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.