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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.


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