An educated person is someone who humbly acknowledges that they do not have all of the answers. Two educated persons may vehemently disagree with each other, but they both understand that they cannot let their discourse descend into barbaric fighting. Thus, civil discourse is the primary manifestation of education. In our polarized political environment, civil discourse has been relegated to the sidelines of society. Emotive rallies have replaced logical discussions. Yet, having tough conversations is the only way we can lift our society above its divisions and heal our divides.
The Political Roundtable, deliberately a group of faculty and students, was founded to promote respectful and effective debate and create a protected environment for disagreement, regardless of age or background. As President, my purpose is not only to moderate our discussions, but to select engaging topics and expand our membership. However, rapid growth is not necessarily always a positive. In recent weeks, as we have discussed such polemical issues as abortion access and feminism in contemporary America, I have recognized a worrying trend. Our membership has increased from close to ten active participants to over thirty. Do not misunderstand me—that is excellent. But that fact is, four sessions ago, when we discussed the government shutdown, we had four boys and four girls. In the sessions after that, when our topics concerned women’s issues, we had twenty-nine boys and eight girls, twenty-six boys and four girls, and twenty-eight boys and three girls, respectively. Accordingly, our discussions have devolved from intellectual pursuits to rowdy spectator sports. Perhaps that can be attributed to my moderation skills. Or maybe our topics. But regardless of who one is, this gender-based stratification and according break-down of discussions is a concern.
I do not fully know why these demographics are the way that they are. I do know, though, that even some of the girls who regularly attend come not out of genuine interest, but because they feel that if they don’t, they will have succumbed to the trend aforementioned. Neither is our student body’s or faculty’s gender composition significantly skewed in either direction. So, are boys somehow predisposed to participating in political discussions? Are girls innately quiet? I don’t subscribe to either of these theories. But what then is the cause of this divide?
Several lines of research suggest that boys tend to emotionally mature more slowly than their female peers. If we recognize this trend, then some rationale for our problem appears; the level of intellectual maturity required to sit quietly and listen to someone express an opinion that differs from what one believes and may even threaten what he considers his way of life, is quite tough. Girls may more easily do this, due in large part to their greater maturity, but also from the empowerment presented in the media in recent years. Thus, while our problem is a widespread one, and may be difficult to resolve, it is not a complex one. I do have a potential solution though, one that will not only increase the level of discussion we experience in the Roundtable, but also help all of us become more effective conversationalists and more educated people, no matter who we are.
What many of us have recognized in Political Roundtable meetings is that we often seem to be having thirty separate conversations under the guise of having one. Rather than using each time we speak to further the collective discussion, to contribute a perspective not previously considered, we sometimes use the time to engage in personal clashes; on Fridays during lunch, room 206 becomes a battlefield. It is easy to take comfort in groups, to put our arms around each other’s shoulders, and laugh when someone whispers a joke or “roasts” someone else. It is tough to sit quietly and participate in a dialogue, alternating between speaking, actively listening, and introspecting. But there is incredible value in understanding people’s perspectives, even if one does not agree with them. We must value respectful discussions, even—especially—when they are uncomfortable.
If not for any reason besides strengthening one’s own position, understanding disagreeing views is important. The reason why the Supreme Court creates such beautiful opinions is because of the circulation of dissents that strengthen the majority opinions. By listening and processing other perspectives, one can not only craft effective rebuttals, but also develop stronger personal relationships. I implore all, including myself, to follow this suggestion.
Thus, I call on all boys to help me create a more comfortable and respectful Roundtable. Follow the aforesaid advice and the results will be incredible. Make eye contact, and truly listen. Be deferential. The onus is not only on boys though. Girls must be willing to attend and make their voices heard. In time, I have no doubt that the Political Roundtable will become more inclusive and effective.
I say to all—do not be afraid of being vulnerable, open. My and many people’s favorite teachers, and favorite people, have been those who have been frank enough to ask us questions. Be satisfied simply from witnessing vigorous, yet respectful, discussion. Our goal is not to resolve political issues—which are nothing more than conduits to our true purpose—but to understand each other’s positions and inform ourselves. We are fortunate to be able to participate in such an important process. We should not squander it.