Yesterday afternoon I moderated a dialogue at UST law school sponsored by two student groups – the St. Thomas More Society, our Catholic law student association, and Outlaw, which educates members regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. The subject of the dialogue was same-sex marriage and related issues.
Recognizing that there are sharply divergent views on this issue but that we live as part of the same community, the students hoped that their dialogue would allow them to “find a level of understanding and, if possible, commonality that will allow us to engage each other in more respectful and loving ways without losing sight of substance and real differences in our views.”
We had four panelists (two students from each of the sponsoring groups). They started the dialogue by each making an initial statement of who they were, why the issue was important to them and what their perspective was. They then each posed one question to the members of the other group, after which we invited participation by the audience.
I was very proud of both the four students who were the panelists and of all those in the audience who participated in the discussion. Diverse views were expressed – and some quite strongly. But the conversation was conducted in a respectful manner, without any of the name-calling or other insulting behavior that often accompanies such discussion. What I experienced was people trying to both convey their own views and to understand the views of those with whom they disagreed. And what I saw was an emphasis on how to be in relationship with each other…how to love. It was particularly rewarding to listen to the four panelists talk about how they grew in relationship with each other during their long discussions in preparation for the event.
One of the students on the panel drew a distinction I thought was an important one for diverse people trying to live in community – a distinction between changing views and broadening perspectives. The former, he observed, is not necessary for the latter to take place. And that is really what yesterday’s dialogue was about – not an effort by anyone to change the mind of the other (an effort that often results in hostility and defensiveness), but a mutual effort to help (very small) part in it.
Great that the students got to know one another better in preparation for the dialogue. Something disturbs me about the general idea I hear that trying to change people’s minds is futile. It may be true in some, even most, communities that people are fixed in biases and unable to reason, but I would hope that wouldn’t be true in a law school. It is true people get defensive when they feel forced or manipulated, but in a community where reason is valued, good rational arguments aren’t viewed as force or manipulation. Everyone presumably comes into the conversation with an inquiring mind, reasoned arguments are made, and the most valid, evidence grounded arguments carry the most weight. Isn’t part of the educational process to become free of emotional investment in a particular set of ideas? I know this is a life-long task and student life is just the beginning of getting free.
Paula: I was inartful in my phrasing if it seemed like I was suggesting that tryin to change someone else’s mind is futile.
It is, of course possible for people to change their minds. But on issues like this I think people tend to react defensively when they think people are trying to force them to change their minds.
An important first step to dialogue is increased understanding and broadening perspectives. From that it may be that minds will change. But I think if one goes into this kind of discussion with the attitude that the goal is to change the other’s mind, it easily leads to a way of relating that minimizes the possibility that will occur…and that certainly minimizes the possibility of loving dialogue.
I know what you mean, Susan. Some issues are more emotionally charged than others. When you say “issues like this” I take it you are referring to the subject of the dialogue, same-sex marriage. I am thinking part of the emotional charge comes from the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has an inflexible position on the issue. If a person loves the Church and identifies strongly with the institutional community, it is very hard to think freely on a subject the leaders have declared closed. Loyalty to the Church means you dig in your heels on its position. I think it would be good to approach the issue as we do every other subject of inquiry with an open mind as to the arguments that are most logical and well grounded in evidence. If we did that, it wouldn’t make any sense to talk about forcing people to change their minds. The object of both sets of minds would be to come to the most reasonable, faithful, and compassionate conclusion we can reach at the time. There would be a lot more coming to understanding which I take to be the end of communication. So the culprit, in my view, is the fixed ideological position. What do you think?