The Limits of Modern “Dialogue”

Stanford students should not let intellectual pride obscure their ability to respect those who disagree.

At Stanford, many people make an admirable effort to inform themselves and substantiate their principles and opinions. Our ability to defend our views with arguments and evidence adds complexity and sincerity to campus debates. Sadly, intellectual pride easily ensnares otherwise great minds, especially since the status of being a Stanford student grants us a veritable badge of intelligence. This dangerous pride makes us forget that other people can and often do disagree with our views and values. Instead, on our charged campus, any opposition to carefully developed opinions, especially from a fellow-student, seems an affront to their validity.

We are passionate about spreading what we perceive to be the truth to others. Activism is both an agent of spreading truth and awareness, and a tool to promote change on the basis of some contested principle. It manifests itself on campus in many forms, from controversial protests to tame, innocuous “dialogue.” From the moment we set foot on campus, initiatives like OpenXChange and events encouraging attendees to share their own perspectives shower us with assurances that Stanford supports diverse views and encourages dialogue between people with opposing viewpoints. Yet among these events and atmosphere, the shock of finding other students who disagree with views we consider obvious often sparks an even greater desire to enlighten the populace with our supposedly superior insight.

This is not to say that pride is dialogue’s sole motivation. Out of charity, a desire to learn more, and friendliness, we strive to better understand our opposition. Constructive conversations, in both official and informal settings, lead many of us to further appreciate the other side or even amend our own views. However, many attempts at dialogue, whether subconsciously or purposefully, devolve into mere pretexts to convince the other side to stop misunderstanding us. Since nobody is infallible, this attitude interferes with keeping a truly open and respectful mind.

Our zeal for dialogue leads to discussion after discussion, forum after forum, bipartisan event after bipartisan event, yet all too often we neither convert the other side nor understand it any better. Many such discussions either involve pointless talking at one another, or erupt into anger. Especially among friends, we often want to find some common ground so we no longer disagree: it is painful to realize that our peers do not share our views, so we examine and unfold the issue in an effort to come to a common understanding. On the other hand, shock can turn to offense when someone takes the disagreement personally, or after many efforts at friendly discussion only result in further annoyance at the stubbornness of an opponent. Accusations fly, and we find ourselves branded with abhorrent and unjustified labels that the “other side” assumes as obvious.

This reveals an important truth Stanford students should recognize: “understanding” does not always bridge our differences. People arguing from fundamentally different principles cannot agree on certain questions. Someone who prioritizes logic over emotion, for example, will never be convinced by someone whose primary argument is grounded in emotional experience and the importance of validating their narrative. Someone who views liberty as the most fundamental right beyond all else will forever be at odds with someone who views material equality more highly. Frustration arises when we realize that no matter how hard we try we will never see things the same way as our opponent. Yet if we focused more on a mutual pursuit of truth and less on why we are right and they are wrong, perhaps we could engage in more thought-provoking discussions and fewer divisive debates. Sometimes this pursuit of truth requires letting go of our disagreements when they threaten our peaceful coexistence, but not letting go of our principles.

Consider the friendship between the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though they vastly diverged on their attitudes toward the Constitution, among many other drastic disagreements, the two sustained a great friendship outside the professional sphere without compromising their core values in any way. If two Supreme Court Justices could enjoy a friendship and discuss important issues while knowing they were fundamentally at odds, then we as students can learn to engage with our peers without a need for constant persuasion masquerading as dialogue for those issues for which we advocate.

In the modern age, social media aggravates the situation even further and adds to the perceived need for dialogue and self-expression. With platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, we can craft our image by publicly advocating for our beliefs. In addition, incentives to gain “likes” and “shares” encourage us to state our positions in not-so-sympathetic terms. Facebook’s recent addition of “Wow” and “Angry” buttons attests to the fact that many statuses are crafted to elicit exactly those reactions, consequently undermining the real-life relationships of people who are also virtual friends. As students first and foremost, we should endeavor to moderate our discussions with our duty to be upstanding and considerate members of our community.

A true spirit of dialogue encourages thought-provoking discussion: a willingness to hear a variety of views that may make us uncomfortable and present our own opinions in a civil and sincere way. Such an atmosphere also demands we suspend our pride in order to respect perspectives we might abhor, open our minds to the truth, and if we are not changed, appreciate the other side without antagonizing them. In short, pursuit of truth and mutual respect should motivate engagement and conversation between opposing views and even ideologies. However, the prevalence of social media encourages us to cultivate a platform and gain a following, whether in the form of ephemeral likes and shares or a concrete group of people united in agreement. This tailored self-expression also pervades campus dialogue, polarizing our conversations and ensuring they explain and present our opinions rather than explore the truth. When our perspectives receive pushback rather than validation, it is all too easy to respond with a restatement of our platform rather than a constructive or thought-provoking exploration into the issue at hand.

While individual and group conversations on thought-provoking or controversial subjects can often lead to wonderful revelations and great opening of minds, a forum of debate under the facade of dialogue often deepens divisions. Sadly, the popular perversion of dialogue often perpetuates uncomfortable and unproductive conversations rather than finding the truth and sustaining a diverse community.

Perhaps instead of calling for “more dialogue” when we desire to restate our views, we should enter into friendly conversation, keeping in mind that we may never fully understand the other side. Our peaceful coexistence depends on this acceptance, rather than a constant desire to change minds with every opportunity.

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