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On Civility and “Enthusiasm for Difference”

“The need to approach others with enthusiasm for difference is absolutely critical to any change. I’m the toughest of fighters. I love a good fight, and I love to win. But I think what I have learned is that you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other and that if we can’t figure out how to do that and there isn’t the crack in the middle where there are some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue.”  –  Frances Kissling, activist and president of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy from her interview on the program On Being with Krista Tippett.

Like many of us, this past week’s hearings related to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court disturbed me.  And I know that many of our students were thinking deeply about the issues around Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of sexual assault that she alleges took place when she and Judge Kavanaugh were in high school themselves.  One of our seniors even had the opportunity to participate in a panel on CBS This Morning’s national broadcast last week regarding the issues.

Over the weekend I listened to the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett.  As I listened I was struck by how relevant her program this week is for students today, and the skills and dispositions that are going to be important for them as they navigate an ever increasing complex world in their journey to adulthood.  The title of this week’s program was, “What Is Good in the Position of the Other.”  Krista Tippett interviewed Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice and current president of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy.  Kissling is controversial among both the pro-life and the pro-choice movements as she tends to believe that there are valid points from both sides.  She argues that the issue is complex and that by trying to distill the issue to one that is clear cut with no “gray” does a disservice to important dialogue that would be good for our society.  “When people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come out of that.  But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other, and we don’t understand each other, ” says Kissling.

No matter where we stand politically, or what we believe about the testimonies of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, I maintain that it is critical to find ways to encourage civil discourse and create a space that is safe for different points of view to be expressed.  In our increasingly polarized environment, we must protect the values of respect and empathy.  Regardless of one’s political views, it is important that students feel that they can express their thoughts safely.  Ensuring our students find their voice is more critical than ever as we work with them to gain the skills that will serve them well to tackle the complicated problems of our age. As they continue in their life journey, they will need to collaborate and communicate with people who are different from them in their views, beliefs and experiences.  As important as it is for students to feel safe expressing different points of view is to facilitate students’ ability to maintain an open heart and mind, to listen deeply, maintain respect for each other and attempt to understand.  As Kissling aptly put it, “The point of listening is to bring our lives into conversation, which is the original meaning of conversation:  to live among, be familiar with, keep company.  This points at the richness that civility might hold — an idea that is ours to invent anew– as something full-blooded and muscular, more culture-shifting and reality based than a choice between politeness and argument.”  

At Roycemore we seek ways to encourage such respectful dialogue through homeroom conversations in the lower school and advisory in middle and upper school.  In November, we will also be commencing a three part “intercultural workshop” for upper school students to help them better understand and navigate conversation around difference.  These workshops will take place during several of the school periods that have opened up for special programming due to our new Thursday schedule.  We hope through such intentional and professionally facilitated opportunities, our students will further embrace an “enthusiasm for difference.”

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