What are Deliberative Conversations at SUNY Empire?
Deliberative Conversations at SUNY Empire grew out of a partnership between the college’s Division of Student Affairs-Student Life and the Buffalo Project. These conversations are an effort to increase cultural awareness, interaction and discussion among students, faculty, and staff around difficult topics. The uniqueness of the Deliberative Conversations format is that it is meant to intentionally bring together individuals who represent diverse perspectives around a topic; sometimes difficult or controversial, to advocate for tangible, joint solutions that give a voice to all invested in the conversation.
Deliberative Conversations at SUNY Empire has also become a connection point for other, similar efforts in higher education across the United States. Growing out of a learning exchange at the Kettering Foundation, Deliberative Conversations at SUNY Empire is partnering with other dialogue and deliberation programs across New York and the United States to provide a broader context for this conversation.
Framing Discussion – How to Heal a Fractured United States?
As the US careens into 2021 amid political discord, a damaged economy and a surging pandemic that has infected more than 23.4 million people and killed more than 400,000, Americans are facing historic unrest and socio-cultural divisions at heightened levels. In the last 25 years, Democrats and Republicans have grown increasingly hostile toward one another (PEW, 2014). In fact, Pew researchers note that members of each party feel their opponents “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” (PEW, 2014). In another survey by the Pew Research Center, 47% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats said they “wouldn't want to date someone who voted for the candidate of the opposing party in the 2016 presidential election” (Brown, 2020). In other words, they feel giving the opposition the opportunity and/or platform to speak is a greater threat than actively engaging with them in conversation and/or meaningful relationships.
So what do we do with so much social unrest and cross-partisan distrust?
In the wake of the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, many community leaders aren’t sure how to address the diverse needs of their stakeholders (e.g., students, community members, political constituents), some of whom feared for the safety of themselves and their families, and others who felt threatened and underrepresented by the negative rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle. National political discourse affects the everyday lives of people as they struggle to work across partisan divides, often with negative socio-emotional, professional, and academic consequences. Not only have polarization and incivility increased, but a growing number of people from all backgrounds encounter hostile environments in school, work, and even at home.
These divides have hurt the country in myriad ways — from socio-emotional traumas to digital divisiveness and divides to repercussions over racial and political views/actions to the loss of connections and, ultimately the reinforcing of our new social media “unfriend/cancelling” culture. As the Pew Research Center (2020) stated and others have noted,
…divisions between the two parties have intensified over time as various types of identities have become “stacked” on top of people’s partisan identities. Race, religion and ideology now align with partisan identity in ways that they often didn’t in eras when the two parties were relatively heterogenous coalitions (Dimock & Wike, 2020)
So what must we acknowledge to make real change?
Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich suggest in their 2018 book, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life, that we must first acknowledge that:
[o]ver the past two decades, national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by ‘Truth Decay,’ defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018, pgs. 21-38).
This research suggests that to promote civil dialogue and to ensure positive student experiences, we all need to be ready to navigate political discussions as they arise. To clarify, “civil dialogue” does not mean simply using good manners and being polite; rather, it means that we all should promote interactions that focus on learning and a respectful exchange of ideas. The question is, are we actually doing this within US culture? Pew again suggests we are not; as they stated in December 2020, “Just 2% of Biden voters – and an equally small share of Trump voters – say those who voted for the opposing candidate understand them “very well,” according to Pew Research Center’s November post-election survey” (Dunn, Kiley, Scheller, Baronavski, & Doherty, 2020). Meaning, we need an increased focus on using supporting evidence in discussion while also understanding how to evaluate news sources for bias. To heal this country, thoughtful decisions about how to balance the role of a neutral moderator with the need to uphold personal values and convictions is critical. No matter what side of the conversation each of us may be on, the goal of this conversation is to use bipartisan language and rhetorical tools to promote community healing in and outside of the classroom.
Who can contribute to improving dialogue and promoting healing?
We often hear that true change comes with joint effort. As Yaffa Fredrick stated on the website, Welcome to the Fractured States of America:
[How do we make change?] ….enlisting the help of politicians poses a challenge, given so many of them profit from drawing divisions between liberals and conservatives. And since they have to answer to their increasingly polarized constituencies, many elected officials now take on hyperpartisan positions. In fact, according to VoteView, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have [trended further] to the right and left, respectively, for the last 10 sessions of Congress (as of 2019). Rather than working together to find bipartisan solutions, many politicians appear to be actively working against each other — seemingly in the interests of their emboldened partisan bases…But creating the space for uncomfortable dialogue at the local level is not enough. Our legislators must engage in a similar process at the highest echelons of government — identifying the issues that large majorities of American support and enacting laws around them. And if they are unwilling to do so, those same majorities must hold elected leaders accountable at the ballot box. (Fredrick, 2019)
Given these different perspectives, this conversation aims to provide a space for respectful debate and dialogue around the political state of our Nation with the hopes of proposing meaningful solutions.
Framing Materials and Discussion Outcomes
When framing this conversation, we propose the following questions for us to explore. These questions are meant to spark conversation in the breakout sessions; groups may focus on one or all of the questions and/or pose questions of their own.
Question #1: What have been your experiences with division in your community?
- In your experience, who is impacted by incivility and partisanship (e.g., along socioeconomic, racial, linguistic, regional, state, and national lines)?
- Do you see positive examples for countering division?
Question #2: How has polarization developed in our society?
- What contributes to the polarization of views?
- To what extent is polarization related to injustice?
Question #3: How do we find and build understanding across cultural and political lines?
- How can tensions between racial groups be eased given the current climate?
- Given political and social challenges, what could unity look like in the future?
Question #4: What can we do to heal this country?
- What actions and skills are needed?
- What are some effective strategies to help heal this country (e.g. deliberative conversation, federally mandated truth commission, legislation, public debates, something else)?
- Do you have other suggestions or solutions?
This is only the beginning of the conversation. Scholar Vernellia R. Randall, Founder and Editor Professor Emerita of Law, The University of Dayton School of Law suggests the following concepts should be discussed when analyzing difficult topics around the Constitution and race. She suggests the following:
- MAKE THE IMPLICIT EXPLICIT. Look for the assumptions underlying discussions about race [politics, and culture] and state them. Many implicit assumptions, when articulated to the world, demonstrate their own inadequacy. Is one racial group being privileged over another? What unstated assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, wealth, or physical ability are part of discussions about race?
- LOOK FOR THE HIDDEN NORM. What perspective is being universalized as the perspective for all people? Is that view really representative and objective? Is "the way things are" being used to perpetuate oppression?
- AVOID WE/THEY THINKING. In a country based on the ideal of democratic inclusion, consider whether race [politics, and culture] is being used to foster that inclusion. We/they thinking is usually designed to render some group outside the polis. Who is defining the included "we" and for what purpose?
- REMEMBER CONTEXT. People do not live in the abstract; they live situated lives. Examining the context in which a problem arises may reveal levels of unsuspected complexity, but will also avoid facile solutions that fall into the traps listed above.
- SEEK JUSTICE. Be skeptical of traditional arguments to avoid change such as "the slippery slope," the intent of the framers (who excluded from voting representation Indians, women of all colors, and only counted African Americans as 3/5 persons), or reliance on discriminatory precedent. Ask the question, "What is a just result that fosters democratic inclusion?"
- CONSIDER THE NATURE OF THE HARM. Is it minimal or serious? Whose characterization is being given credibility? Be sure to listen to the voices of those most harmed.
- TRUST YOUR INTUITION. Trina Grillo wrote: "[We must believe what our bodies tell us. They teach us to check for the deep, internal discomfort we feel when something is being stated as gospel but does not match our truth. Then they teach us how to spin that feeling out, to analyze it, to accept that it is true but to be able to show why that is so. They also teach us to be brave." (Grillo, 1995)
- ASK, WHO BENEFITS? Practices, rules, and legal doctrines often benefit one group (usually the majority) at the expense of another. Ask yourself, why was this rule adopted and who benefits from its observance? If a rule turns out to be unfair, what prevents us from changing it? (Randall, 1995)
Allen, J. (2020). Systemic racism and America today. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/how-we-rise/2020/06/11/systemic-racism-and-america-today/
Brown, A. (2020). Most Democrats who are looking for a relationship would not consider dating a Trump voter. PEW Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2020/04/24/most-democrats-who-are-looking-for-a-relationship-would-not-consider-dating-a-trumpvoter/
Dimock, M & Wike, R. (2020). America is exceptional in the nature of its political divide. PEW Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-thenature-of-its-political-divide/
Dunn, A., Kiley, J., Scheller, A., Baronavski, C. & Doherty, C. (2020). Voters Say Those on the Other Side ‘Don’t Get’ Them. Here’s What They Want Them To Know. PEW Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/12/17/voters-say-those-on-the-other-side-dont-get-themheres-what-they-want-them-to-know/
Fredrick, Y. (2019). Welcome to the Fractured States of America. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/11/opinions/fractured-states-of-america/part-three-fredrick/
Johns Hopkins University (2020). Engaging Students in Civic Discourse. Retrieved from https://snfagora.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Election2020_Engaging-Students-in-CivicDiscourse_.pdf
Kavanagh, J. & Rich, M. D. (2018). Truth decay: An initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life. Rand Corporation. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html
NPR (2020). After A Bitter Election, Can Americans Find A Way To Heal Their Divides? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/11/01/929856421/after-a-bitter-election-can-americans-find-a-way-to-healtheir-divides
PEW (2014). Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/
Randall, V. (1995). Race, Racism and the Law. Retrieved from https://www.racism.org/my-syllabi/8077- race-racism-and-the-law-syllabus?start=3
Rogers, R. C. (2018). The Buffalo Project Webpage. SUNY Empire State College. Retrieved from http://rrogers.sunyempirefaculty.net/the-buffalo-project-an-ethnographic-studywestern-new-york/