Finding Out the Importance of Open Dialogue



I’ve often worried that I stand in the way of my own philosophical beliefs.  I’ve spent my educational career building a bedrock of intellectual convictions, only to defy them.

Over the weekend, I took the usual walk from my off-campus house to my fraternity; on the way, I passed a dorm window where a series of sticky-notes had been posted by its occupant to spell out “U.S. TROOPS KILL CHILDREN.”   There it was – a message only one-sentence long and crudely made from little pieces of yellow paper, but so poignant.

The Greek community had spent the past few weeks working on the annual “Frats for Forces” event, which raises funds for a charity supporting wounded military personal.  Despite its taxing preparation, the evening has remained so popular in our community because of its symbolic value.  We drink and party the same as any other weekend night, but with the conviction that we’re good patriots who openly support America’s military.  The cause seems so easily supported that I couldn’t have imagined an opposition, but here this little sticky-note sign was.  It clawed at my sense of American pride and also undercut all the effort that we had gone through to put this fundraiser together.  How could this student do that to us?  Our cause was unquestionably good.

I went into my house and sat around with the rest of the guys who had taken similar offense at the sign.  We brooded for a while, getting each other more riled up. Each new comment became a one-up to prove you were the truest patriot at the table.  I tried to beat my chest  louder than the rest and declared that I would lead the charge back to that dorm to confront the protestor.

So we hustled over, the modern day Minute-Men, and stood around outside the window to get ourselves even more excited by the sight of the now infamous sign.  I fed so greatly off this energy of discontent that when I ascended the stairs and knocked on the student’s door, all I could offer was a rambling denunciation.  The others just watched on from a distance as I prattled on about how disrespectful I found the sign and how much they should appreciate the sacrifice of our servicemen.  I was blustery and self-important.  I was single-handedly defending our empire.  When he politely offered his stance, I rejected it and left in a huff.

A few minutes later, another friend walked by the sign and announced a similar plan to confront its poster.  Happy to watch my actions recreated, I followed him in and sat on the staircase to listen.  Just like I had, he told the student that he found the sign grossly inappropriate to post during a fundraiser like this.  And then he did something I hadn’t.  He listened.

The student offered his defense, just as he had to me, but my friend stayed to hear it out.  Then he responded and questioned, the student responded and questioned, and the two of them repeated this process until they appreciated the other’s side.  I wait on the stairs, excited to hear the patriotic cannon presented once more to this student, but walked out when I heard the conversation slow to what I considered a boring exchange.   

Before I’d seen the sign and made my impassioned plea to take it down, I’d attended an academic talk on the importance of intellectual diversity on college campuses.  I had nodded in agreement as professors discussed the perils of the majority’s ability to silence the minority’s voice.  I even pulled one of the speakers aside afterwards to state the importance of engaging in debate and intellectual conflict’s ability to inspire learning.  I reaffirmed my belief in differences of opinion and the debate that follows them.

Then I went home and set myself so thoroughly against someone’s opposition to my ideals that I asked them to take the sign down and told them that with self-assuredness that they were just plain wrong.  I rejected the opportunity for intellectual engagement that a friend far smarter than I had taken.  By casting that student as some anti-American radical, I’d unconsciously placed him outside the rational world and ruined the possibility of mutually-beneficial, intellectual debate – because who debates someone who’s irrational?  Now, I never threatened or intimidated the student in any way, but what I did was worse – I assumed his opinion was wrong because it was antithetical to my own.

I use my commitment to intellectual diversity as an easy way to make myself feel progressive and tolerant, but stomped on it because I refused to allow my own convictions come under question.  Intellectual diversity was for the rest of campus, because they’re the ones who might be wrong and could benefit from some debate.

And that’s how it goes.  Enough people like me get riled up by a sign when we find it so antithetical to our own beliefs that we decide it isn’t even worth having the debate.  Even when we think we are open to healthy dialogue, we are quick to vehemently reject those opposing voices we don’t even want to consider.  They’re silenced by the pressure of our rejection and we’re left with nothing to challenge or advance our views.  We’re left, in that sense, uneducated.

A day later, I reached out to the student to apologize for being so blinded by my own political convictions that I ignored the validity of his own.  In an instance of diplomacy that I don’t think myself capable, he invited me for a drink.  I accepted and we spent the evening discussing the finer points of U.S. foreign policy.  We agreed at times and disagreed at other times, but we spoke.  We shared and explained without yelling or denouncing.  We enjoyed the educational benefits of the intellectual exchange that has to be promoted in the classroom but is typically not.

I left on a much lower horse than the one I rode in on and with a sense of accomplishment that certainly hadn’t accompanied my first encounter.  But on my way out I gave his now bare window a sullen glance, because when he had taken down his sign I had lost.

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