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If you think campus speech is all angry confrontation, you’re looking in the wrong places

- October 30, 2018
Milo Yiannopoulos waits to speak at an alt-right protest in New York in April. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The California College Republicans’ 2018 platform has generated controversy because it uses terms such as “degenerate,” “fascist-minded” and “terrorist” to characterize the stances of groups it opposes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, groups such as the executive council of these campus Republicans, who seek out confrontation, get a lot of attention. Far less attention is paid to other student groups pursuing a different path.

Although still in the minority, a growing contingent of students from the left, right and center is ditching tactics that lead to internecine hostility in favor of talking with one another to build empathy. BridgeUSA and Sustained Dialogue are two prime examples of campus organizations committed to confronting political polarization.

We learned about BridgeUSA and Sustained Dialogue while studying campus politics at four public universities this past year. Here is what they do and the challenges they face.

These movements are relatively recent

The Bridge movement got its start four years ago and now has chapters on 16 campuses, with more on the horizon. “The Bridge mindset” is built on three pillars. Bridge members embrace diversity of viewpoints and acknowledge with humility “that you don’t always have the answers to everything.” The priority is to learn from others, by being civil and actively listening, rather than just debating one another.

Sustained Dialogue is a national organization that has been around since the early 2000s. Student moderators use three norms to help peers explore contentious issues, including assuming best intentions and trusting that “if someone hurts your feelings, they didn’t mean to,” to try to lean into discomfort. The third norm — familiar to anyone who has gone through couples therapy — is to “speak from ‘I’ statements” to avoid generalizing and ad hominem attacks.

They have attracted recruits since 2016

The need for dialogue is obvious to students, particularly after the last presidential election. One liberal student explained that she started a Bridge chapter because the climate had grown so tense on her campus that supporters of President Trump were hiding their identities. “Not being able to speak openly about that is, I think, one of the main problems,” she told us. “I just wanted to create this community where anyone could feel like they could express their ideas and actually be heard, instead of being marked [by] who you voted for.”

Members of both organizations say that students should not have to compromise their political convictions to participate in a dialogue group. A conservative Republican student said, “We are not trying to get people to be bipartisan, but to be thoughtful about the beliefs they have.” A conservative student on a different campus said that the point of Bridge is “just making an effort to represent the opposition’s ideas fairly and think them through, and to put yourself in the skin of other people. . . . It’s about building character.”

The need for dialogue frames these students’ goals. In the short term, members want to have better political conversations. In the longer term, they aim to train future political leaders in the practice of responsible politics. Dialogue sometimes extends beyond the college gates. One liberal student talked about how she and her parents had avoided political discussions with Trump supporters in their extended family. But, having “interfac[ed] with more conservative people” in Sustained Dialogue, she felt “more empowered to engage in dialogue than I would have before having done that.”

Some topics are still too hard to talk about

This approach to dialogue has limitations. While members exhibit courage in discussing highly divisive issues with one another — such as guns and free speech — some issues are too hot to handle. At one school, abortion is off limits because — as one liberal member put it — that “is just a gridlocked issue. I don’t think that we can move the needle on that one.” On another campus, it is talking about the president of the United States. According to one student, “We did at the beginning talk more about politics and Trump, but . . . no one’s going to see the logical argument.”

Additionally, Bridge and Sustained Dialogue may be most useful for students who come to campus “without a conceptual framework” about politics, as one Bridge leader put it — such as students who grew up in politically disengaged households, or STEM majors rather than those studying social science. This means that the clubs may not appeal to the most politically active students on campus, who would rather debate issues with worthy opponents or dig into the policy weeds with like-minded students.

Dialogue meetings might therefore fall short of what the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas called the “public sphere” — a virtual or real space for debate and political action. Discovering the intricacies of how one feels about same-sex marriage or gentrification with someone who thinks differently about those matters is not the same as developing good arguments or policy ideas.

The approach has broader limits

Bridge leaders and members are ambivalent about their organization’s role in debates and activism. At this year’s annual Bridge Summit, the effort to have a meaningful dialogue around climate change was at times hampered by participants’ inability to agree on what the parameters of the topic were and whether Bridge wanted concerted political activism as a goal. While partisans shouting over one another does not lead to shared answers, dialogue that cannot confront today’s most pressing problems head-on — and ultimately offer doable solutions — is equally ineffectual.

Even so, the issues that these students discuss are challenging. When we observed them talking with one another, students were curious, exposed vulnerability and were not afraid to disagree.

It is possible that dialogue like this can succeed better than mere civil discourse — with its emphasis on persuading others to adopt one’s point of view, especially in this political moment, when many students can be set off by seeing someone wearing a Make America Great Again hat or Black Lives Matter T-shirt, or by the mere mention of support for a candidate in the other party. Dialogue may not be the endpoint at this critical juncture in American democracy, but it presents an important alternative model to the better-publicized forms of on-campus political speech.

Amy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Jeffrey L. Kidder is associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.