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Here, we talk politics

| Wednesday, August 12, 2020

First things first –– from the leaders and members of BridgeND, from whom you’ll be hearing in a biweekly column this year, welcome back to campus!

It’s impossible to ignore the ways in which the next few months will be different from an ordinary semester at Notre Dame with contact among friends limited. And regrettably, although also understandably, Notre Dame will no longer host candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden on campus in September for the first presidential debate, which promised to be the center of gravity for countless campus events and discussions leading up to it. 

But despite the COVID-19 pandemic, our obligation to engage in good faith political conversations with our friends, classmates, professors and other members of the campus community has not gone anywhere. Although we might have to be more creative in searching for occasions for dialogue, we still need them in order to form deep and well-rounded friendships and bonds with the other members of our University community. After all, long before presidential debates were televised spectacles held in University pavilions, the press and the citizens of the United States of America have participated in spirited public discourse on political issues –– precisely because we know that our political beliefs aren’t supposed to be silently guarded, revealed only to like-minded conspirators or in the secrecy of the voting booth. 

We have an obligation not to shy away from disagreement –– the natural tendency to preserve comfortable conversation but instead to speak our minds freely, respectfully and courageously to challenge our peer’s beliefs, and in the process, our own. We at BridgeND call on our fellow students to recommit themselves to civil dialogue with classmates, roommates, friends and professors, and to recognize that our education and the mission of this University calls us to a higher standard of empathy, honesty and respect in our discourse. 

We are called to empathy. Because every one of our perspectives has been altered and shaped by our background and circumstances, we should recognize that no one has an absolute claim to their perspective being impartial or free from bias. A productive conversation should always start from a place of understanding, and we should be willing to afford others the same presumption of good faith that we expect they should afford us. 

We are called to honesty. We expect our partners in conversation to speak candidly and honestly about their beliefs and the process of forming them, and we must likewise prepare ourselves for that conversation by asking ourselves difficulty questions. Why did I actually come to believe the opinions I espouse, and how does that differ from the defense of those opinions I might give in an argument? What would be sufficient to convince me that my views are wrong? Where are my blind spots, and where can I acknowledge that I should learn from the experience, knowledge or authority of others? If we are not willing to ask ourselves these questions, then we enter dialogue without a clear understanding of our own beliefs and opinions –– and we are much more likely to shift the goalposts to favor our attachment to our prior beliefs. 

We are called to respect. Respect for our interlocutors entails attentive listening, which is the only way we may come to a mutual understanding. Moreover, respect is not something that our side has justifiably earned, or which our most distasteful opponents no longer deserve; it’s an obligation that falls on us, no matter to whom we are talking. This process of listening is also a persuasion technique. Because we so often inherit our beliefs from sources we trust, allowing a conversation partner to talk through their thoughts may cause them, or you, to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their argument. 

There are significant countervailing forces in our society that encourage us to strategically, or simply unconsciously, jettison these commitments to empathy, honesty and respect. You may think that it’s unreasonable to extend empathy to people whose own politics don’t value empathy, or that it’s unrealistic to afford the presumption of good faith to every anonymous account you encounter on social media. But while these sentiments might be understandable, they aren’t conducive to a healthy politics or political discourse. Rather than try to rationalize them, we should try to replace the circumstances that produce them with settings in which we can practice these values. Seek to replace griping about your political opponents with talking to them. And while we will not reach consensus on every issue –– politics is rarely so straightforward –– we will at least have done our part in converting our present culture of dishonest disagreement into one that is more sincere. 

Finally –– and we’ll go to the book on this one –– we are called to vote. We add our voices to the chorus of exhortations of young people to cast their ballots and make their voices heard. NDVotes has constructed a guide that will take you through how to vote based on your state of residence.

We are excited to see the Notre Dame family foster a culture of political engagement heading into an undoubtedly contentious, but nevertheless important, election season. BridgeND will be holding weekly meetings to discuss pertinent policy issues and will be hosting multiple events this semester designed to help attendees form more in-depth beliefs. We encourage you to join us at our meetings, and even if you don’t do that, to contribute to the campus culture of civil dialogue. If you are right, you have an obligation to convince others. iIf you are wrong, you have an obligation to figure out where and why. In either case, healthy political discourse is an essential component of a flourishing campus community and a complete education, and we urge everyone this semester to speak up. HERE, we make our voices heard.

Gregory Miller and Patrick Aimone are the co-presidents of BridgeND, a non-partisan political education and discussion group that seeks to bridge the political divide and raise the standard for political discourse at Notre Dame. BridgeND meets weekly on Mondays at 5 p.m. You can contact the club at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

Contact Bridge