GIST Magazine Spring 2018

Page 8

ASKING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS Bass Connections Team Working to Understand Political Polarization


rom debate over Confederate statues on public grounds to conversations about the NFL and the national anthem, public dialogue has become increasingly politically charged in typically apolitical spaces. These tough conversations now feel almost commonplace, with people sharing their moral, political, and religious views in ways that seem to emphasize and entrench our differences rather than foster meaningful conversation. But the ways we discuss our opinions and positions aren’t set in stone and one Education and Human Development Bass Connections team has decided it’s time for a change.

Questioning How We Communicate In an effort to increase constructive discourse and understand political polarization, the team will examine which questions increase humility and which raise barriers to communication when discussing politically charged topics. For instance, asking why a person holds a certain position tends to increase their commitment to that belief. So these crucial conversations where people are trying to understand one another are sometimes doomed from the start just because of inadvertent wording. By investigating which questions are the kind that open dialogue, the team hopes to develop

To tackle the problem of polarization from the best possible angle, it takes both disciplinary expertise and collaboration across the disciplines.

EHD Bass Team members discuss how to develop questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with different perspectives.



questions that foster productive dialogue and identify the causes of defensiveness, rationalization, and polarization, so conversations can avoid these dangerous pitfalls. Their hypothesis is straightforward, but profound. If students are trained in a culture that encourages people to regularly ask themselves and others the right kinds of questions, then they’ll become better at understanding different points of view. As a result, they’ll also be better at navigating an ideologically diverse world. A Team of Diverse Perspectives Team leads Jordan Carpenter, David Malone, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Jesse Summers are working with four graduate students and four undergraduate students for the yearlong project. The members of the Education and Human Development Bass Connections team represent a number of different disciplinary approaches. It’s true to their mission of engaging other points of view and strengthens the team dynamic. “As with so many big topics, there are disciplinary ways of addressing it. But it’s not a disciplinary question,” said Jesse Summers, one of the team’s faculty leaders. Summers is also Assistant Academic Dean, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. “Political polarization, in some ways, is a political question,” he said. “But take gun control for example; there are so many other aspects to that polarization like psychological,

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