No Conversation Is Too Scary

As many of you know, I’m currently a high school teacher (in the fall, I taught philosophy, and this spring I’m teaching a class called “senior practicum,” which is mostly personal finance, although I’ve taken a few liberties to discuss digital habits as well). The pairing of the two classes together is interesting for two reasons.

First, the philosophy class was inherently academic, and required reading, study, and heavy critical thinking. Some of the concepts we explored were abstract, ranging from free will and determinism to how we can say that we know anything at all. Second, the senior practicum class is clearly meant to be distinct from the philosophy class. It is not abstract; in fact, it’s fairly pragmatic. In some ways, it can be seen as an outworking of the philosophy course — at least in the sense that philosophy is meant to help the students frame and understand the world, and the senior practicum class is meant to help the students navigate “daily” life.

What I didn’t expect in the course of teaching these two classes is that I would get the chance to have other, deeper conversations with the students. Because the two classes are touching on issues that are deeply personal, we sometimes end up navigating tough waters. It’s not uncommon for the students to bring up political issues (even in the form of a joke), moral issues (abortion has come up more than a handful of times), or unsolvable philosophical or theological problems. My real goal in these conversations is not really to convince the students that they ought to think the way I do on these topics. That would be far too easy, to be honest. That’s not to mention the fact that they are all Christian students, raised in Christian households, so their viewpoints are highly similar, if not outright identical, on many of these issues.

My goal, instead, has been to open their minds up a little bit to other viewpoints, and I think I’ve come up with a solution to how to do try and do this. Part of my solution is driven, I think, by my concern with social media and its effects on public discourse. We currently find ourselves in a societal moment wherein social groups are dividing and divisive — primarily along political and theological lines. This leads to two things: digital echo chambers and the inability to engage in rational, calm conversation about difficult issues. In response to this, I’m trying to teach my students two things:

  1. No conversation is too scary to have.
  2. When discussing a tough issue, our first goal should be to ask “What does this person see that I don’t?”

These are actually relatively difficult to implement in real life. It can be easy to prefer avoiding tough topics of conversation, thinking that our interlocutors might be offended or appalled at our ignorance or disagreement. It’s also easy for us to be the person that is easily enraged, morally or intellectually. (Moral outrage, in fact, is an easy emotion to latch onto — just look at how social media companies have benefited from taking advantage of that emotion). But if we come at difficult conversations with an attitude of humility rather than pride, of curiosity rather than fear, our local community and the broader society stand to benefit.

Of the second point (asking, “What does this person see?”): this is a key skill when engaging in philosophical or theological inquiry. If we don’t actively try to envision why a person sees the world a certain way, or thinks that their moral position is superior to others, we don’t have any chance of gaining conversational favor. This means we lose the chance of having a dialogue, and of having the opportunity to persuade someone of our own position. I think many of us fear taking this step, however, because it requires risk. Alan Jacobs writes about this in How to Think:

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction. (36)

I take Jacobs to mean here that too often the conversations we have are means to the end of happiness: either by way of conversing only with those who agree with us, or by seeking the satisfaction of arguing with others for the purpose of proving the superiority of our position. But to actively think, to engage in dialogue, to be willing to see from another person’s viewpoint means that we must accept discomfort and even the pain of changing our position on an issue.

We’d do well, in the long run, to abandon our desire for comfort, for happiness, for satisfaction. The health of both our individual selves and society at large may rely upon this very truth.