Teaching America to Talk

THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY’S BERKLEY CENTER FOR RELIGION, PEACE & WORLD AFFAIRS AS PART OF THEIR MILLENNIAL VALUES PROJECT, FOR WHICH I WAS SELECTED AS A MILLENNIAL VALUES FELLOW IN 2012.

One of my friends at Boston University has a dream. It might not sound quite as inspirational as world peace or ending starvation in Africa, but it is important. He wants our country to rediscover the ability to have civil conversation. He told me about his plan one afternoon, his idea to organize a huge event—”our generation’s Woodstock,” he called it—centered on making dialogue happen.

But that’s just talking, people might say. Just words. Is there any real value in that?


In our fragmented and disputing country, the answer is yes. We have a problem here in America with honest conversation. Our television screens and radio channels are full of blustering pundits and biased networks. We don’t hesitate to bash the opinions of those we disagree with, without taking the time to deeply examine our own convictions and justifications.

A few weeks ago, my liberal mother—born and raised in Jersey—went to a meeting of Democratic women she had heard about in our town in South Carolina. The fact that there were even enough Democratic women to form a group in our Bible Belt town is surprising enough, but even more surprising was the derision my mother was met with in the group as soon as she mentioned she was married to a Republican (my father is a proud conservative). They were aghast at the match, incredulous that she could love a man who would vote for a McCain or Romney. She ended up leaving the meeting early, and came home citing the irony that she was too liberal for my father’s friends but evidently too conservative-loving to be accepted among the bluest of the blue-hearted Democrats.

I’ve found this same kind of reaction in my experiences at Boston University. Granted, I have met plenty of open-minded people in New England. But I have also met people who cannot fathom why a person would join the Republican party—or be in favor of flat tax rates, or against entitlement programs, and so on. They turn conservatives into the “other,” some foreign beings with whom they are convinced they could never find commonalities. The same is true in the South, where plenty of Republicans are quick to stereotype Northerners as yuppies with no understanding of the common man.

This frustrates me. As a child of parents with polar-opposite political positions, I am able to see both points of view. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with both of them, I can respect the opinions they hold. People have reasons for what they believe, whether it be religion or personal experience or parentage, and we cannot reach those reasons and that understanding unless we talk. This is why I am with my friend on organizing opportunities for dialogue, on breaking past the gridlock that has stalled our political and social worlds right now.

We are quick to start arguments, but let us try starting conversations instead.

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