The Best of Enemies: Having the Tough Conversations

Michaela Becconsall and Robert Wines headshot together
By Michaela Becconsall, AU SIS ’20, and Robert Wines, AU SPA ’20

Winter break was quickly approaching as we sat in the basement of the library cramming for our last few exams. The hours rushed by, and as anyone would, we decided to take a study break. However, this was not your usual study break; there was no discussion of the upcoming bowl game or an hour-long break to check out a new show on Netflix. No, this was a classic American University study break – one where our title as “the most politically active school in the United States” materialized. We closed our laptops and pushed aside our notes to discuss the Iraq War. What started as a twenty-minute hiatus turned into a three-hour discussion. We tackled the issues from entirely opposing points of view, but some way we managed to remain the best of friends after.

Conversations such as ours feel to many as if they are becoming increasingly less common. Unfortunately, the attraction to retreat to one’s own side to be intellectually comfortable in a bubble of like-minded peers has grown stronger. Polling has shown we view each other more as the enemy than any other time in the last 20 years, and the appeal of demonizing those who maintain different core beliefs has grown even stronger.

Almost every time we hang out, we find ourselves discussing topics which have been deemed forbidden, like religion and politics. We do not spare ourselves the anguish by retreating to the less divisive issues. Instead, we throw ourselves down the intellectual rabbit hole, discussing topics that ought to shake the very foundation of our friendship – not topics which have to do with innocuous policy issues where common ground is easy to find, but the ones that have to do with our unwavering core beliefs. We are sure you can think of some.

Yet, at the end of each conversation, we leave better friends and even better people. We’d be lying though if we said there weren’t times that we grew frustrated with one another. But this frustration never amounts to a dismissal of the other person’s views; instead, it feeds our desire to learn more and get closer to the truth.

Our ability to tackle forbidden topics lies on three pillars:

It starts with a shared respect for one another’s experiences. We share some similarities. We are both from Long Island and we both have politically active and aware fathers whose right-leaning views largely shaped our own, in their image or in the opposite.  The similarities end there though. I, Robert, went to an all-boys, virtually all-conservative Catholic high school. On the other hand, I, Michaela, attended a much more balanced public school in my hometown. We hung around in very different social scenes, with very different people. We did not grow up sharing common interests, other than a love of politics. Our towns, although less than ten miles away from each other, were quite different.

These factors that shaped us have only strengthened our conversations because as we spoke more, it became clearer how we began to develop our fundamental beliefs. Knowing one another’s stories and background have led us to respect each other more as people and to build our difficult conversations on the fundamental building block of our friendship.

The second pillar is a commitment to intellectual honesty. Spending so much time together discussing these matters, we have begun to realize that we aren’t having these debates to change the other’s mind. Rather, we are participating to challenge ourselves, challenge our beliefs, and develop a deeper knowledge of the subject at hand. A quick “gotcha” statistic or question serves for nothing more than a twelve-second feeling of satisfaction. Our intention is not to “win” as there is no “winning” in our conversations. Our intention is to learn and bounce our ideas off one another. In approaching our discussions this way, we have seen our some of our views evolve, and others grow even stronger as they have withstood the opposing argument.

Lastly, we go into each of these conversations, even the heavy ones, with a strong sense of humor. We both recognize that it is important to laugh at ourselves and to incorporate humor into these discussions, as that is what keeps it fun and lighthearted. We will sarcastically exaggerate claims often flung by our respective parties and do the same for the other side. In doing so, we never get so wrapped up in our points that we fail to see the person on the other side of the argument.

Looking at us most would say there is no way those two could be friends. We are registered in different parties, we hold entirely opposing ideological and religious views, we have incredibly different values, and hold different interests. It is these stark differences that actually keep our arguments exciting and our friendship strong.

So, we hope that the AU student body embraces the tactics that we continually embrace. Life is more fun when you are surrounded by people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, and don’t act like you. You grow as a person, and you develop friendships that you would have never guessed you would have fallen into. For the Republican, grab coffee with that SIS hippie in class. For the Democrat, go hit up TDR with that warmongering neo-con you met.

However, try not to do it during finals.

Michaela Becconsall is a junior at American University  studying International Relations and Economics with a focus on International Development. A passionate advocate for girls education, she is the VP of Finance for She’s the First. Additionally, she serves on the executive board of Phi Sigma Sigma as Sisterhood Development Chair.

Robert Wines is a junior at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG), with an intended minor in Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the president of the American University College Republicans, is a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and is a winger for the men’s ice hockey team.

Weekly News Digest, No. 3

Welcome to the third installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Events

Tomorrow, October 4th, Students for Free Expression is hosting a student-led debate over the question: “Is health care a human right?” This event is being co-hosted by Better Angels and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and will be held in the Don Meyers Technology and Innovation Building Room 219 from 6:30-8:30PM. RSVP on their Facebook event and see the flyer below for more details.

Flyer for Students for Free Expression event

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps will speak about the complexity of free speech in a diverse society at an event hosted by the Project on Civil Discourse. Stay tuned for more details in next week’s News Digest!

Speech on Campus

Last week, witnesses from FIRE, the Newseum, PEN America, and Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College testified at a congressional hearing about the First Amendment on College Campuses. Witnesses addressed a wide range of issues, including the use of free speech as a politicized weapon to either justify unwanted speech or to stifle it. Watch the full hearing below.

In international news, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a new policy requiring publicly assisted colleges and universities to develop their own free speech policies. Most, if not all, Ontario universities already have similar policies in place, but the new provincial policy will standardize existing policies and provide the government a way to enforce free speech protections on campus.

Political Discourse

A recent St. Olaf College study found that congressional districts that are gerrymandered for partisan purposes experience more extreme campaign rhetoric. Professor Chris Chapp and three students used a machine learning algorithm to evaluate the issue pages on U.S. House candidate websites. While the team noted their results didn’t point to a causal relationship, their findings provide important insights into civil discourse in the political arena.

In national news, a senior Trump official once used semi-anonymous blog posts to question if the n-word was inherently racist and claim that many hate crimes were hoaxes. Eric Blankenstein, a policy director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws that protect minorities from discriminatory lending practices. Blankenstein said that these posts do not influence his work today.

Next week, Real Talk will feature a guest post by two American University students on navigating conversations about politics. Thanks for reading!

Introducing American University’s Project on Civil Discourse

After the presidential election, my relationship with many of my friends and classmates changed – especially those back home in Ohio. I couldn’t reconcile what I heard them say with the people I thought I knew. I couldn’t understand, let alone relate to, their thoughts and positions on the issues that were directly affecting my classmates at American University. I desperately wanted to learn about the roots of their beliefs, but I couldn’t see past words I saw as ignorant or hateful.

On the night of the election itself, I watched personal relationships dissolve as my dormmates reacted to the results in their own way. When I went to class the next morning, these dormmates turned into classmates and that tension remained. As students at American, we’re familiar with the ideological conflicts that play out in any politically-oriented class, but after the election it was different. Everything had become so much more serious and real.

These struggles – ones that have become familiar to many over the past months and years – led to my interest in the Project on Civil Discourse. The Project encourages productive, truthful discourse that contributes to our learning community and the world around us. It encourages students to understand speech not just as a matter of rights, but of responsibilities, values, and opportunities. Using the Building My Voice tool as a starting point, each of us must decide how and why we choose to use our voice in our community. And it’s not just what we say ourselves, but how we listen and engage in a dialogue with others.

By making deliberate choices about how we listen and use our voices, we realize our responsibility for the things we say and we begin to productively contribute to our community.

***

College is an all-encompassing community, tying one’s personal, academic, and professional lives together with few boundaries. At the nation’s most politically active university, this creates a passionate, tension-filled environment. Looking back at the climate on campus after the election, I wish my peers and I had the tools and resources necessary to solve our problems in the classrooms and dorms. 

Through peer-led discussions and workshops, teaching resources for faculty, and distinguished guest speakers, the Project on Civil Discourse will help to make that wish a reality. Based in the School of Public Affairs, the Project will operate university-wide by the 2019-20 school year, where it will help students gain the skills and understanding they need to engage in productive, truthful discourse. This will further American University’s mission as an institution of higher education, while teaching students how to engage in their communities after graduation.

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University.

I spent much of my first year at American listening to those around me talk about their perspectives and approaches to issues that I only had one understanding of while growing up in the Midwest. I began to recognize how I used my voice in the classroom and around campus, both in what I said and how I said it. As I work for the Project on Civil Discourse this year, I know I will continue to take ownership of my voice and use it to improve our American University community.

When I graduate next May, I plan to use this voice to advocate for the changes my next community needs. It’s no surprise that the national political arena frequently lacks the civil discourse we wish it had – we see that in the news every day. But many don’t realize this lack of discourse has trickled down to their local communities.

This summer, I interned for the city manager’s office in my hometown. Over the three months I was home, I watched my city’s residents repeatedly attempt to block different projects that would benefit our city. They were so firm in their opposition that they were able to stop one construction project from even entering a community feedback and planning phase. Residents spoke without listening, finally reaching a point where they were unable to even agree to hold a discussion over the issue.

Local government plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and it’s essential that we contribute our voices to shape our communities. By training students in civil discourse principles and techniques, the Project will equip them to facilitate and contribute to the conversations that should and need to be taking place.

***

I recognize that what I write is informed by my experiences alone, and that other students, faculty, and staff at American University experience our campus and political climate differently. Throughout the year, I’ll be working to give my fellow Eagles the space to share their own perspectives on civil discourse and their experiences with it, and I’ll be listening – a part of productive discourse.

To learn more about the Project on Civil Discourse, visit our website and continue to follow our blog. If you’re an undergraduate student at American and are interested in applying to become a peer facilitator, learn more here.

If you would like to share a unique perspective on civil discourse or an informative experience at American University or in your community, I encourage you to email me at dr8237a@student.american.edu.