Why We Talk about the Big Stuff

Susan Smetzer-Anderson May 23, 2023

It was a little over a month ago when Upper House hosted its first university roundtable to bring together university faculty and community members to discuss a concern many share: the deep polarization fracturing our society. Joining us were two distinguished university professors with backgrounds in political science (Katherine Cramer) and American history (John Fea), who shared research-based insights, their personal faith, and the concerns they have about the future. But answers? These were nuanced and, quite frankly, more embedded in the conversational process than in a concrete list of how-to’s. The lack of clear answers, in fact, reaffirmed just how tough our current polarization is and how high the stakes are, as our speakers honestly noted the challenges of navigating a discordant world in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and hope.

While the presence of thought leaders signals the priority Upper House places on centering substantive content when we gather, the format of the roundtable demonstrates the priority we put on cross-community conversation—for university community members to get to know one another and engage in interdisciplinary—and even awkward!—exchange on important topics.

Roundtable conversations offer us a special opportunity to gather people of various roles, intellectual and faith perspectives, and political views—and get out of our siloes, even while we’re enjoying a good meal. (The meal is important: a veritable ice-breaker.) Seated with strangers, we try to get to know one another and why we care about the topic at hand.

While some of us might want to cut directly to the conversational chase, others at the table might hang back, concerned about stumbling into conflict by expressing themselves clumsily. Big topics like polarization can unify a group that agrees on the sheer enormity of the issue, if not its solution…What, in fact, would it take to solve this problem? How do we reinstitute norms of behavior or discourse when norms have seemingly been shredded? Do we refrain from participating in social media debates? Do we try to redeem social media by positioning ourselves clearly and respectfully on an issue du jour? Do we retreat from the political maelstrom, tired as we are post-pandemic? The variety of perspectives was remarkable—in a sense a testament to the value of the conversation. But an overarching answer that will solve the problem of polarization was not forthcoming. Perhaps such a resolution would have been like Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy all delivering us a winning lottery ticket on the same day. If such a resolution were possible, most of us would grab it with eager hands.

Enter the value of community-building—another goal of roundtables. Is there value in meeting others in the university community, even occasionally? Is cross-community conversation valuable in and of itself? (We think so.) Busy as we are, there is value in meeting our neighbors, including other people of faith, and over time, putting names to faces in our university community. Interdisciplinary or cross-community gatherings are rather rare. We believe such conversations offer us nuanced insight we may not glean from media and even offer fodder for our spiritual, intellectual, and strategic growth.

As grateful as we were for Katherine Cramer and John Fea joining us at our first university roundtable, we were even more grateful for the 55 university community members who made an effort to gather and participate in an evening of back-and-forth, across topics, differences, disillusionment, and concern. And though the issue of polarization is confounding, we did glean some valuable insights together.

Listening, said Katherine Cramer, has given her hope for our future civic life. She exhorted us to listen with humility and sincerely seek to understand the thoughts and concerns of the people we are listening to. While we may not agree, we may build bridges that shorten that distance between us. Katherine, in her distinctive speaking style, also modelled a nonthreatening conversational approach (in the way she paused before speaking and carefully listened to questions) that left its own impression. John Fea wrote in his blog (April 21) that his time in Madison left him “encouraged and hopeful. Not everyone who attended Wednesday night’s dinner agreed on every issue facing American life today, but the commitment to civil conversation I witnessed was inspiring… Some of my Christian friends–especially those who regularly spew-forth on social media–could’ve learned a great deal from watching how people with deep differences engaged with one another at Upper House.”

When it comes to tough issues, we will likely always find it challenging to discern when to speak, when to listen, and how to do both well, especially in our volatile public arena. But the goal underlying the effort makes a difference. Simply put, the Christian faith calls us to love our neighbor; every conversation is an opportunity to learn how to do that better.