Dialogue and Civil Discourse program to host conversation on mask-wearing, personal liberty
Paige Madden | Wednesday, September 30, 2020
The Dialogue and Civil Discourse program at Saint Mary’s will be hosting “Beyond the Mask Debates” this Wednesday on the O’Laughlin Patio at 6 p.m. The event will discuss the balance between public health and personal liberty surrounding wearing a mask.
The Dialogue and Civil Discourse program was introduced to the Saint Mary’s community in 2017. Professor Zwart, associate professor and chair of the department of philosophy, and a few of her students formed the idea of a program that would focus on helping students have productive conversations about controversial issues with family and friends after seeing the results of the 2016 presidential election on relationships.
After receiving a grant from Campus Compact in 2017, the course PHIL 291: Dialogue and Civil Discourse began. This one-credit course meets once a week and focuses on helping students develop skills to engage in conversations with others who have different views on social and political issues, such as abortion, the Second Amendment, kneeling for the anthem and racial justice, Zwart said.
“I’ve had students tell me that they have learned skills that help them have productive conversations with family members for the first time in months, or that help them get through Thanksgiving dinner without tension,” Zwart said.
The program has six student leaders involved in all aspects of the project. Junior Vanessa Hawkins is a leader in the project, and as expressed in her biography on the project’s GoogleSite, she said she understands the difficulty in expressing one’s beliefs and listening to others’ viewpoints on controversial topics.
“I think the Dialogue and Civil Discourse project will have a large impact on the Saint Mary’s campus because we can promote and educate others about useful skills when engaging in difficult conversations,” Hawkins said.
The event Wednesday on the topic of mask-wearing will be facilitated by Hawkins and senior Mia Marroquin, Zwart said.
(Editor’s Note: Marroquin is the Saint Mary’s News Editor for The Observer.)
“I have found that by vocalizing my beliefs about mask-wearing I can listen for my own inconsistencies,” Hawkins said. “My hope for this discussion is that others begin to recognize inconsistencies in their beliefs and behaviors related to mask-wearing.”
It is expected that students will have differing opinions on the topic, Zwart said, but that is what makes the conversations interesting.
“We’ll try to avoid the binary debate of ‘mask’ or ‘no mask’ and think critically about when the public good justifies some sacrifices of personal freedoms,” Zwart said.
Students are not expected to do anything in particular to prepare for the event. The program will provide some context about mask-wearing debates and make connections between mask-wearing, public health and personal liberty.
The project’s first event Sept. 22 was open to first-year students and was centered around building a strong community from the start.
The group was small — only 7 students plus Zwart and two student leaders — but Zwart said the conversation was very thoughtful.
“I appreciated the student leaders’ willingness to share their own experiences, including what they wish they had known as first-year students, and what they have learned since about productive dialogue, listening and engaging on social media,” she said.
In years to come, Zwart said she hopes to see the program become more popular around campus. It has already grown since the one-credit class started in 2017, with a student leadership program and first-year workshops during orientation and the first year common course, SPLL 101.
The project collects anonymous data from students who voluntarily fill out surveys throughout their involvement. The project is still collecting enough data to see if any evidence of larger change is reflected from students, but Zwart said she has already seen changes within different individuals.
Soon, the program will reach faculty and staff through other programming.
“I would love for this program, especially through the work of the student leaders, to set a tone on campus that we can be curious about others’ views, while still being passionate in our own convictions,” Zwart said.