Anyone who pays attention to the news gets a regular dose of misery, as media outlets, and the people they quote, seem to vie for more alarming ways to recount the gridlock, stonewalling, and infighting of our nation’s leaders.
I’ve wondered if these situations are as bad as described, or if the descriptions cause the various players to act the way they are depicted (rising or sinking to expectations). What if officials X and Y were called “thoughtful and cooperative” instead? Would they try to be? And if others believed X and Y had been thoughtful and cooperative about something, would that have an impact on how they might approach X and Y in the future, perhaps setting the stage for a more fruitful encounter?
I realize the dynamics are more complex than this, but there’s no doubt that certain rhetoric can help create the very situations we are trying to abate. The national discussions about gun control and immigration reform employ loaded language and assumptions on each side of the debate, which, I believe, are not helping us find solutions to these problems and sometimes make things worse. The same can be said for discussions about same-sex marriage, or decriminalizing drugs, or affirmative action in higher education, or gender identity, or underage drinking, or women serving in combat, or immigration reform. Almost any topic comes with sets of assumptions and related rhetoric that can stop understanding in its tracks. Once people embrace assumptions, true understanding hasn’t a chance. This pattern is woven into the fabric of our society.
This is where I believe Middlebury comes in. We have an important role to play in influencing how our society converses. I think we can lead by example.
We have been making a concerted effort on campus to advance the skill and the art of talking together. We’ve set up safe places, centered on respect, where people can talk directly with one another about whatever is important to them and strive for mutual understanding—from Justalks, which debuted in J-term, to campus Open Forums to public panel discussions and other venues. I have been heartened by how many students have participated, how seriously they have taken their part, and how eager they are to learn.
I see “Middlebury dialoguing” as a hopeful step—one that could change our society’s reckless conversational habits, because when Middlebury students learn to listen to others and to reach deep understanding, they will be able to plant the seeds of understanding wherever they go. These skills, learned and practiced here, can be taught to others and can make ripples that will sustain over time.
I welcome your comments and observations. Do you think college students can raise the level of discourse in this country? Do you have other suggestions that might change the tone of debate here and in the wider community?
—Shirley M. Collado