Almost every Friday from 3:00 to 4:30 one can find a group of Templeton students and professors alike enjoying a lecture on any number of topics, from Augustine to psychology. This week, however, was no ordinary Honors Forum. Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe and Professor Alexander, of the Eastern University Political Science department, mixed things up and led a thought-provoking discussion and challenged the audience to think carefully about their preconceptions.
Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe began the forum by talking about the roadblocks in genuine political discourse in America today. Amongst all the divisiveness, it seems we have lost the ability, or perhaps the willingness, to listen and hear what another has to say. What does it take to reclaim political discourse? How can we work together once again? Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe and Professor Alexander sought to show how ignorance of underlying assumptions impairs political discourse. One must acknowledge one’s own assumptions, as well as those of others, in order to have a fruitful conversation. With this knowledge people can come together to seek truth.
To demonstrate this Professor Alexander and Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe split the room into groups based on one of the most divisive current political issues: the National Anthem protests. Amidst the moving chairs and people, two things became very clear: first, there were some in the room who would rather not identify their position on this topic for fear of the resentment of their peers. Second, there were some who felt that they did not have a clear position. Once everyone was settled the task was to identify the position each group was taking on the protest, why they were taking that position, and whether or not the position was just and rational.
After a noisy few minutes of discussion within groups, it was time for each group to make their statements. From the side in favor of the protest we heard it argued that what matters is the intent of the protestor. This side of the room claimed that it was not the NFL players’ intent to be disrespectful or make anyone angry; their intent was to bring awareness to a blatant injustice and the need for change. Furthermore, they argued that patriotism calls for this type of awareness to injustice, and that respect for one’s nation loses its importance when the nation does not protect but rather oppresses a large group of its citizens. The bulk of their argument seemed to rest on the fact that NFL players have one of the biggest platforms in America; and as Americans they ought to use it to bring about change. From the opposing group we heard that while NFL players may not have intended disrespect, many American citizens feel the action is disrespectful. While they know it is clearly within the player’s rights to protest, the opposing group felt they ought not do it in this manner because it is further dividing the nation. This side of the room vocalized that they did not have a problem with what the players are protesting but rather the manner in which they choose to do it.
The argument that ensued from some of the statements made, and the emotion and palpable tension that filled the room proved Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe and Professor Alexander’s point exactly. Each side had set out to win the argument. People were out to prove they were right; not to talk about how we could work together to seek truth. For most of us in the Honors College, this reminds us of our first semester Old Testament class with Mr. P in which he gave us some selections from Theodore Zeldin’s Conversation.
The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter. (Zeldin, Conversation CH. 1 Pg. 3)
Conversation is not about winning, it is about seeking truth. Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe and Professor Alexander intended to show just that. The key to political discourse is not rhetoric and the ability to win. Rather, it is the ability to speak and listen charitably and work together in order to seek truth.