Political Conversation

On the first day of classes this fall, I asked the students in the Moral Foundations course I teach to introduce themselves.  In addition to announcing their year and their major, I asked them to say just one sentence about the elections that our country has been in engaged in for many months.  Most of them said something about how crazy it all was, or how unpleasant, or how they hated both candidates.  Some said something in favor of one of the presidential candidates, and a few said how important they thought the election was.  My idea was to get them talking about values more self-consciously right from the outset.

After I introduced myself, I asked if students had any questions for me.  In both sections, someone asked me to say something about my feelings and thoughts about the political situation.   Rather than responding immediately, I asked them whether they thought it was a good idea for me to answer now.  About a third of the class thought I should and another third thought I shouldn’t.  About a third couldn’t decide (or didn’t care).  I asked those on either side what was behind their position, and an interesting conversation ensued about the value of my stating my position.

Some thought it was a bad idea because my views would influence them and I should be neutral.  Others thought my position would be valuable for them to know because I presumably know more and have thought more about it than they have.  Some didn’t think I would influence them because they would remain free to make up their own mind anyway and others worried that they would bend their ideas to agree with me in the interest of a better grade.    Some of those who wanted me to answer admitted they were just curious and hadn’t thought about any of these other issues.

These ten minutes were not the kind of political discussion we often have, where folks have fixed positions and speak without listening, looking for openings to win a point.  It also did not have the spirit of conflict and tension that causes many to want to bow out.  Many students said that they heard things they hadn’t really thought about before.

I pointed out that we had just had a discussion of an important practical question on which people had different views and in which people listened and responded to others with understanding and respect.  It’s not impossible.  Of course, that didn’t mean that we could have gone back to talking liberal and conservative in this way.  Part of the reason we could do what we did was that people felt like participants in a collective practical decision that had immediate interest.  I tend to see the current election this way too.  There is a collective practical decision in which we need to be participants, also called “citizens.”   One serious issue we face, in my view, is that the lack of training and education in citizenship impoverishes our ability to have the productive conversations on which democracy must be based.   I meant to refer not only to traditional civics about how laws are made, but to practical experience in making collective decisions about things that matter.

For what it is worth, I told them at the end of the discussion that I wouldn’t share my political views in this first class, but that I would as the semester unfolded.  I told them I would tell them where I stood when we had prepared the ground for them to know the reasons for my stance.  It would not be good pedagogy, I told them, to say much about this now, when they were in no position to engage with me.  As the semester has gone on, and we’ve spoken about the importance of having reasons for our values and of engaging with others who may hold other values, I have been able to urge them to see preparing to vote as participation in ethical discussion and as a central part of what it means to be human.

I haven’t yet suggested that the weight of reason leads, in my view, toward certain moral and political conclusions about how we should live, or that these conclusions support voting in certain ways, giving the choices we have.   I suppose, I won’t say anything here about that either, though most people who value facts, reason and dialogue will already have leaped to something like the correct conclusion.

What I will notice here is that more patience with the process, more attention to what makes dialogue possible and more cultivation of the skills of making real contact with others can enhance the possibility of pursuing the ideal of a real democracy.   I mean a society where equal citizens rule themselves through their selection of leaders.  The skills we learn and the experience we have in the EE workshop is a small part of this education.  Listening and giving non-judgmental feedback, being real and open to the feedback we receive, and risking crossing barriers to connect with those who seem to be “other” would make our political process more productive and more inviting.