Over the last several months, readers have spoken to me about the topic of free speech. The last election cycle was as much or more polarizing than any other of this generation. Protests after the election, before the inauguration, and during the still young tenure of our new President seem to have turned at least parts of our country into a state of perpetual turmoil.
In other words, if conversations at Thanksgiving dinner were difficult, imagine the 4th of July family reunion!
This whole scenario came into focus for me as I followed the upheaval at the University of California at Berkeley. Milo Yiannopoulos who, until recently, was senior editor of Breitbart News, self-described “cultural libertarian,” “free speech fundamentalist” and all around critic of what he deems the “regressive left” was scheduled to give a speech at UC, Berkeley.
For my younger readers, Berkeley was one of the two or three epicenters of the 1960s social unrest. It is the center of cultural liberalism and one of the best research Universities in our country—a place where, in theory, ideas are to be exchanged—freely. However, that didn’t happen at Berkeley.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, though Berkeley administrators “made a concerted effort to allow the speech to take place,” the violence and mayhem generated because of Yiannopoulous’ presence forced cancelling the event.
Similar cancellations in response to a variety of speakers at places like Brandeis University, New York University, Middlebury College, and Williams College have prompted academics like Rafael Walker at the University of Pennsylvania to ask:
“When [the] academe gets in the business of suppressing voices that it doesn’t like and limiting students to only those views that it broadly sanctions—no matter how popular those views are in the culture at large—is free speech safe anywhere? Moreover, do we do our undergraduates any favors by shielding them for the ‘deplorable’ views of the big bad conservatives beyond the ivory tower?”
In his book, U & Me: Communicating in Moments that Matter, John Stewart’s chapter on personal politics provides some helpful direction about how to freely speak in challenging moments—maybe even during family gatherings.
One important bit of advice is to determine, in advance, whether our purpose is “understanding” or “persuasion.” According to Stewart, the reality is that most people with strong political agendas don’t really want to have a conversation with somebody who has a different point of view.
He notes, “[a]lmost all of Rush Limbaugh’s listeners share his views, and the same is true of those who watch Bill Maher.”
On the other hand, genuine understanding requires a completely different orientation. Leaders whose focus is on general understanding, who really want to work at helping bridge a variety of cultural and socio-economic divides, may want to consider following the ground rules that Stewart provides:
- “Stay engaged means committing to remain morally, emotionally, intellectually and socially involved in the dialogue. It means not to let your heart and mind “check out” of the conversation while leaving your body in place.
- Speak your truth means being honest about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions and not just saying what you believe others want to hear. People don’t often speak their truth about a political topic because they’re afraid of offending, appearing angry, or sounding ignorant.
- Experience discomfort follows naturally. This ground rule acknowledges that, because politics is generally so polarized in our society, serious political conversations necessarily create discomfort for many participants.
- Expect and accept non-closure means that your goal for the conversation should not be, as I mentioned, to persuade the other person your beliefs, or to solve the political problem you’re discussing. The point of the talk is the understanding, acceptance, and respect that, under the best conditions, the talk itself can produce.”
Leaders who lead within their sphere of influence will never regret practicing the Stewart ground rules. As Stewart notes, “personal political communication is difficult. Moments that matter don’t occur very often in the political communication that you see and hear the most about. But they can happen between family members and friends who approach their conversations mindfully and reflectively.”
And to that I will add…Amen.