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  • Reverend James Squire

What's Needed To Have Difficult Discussions

I wrote yesterday about a statement that was meant to be humorous but pointed the way to a breakdown in civil discussions. “If you bring up politics at your Thanksgiving table, you will have to give far less Christmas presents.” Whether it be Hamas and Israel, partisan politics, are everyday conversations, there are certain topics that can’t be discussed and therefore solved. They are called “covert rules” in family therapy. The Pope recently used two words, terrorism and genocide, in a meeting with families of Israel hostages and Palestinian families that didn’t go down well with either group.

As a graduate of Yale and Duke, I get a number of emails about the hot topics of the day and how these two universities address them such as “Don’t argue. Just talk data.” These two universities have a large number of faculty, but the person who seemed to get the most press at Duke was Dr. John Rose who holds a PH.D. in theology from Princeton and is a devout Christian.

He teaches courses at Duke such as “Political Polarization’ and today’s hottest issues. He is now also running summer seminars in his style and approach as well as seminars for the business school at Duke. Everyone wants to know the secret to why his classes are the most popular on campus to the point that a current parent, Gerry Seinfeld, would be a visitor to his class. He is a hot topic with the Chronicle for Higher Education as well as the Wall Street Journal.

When I read Rose’s articles in 2021 and 2023, I felt like I had found a long last brother. What is missing in our world is the ability to have difficult conversations about hot topics that lead to resolutions where both sides feel heard, understood, and can move forward to enjoy the experience as opposed to seeing the discussion as something to be avoided at all cost.

My course in Ethics at EA operated in the same way as his did at Duke. There is really nothing new under the sun. We discover what works and heals in each moment when we bring people today who see things differently.

Let me share from his articles where we found the same truth. He surveyed 110 students at Duke. 68% said they self-censored around topics even around good friends.

“To get students to stop censoring, a few agreed on class principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say you are in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and all opinions can be voiced, provided that they are offered with a spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they no longer talk.” I would add that students called my course Full Contact Ethics where once you entered the room, you were responsible to share your point of view with no attacks on another person, and each person was expected to make a contribution. The students assumed others thought a particular way when they learned that they didn’t. “When you actually know others, they aren’t an abstraction onto which you can project your own political narratives.”

Steinfeld visited Rose’s class because he heard that in talking about hot topics that there was joy and not fear in the classroom. Obviously, trust is involved. Rose did as I did to choose topics that students would self-censor and create an environment where they felt safe.

The most important part of this process is that I am not the most important person in the classroom. The teacher, or political leader, or family member MUST have that attitude for this to work. The students, the political folks under a leader, and a family member, are the most important. Rose uses a word that was always on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t articulate it. Rose said, “He is the ringmaster!” The people don’t come to the circus to see the ringmaster. They come to see the various roles that they don’t see otherwise like the person riding the elephant or the men or women on flying trapeze. The ringmaster points out their gifts as they circle around the ring. However, without the ringmaster they would lose their sense of their own importance and bump into one another interrupting the positive flow.

We don’t teach this stuff early enough in families, communities, political parties, etc. It’s getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden with a need for the tools to thrive. Think of the reverse of this environment which is the current state of our world. It has to start with agreement on the rules so that others can flourish. The problem today is everybody wants to be a person in power which is seen in the rise of the far right in the Netherlands and South America as well as Trump’s version of America.

“Conservatives should uphold their commitment to passing down wisdom. Progressives can make this reality remain true to your tradition of liberalism.”

During one Alumni Weekend at EA, I had a former member of my ethics class ask if he could come to the class that day. I normally don’t allow anyone in as it breaks the trust that has developed and the dynamic changes. Trust is the missing link in all of our local, national, and international issues. You gain trust by dealing with difficult issues. But I said that this former student could come. He was a great student/athlete at our school and was now a very successful financial guy who went to a great university. It was last period on a Friday, but the students were still up for the class. About mid class one student asked another student about an issue, and the student replied that he didn’t have an opinion on it. Our guest jumped up and said, “When you get out in the real world, you aren’t going to be able to say I don’t have an opinion on that. People will be looking to you to solve problems and not memorized facts. This is the most important course that I have taken in my life, and then he sat down.”

The former student was not from The Journal of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal or from The Duke Magazine, but the guy made my day for if you are the ringmaster, you have to be aware that the students are what makes a class great and unforgettable and not me or Netanyahu, Biden, or the family member who thinks that he or she is always right and will only have it his or her own way. “Not always right but never in doubt.”:

Let me leave you with a counter quote about discussing politics at your Thanksgiving dinner table from one of my favorite poets, Yeats: “Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.”

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