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Class promotes civil discourse, hosts workshop

| Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Throughout the semester, a group of Saint Mary’s students participated in class on civil discourse. In order to showcase their work, the class hosted a workshop on Tuesday focused on dialogue surrounding controversial issues.

This event aimed to teach those in attendance the skills that students learned throughout the semester in a civil discourse class. Attendees engaged in small group discussions where they focused on listening to people with differing opinions and worked to prompt open and civil discussion about controversial issues.

“The idea for this course came about after the election, when many students told me that they wanted more opportunities to understand people who didn’t share their political perspectives,” Megan Zwart, professor of philosophy, said.

Zwart said she was looking for a politically diverse group of students for the class, and found 24 students from every political view.

“There’s a true ideological difference represented here, and a high level of political engagement,” she said. “Every week in this class, I was reminded that people are more complex and interesting than we typically think. The hyper-partisan environment we live in has invested interest in making us believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is a one-dimensional cartoon super villain. Believe it or not, most people who disagree with us are not.”

People diminish the complexity of those with differing views is because it makes the world easier to navigate, Zwart said. However, she said this is not something people should buy into.

“Refusing to reduce people to your assumptions of them doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fight valiantly for things that matter to you,” she said. “You can advocate for positions that matter to you, and you can listen to people who disagree with you along the way. It’s tempting to believe that listening to someone who disagrees with you is effectively endorsing their position, but it isn’t.

“The belief that we automatically compromise our own value just by listening to someone else’s is poisonous. If ideological purity is incompatible with hearing someone out, if the fear of being wrong makes us incapable of testing our own views for inconsistencies, if fear of conflict makes us shy away from transformative engagements, then we have capitulated to those who have an interest in further dividing us. Frankly … in that case, we’re probably doomed as a species.”

Students who took the class shared their reflections on the course before the attendees took part in their own civil discussions.

Senior Rachel Pennington said the class made her more comfortable discussing controversial issues and looking at all sides of an argument.

“It has also made me step back and broadly reevaluate the issues we discuss in class,” she said. “As college students, we’re so wrapped up in our classes that we fail to notice what is going on in the news or events that are currently affecting society. I think this class is important because it keeps people in the loop about issues going on around them, and it supports skills for civil dialogue.”

First year Katie Williams said prior to the class, she struggled to find a way to discuss controversies without letting emotions getting in the way.

“This class gave the opportunity to talk with a more diverse group than I’ve ever known,” she said. “Even though the class was only two and a half hours, the discussions we had spilled over into my friend groups to the point where we’d be talking about issues I never thought we’d be able to in a civil way, where we’d get to some sort of common ground without looking to change each other’s opinions.”

First year Lia Acri said discussing controversial issues did not automatically become easier after learning the skills in this class.

“Many times in both small and large group discussion, I felt uncomfortable due to views that I do not agree with and felt hesitant to express my own views,” she said. “Throughout the course, this discomfort acted as a way of informing me how to present my own opinions thoughtfully. I had to think about the underlying causes of being uncomfortable. Whether it stems from insecurity about the origins of my beliefs or past failure in respectful dialogue, I’ve learned that some issues are inherently uncomfortable to discuss, so we should be even more inclined to discuss them.”

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About Nicole Caratas

Nicole is a senior English Writing and Humanistic Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. Now a senior news writer, she previously served as the Saint Mary's Editor. She was born in real Chicago but grew up in the suburbs, and she currently lives in Opus Hall.

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