Changing the conversation
As heated arguments between opposing parties have become the norm in an ever-polarized society, Loyola faculty are helping students bring back a little civility
By Anna Gaynor
The overwhelming ubiquitousness of social media—and the internet in general—offers us the opportunity to easily make connections with people all around the world. Unfortunately, it also seems to offer just as many opportunities to create and reinforce divisions.
It’s easier than ever to avoid opposing viewpoints online and to anonymously shout down anyone who offers a different perspective. People can seek out only the news sources and opinions that align with their already held beliefs, confirming rather than challenging their worldview. These self-imposed ideological quarantines have greatly contributed to our current polarized culture, resulting in an environment where healthy debate and civil discourse can hardly thrive.
That’s something Michael Murphy, director of Catholic Studies and associate director of Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, hopes he can help change. As an educator who has taught everyone from kindergarteners to post-doctoral students in the past 25 years, Murphy has seen a marked difference over the past five in how students debate issues.
“With technological advances, the media-saturated culture, and the very nearness of media to us all, people were getting a little more intense about the big ideas and really not navigating it in ways that were charitable and humane,” Murphy says.
As a Jesuit, Catholic University with a social justice mission, Loyola continues a tradition of fostering a diverse community where civil discourse and civic engagement are strongly encouraged. It is essential in today’s society—especially with so much division—to take on difficult issues and to discuss them in a respectful manner. Showing students how to navigate these often challenging conversations is a task Loyola faculty don’t take lightly—and for Murphy, a strong liberal arts education is a very important part of that.
“All of a sudden, we wake up and there is a breach in civil discourse,” he says. “The connection is that people do not really do the reading or are hungry or curious—I’m not wagging my finger—but the curiosity about the things that matter in life compete against these other quick things. It’s hard for a person to be balanced in that tradition, which really is a Loyola tradition. So, we’re holding on to get it back a little bit.”
And getting that back might mean looking back—all the way to 1546. While St. Ignatius wrote thousands of letters, it’s a specific letter to his brothers at the Council in Trent that Murphy believes represents the Jesuit tradition, a tradition of simply talking to one another (see sidebar). In “On Dealing with Others,” Ignatius writes:
Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent.
Murphy understands that encouraging students to have conversations and dialogue isn’t necessarily the most exciting approach to civil discourse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. “It really is the best way,” he says. “It’s easy to throw blows. It’s harder to dialogue. So if it’s harder, it usually is more worth our time.”
Another Loyola faculty member has been looking even further into the past to examine today’s political discourse. In his classes at the School of Communication, assistant professor George Villanueva focuses on Aristotle. Specifically, Villanueva asks students to use the philosopher’s Rhetorical Triangle, a framework that breaks down arguments into three elements: logic (logos), ethics (ethos), and emotion (pathos).
Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, or any other type of analytical approach, gives students a framework to analyze political speeches and media from the past as well as today. Students can recognize that a speaker who reads off a list of dry facts and figures has an excess of logos, while their opponent, who uses their speech to tell the story of a family impacted by an issue, is leaning more on pathos. This academic knowledge of how speeches work can help establish ground rules for when students find themselves in the midst of debate.
“Obviously everything is personal, but I try to refer back to the course material and some analytical terms that we’ve been learning in the class,” Villanueva says. “So we can try to take a step a back and understand this within that analytical term, and how rhetoric or communication theories can be applied to this current event or debate.”
From his own experience, Don Heider, dean of the School of Communication, recognizes that emotions can play a large role, and sometimes an obstacle, in these types of disagreements. “I definitely don’t disagree with passion, but we’ll never have civil discourse if we are too emotionally invested in an issue,” Heider says. “What’s missing, I think, in a lot of discourse these days is the ability to actually listen to another human being and try to understand and appreciate what they’re feeling—even though you assume you understand them. It’s a big mistake.”
In his theology courses, Murphy encourages students to talk about and analyze divisive issues. He takes a different approach than Villanueva—but has a similar agenda.
Murphy asks his students to remove themselves from the debate, meaning they have to avoid any “I” statements. Instead, Murphy wants them to understand the entire issue, and that means understanding the full spectrum of opinions on the subject. On each side of a white board, he’ll write the two opposite positions in a debate and then fill in the less extreme views that fall between them.
“The agenda in the classroom is to say: All right, let’s put these things into play,” Murphy says. “Where we objectively put the ideas next to one another, divorced of my opinion, and to encourage students to be sober in their dealing with them.”
Villanueva often brings community organizers and advocates into his classes to discuss their work and the challenges they face. While they have specific views and positions that they are arguing for, they’re also the people who are out having real one-on-one encounters—talking to neighbors, knocking doors, and just being physically present.
“I think we need to return to conversation in some kind of physical presence, otherwise we’re just going to be susceptible to media,” he says. “Media is great, don’t get me wrong. I love media. I study media, but I know that without any conversation in the physical presence, you can’t get anywhere.”
In class, Villanueva sees that students want a better way to connect, and he encourages them to have more face-to-face conversations—rather than getting involved in the one-sided ones they can find behind their keyboards or phones. The challenge, he admits, is getting them to accept disagreement and be willing to be uncomfortable.
“I think we’re way too stuck with thinking that agreement is the goal,” he says. “It can’t be the goal. History has taught us, agreement is never there. How do you actually be uncomfortable with being in disagreement and just working through these discussions—and sometimes knowing that some of this is going to be painful?”
Some of that discomfort comes from recognizing others’ feelings and motivations and realizing they may be different from your own. Murphy believes asking questions to understand a different viewpoint is key, such as, “Why in your heart or your mind do you think this way?" or "What are you worried about if something else happens?”
“It’s not anything too complicated,” Murphy says. “I seek for a deeper understanding and I don’t want to use the ‘I’ statements to defend myself. I’m more interested in what you feel about it.
“The grace part comes in when we have the courage and the willingness to be open to others’ points of view, and in the art of discussing these things in a civil manner.”