands real commitment to what this university stands for.

    • Mary

      Before immediately calling Coulter a racist I would like you to actually read the article about the speech she delivered last night. I believe that you will have trouble finding a single racist remark.

      • So because she gave on speech that wasn’t racist, she is definitively not a racist?

        I think that’s some questionable logic,

      • Roy

        Really? Watch me.

        “What is the point of bringing in people who instantly need the taxpayers’ help? We’re not talking about our native Americans here. We know we have to take care of them. Why are we bringing in people we have to help?”

        Nope. Nothing to see here.

  • Dorothy Mantooth

    There are a lot of good points in this article, but there are also many alarming ones. First off, it is not the responsibility of oppressed groups to educate ignorant, privileged groups. They are welcome to do so, and I applaud those who take this task upon themselves, but it is not THEIR responsibility. Furthermore, no one, including the author, should be telling oppressed groups how to react to the hurtful, ignorant statements of others, especially when their anger is totally justifiable and we ourselves cannot relate to their pain. The scenario of a child ignorant of math concepts is not analogous to that of a wealthy, educated, white male who has not taken advantage of numerous opportunities to educate himself about race relations at Notre Dame (and in the world at large). A person who is privileged is morally obligated to educate themselves about the lives of those who are not afforded those same privileges, and a failure to do so is wrong. Thus, contrary to the author’s point, ignorance very much can be an inherent wrong that needs to be corrected.

    • Chris

      I think you may have missed the author’s literal definition of “ignorance”

      Or maybe you didn’t. I don’t know your major or what you do for a living, but I’m going to hazard a guess that you are ignorant to the details of thermonuclear physics, for example. Is this a wrong that needs to be corrected?

  • egg

    I’ll admit it: when I entered Notre Dame, a list of my belief system and sense of right and wrong would have probably aligned perfectly with Mark Gianfalla’s. I was extremely homophobic, mildly racist, fairly closed minded, proudly Republican, and devoutly (a cafeteria) Catholic. I knew Notre Dame was the place for me, because its students seemed to emulate the values that I held most dear to my heart (mostly the whole pro-life, anti-gay marriage type ideas).

    This was the way that I had been raised. I was brought up by my single mother, who poured endless amounts of time and effort into shaping me to be a clone of herself. I went to Catholic school for most of my life, where the teachings I received aligned with the things my mother had taught me. In other words, I had an extremely sheltered youth.

    While Notre Dame isn’t exactly famous for being an open forum for bipartisan and generally equal sided discussion, there was a ton more diversity at ND than I had ever experienced in my life. (Think about how not diverse ND is, and let the idea of my previous exposure to diversity sink in. Be terrified.) For the first time in my life, I had close friends that were not only not homophobic, I had friends who were actually gay themselves.

    And for the first time in my life, I began to think for myself. Over the period of three long years, I went through as many of the systems of belief that were so ingrained in my personality, and weighed them not as a Catholic, but as a person. I finally questioned why I believed the things that I did. I realized that, yeah, wow, racism is actually SUPER BAD. I’m ashamed that came as such a shock to me, but it did. I also realized the fact that Catholics don’t actually own the idea of marriage. Like, really not at all. So why should the (commonly misinterpreted, anyways) passage from the Bible that indicates that man should not lie with man blah blah decide ANY rules for who, over 2,000 years later, should be allowed to marry each other? You know what else is in the bible? The rule about not wearing fabrics made from more than one fiber. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to give up my beloved cotton/poly blends.)

    I was privileged. I was ignorant. I thought that I had a right to decide things that I had absolutely no business meddling in. In retrospect, I understand that I had no right to get angry when challenged on my homophobic and racist ideas. On the flip side, people of minority races and sexual orientations ABSOLUTELY had a right to get angry at my formerly super oppressive, and pretentiously delivered, belief systems.

    As user Dorothy Mantooth indicated in another comment here, it isn’t the task of the unprivileged to educate the privileged. Now that I have very thoroughly checked my privilege and discovered which areas I am privileged in vs not, I am a fierce advocate for educating people on the rights of the unprivileged groups that I find myself a member of. But to expect that of all people is not only stupid and self righteous, it’s also really unrealistic. No one has time to sit everyone down and explain why it’s not ok to deny someone employment on the basis of them being gay.

    Read a book.

    • Walter

      I commend you for admitting this, and I, too, experienced a similar sort of evolution of my personal beliefs and character. I think this exemplifies the value of higher education – it can remove the proverbial sticks from our eyes and teach us to see the beauty in all people and appreciate the value of uniqueness and diversity in our world. I am so grateful to my fellow students and my instructors who showed me caring and love and engaged with me in constructive dialogue to make the person I am today, and I am glad that you experienced the same.

      • egg

        I’m glad to hear of someone who had a story similar to mine. It was really disconcerting to go through such a massive reevaluation of my beliefs, and the I feel that the discomfort that comes with that process is prohibitive to encouraging people to begin the process at all. I’ll share my story as much as I can if it encourages people to broaden their minds even just a bit!