The Corner

Politics & Policy

Can the American Right and Left Get Back to Civil Debate?

For decades, things have been going the opposite way, as Americans get angrier and angrier over political disagreements. We’ve reached the point where many automatically denounce and try to silence people they perceive as enemies even before they’ve heard what the individual has to say.

The good news is that some organizations are trying to remind us that we’re better off with civil discourse rather than rancorous name-calling. In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins writes about that, focusing especially on a group called Better Angels.

Watkins writes, “Better Angels centers its work around conducting ‘Red/Blue’ workshops and facilitating debates on college campuses. The first Better Angels workshop took place three weeks after the 2016 election. There were twenty participants: Ten who voted for Donald Trump and ten who voted for Hillary Clinton. For all workshops, the leaders first lay some ground rules before the group activities begin. The first rule is that no one is there to change anyone’s mind, but instead to learn how to listen. Second, they emphasize that no one is being asked to compromise their values.”

Learning how to listen — college students shouldn’t have to learn that, but for years of their lives, many students have been hearing that those who disagree with them are evil, stupid, or both and listening to them is not merely a waste of time, but a betrayal of the right values. Overcoming that mindset will be hard.

Watkins also discusses the recent book How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, which will help people get America back on track as far as political disagreements are concerned.

She concludes, “As Better Angels and the authors of How to Have Impossible Conversations repeatedly underscore, having productive conversations across ideological divides is not about avoiding disagreement, or refraining from asking pointed questions. Instead, it’s about shifting one’s attitude away from winning to understanding. That change in mindset, if adopted by most Americans, could go a long way to healing the country’s unraveling social fabric.”

Higher education leaders should see this as one of their main tasks.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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