As this challenging year comes to a close, the United States looks back on a year of polarization and politicization of public issues between holders of opposing viewpoints. A divisive election and unprecedented global pandemic both accentuated civil discourse pitfalls that have been present among us for years. It’s easy to allow these issues to overwhelm us, but all that does is doom us to fall into repetitive patterns and get caught up in what’s wrong rather than ways to fix it. The negative state of discourse in this society is nothing new: it has been allowed to develop over the years, becoming a harmful norm with no easy solution. Where that solution can be found, if anywhere, is in the hands of this nation’s future generations. Young people – particularly college students – are the keys to unlocking more positive and meaningful communication: the first step is identifying the problem and what needs to be done to fix it.
The United States has fallen into habits in the realm of conversation that harbor an “argument culture,” according to Georgetown professor of linguistics Deborah Tannen. It’s the reason that it’s so hard to have productive conversations today; it’s so often that conversation feels contentious and confrontational. This is a huge issue: approaching things with an adversarial frame of mind leads people to the dangerous impression that there’s only two concrete sides to any given issue. This brings about a divisiveness that endangers progress and the development of ideas; if there’s only two viewpoints on an issue being considered, no change or progress can ever occur. In truth, issues are more like a many sided crystal – there are an infinite number of ways of looking at them. All of those different points are and necessary to properly consider the issues at hand.
Pointing out this “argument culture” is the first step, but it’s important to identify where students play a role in this complex rhetorical situation. Craig Rood wrote a pedagogy that highlights the important steps that can be taken, particularly by students, to combat the negative culture that has deteriorated conversations in this country. These “moves,” as he labels them, are identified as ideological frameworks that we should strive towards as humans to better understand each other and make more progress on issues. Some of these things that may seem like common decency to some – openness, listening, understanding, etc. – are often left by the wayside in modern conversations. The perfect place to put these into practice is in the classroom – a place where students can interact and collaborate, as well as encourage each other, enriching classroom dialogue and developing the skills for real-world experiences. All of these points help to create common ground between individuals with varying backgrounds and opinions, which is important particularly in a university setting where there is so much diversity. It ensures that those with opposing ideals can still come together and have conversations that lead to progress and understanding, not just speaking for the sake of speaking.
Fostering these techniques in the classroom (developing arguments, presenting them objectively, listening, understanding and responding, etc.) and putting them into practice in a controlled environment helps students to take them out into the open world. The more individuals utilizing these basic frameworks, the better the conversations that can be had between those individuals. The road to more meaningful and successful discourse in society could be a long one, but it is nonetheless achievable. It’s down to whether or not students want to repeat an ignorant cycle of confrontation or argumentation or try and fix our conversations.
College students: it’s up to us to take these techniques into account when fostering our own conversations. Toxicity will only lead to more toxicity, that’s not going to fix anything. Addressing this issue head on ourselves means our openness and listening won’t always be met with the same respect – nor will it change the state of our nation’s conversations overnight. What it will do is enrich your personal conversations, and pass these ideals on to more people who want to see a change. The ability to have a purposeful and meaningful conversation is a novelty that has faded over the years. There’s no need to get overly emotional, there’s no need to get offended, it’s okay to get uncomfortable. The longer we allow these conversational tendencies to way down on us and mold the way we have conversations, the deeper the hole we dig ourselves into – and like many, I believe, I’d like us to get out.