In response to continued polarization and political enmity in America today, Cairn University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education repeated last semester’s successful forums, fostering civil political dialogue among students of both universities. Entitled “Can We Talk? Political Dialogue in Donald Trump’s America,” the events include a panel discussion among students modelling five basic rules for civil political discourse, followed by small-group discussions about personal views on this year’s most charged political topics. These two forums, held on October 16th and November 15th, drew nearly 100 students from Cairn, Penn, Drexel, Eastern, St. Joseph’s, Villanova, and the John Jay Institute. Each dialogue is designed to spark conversation and to create an atmosphere in which people, despite the various labels they associate with their identity, treat each other with respect and dignity.
Before the discussion started, Harris Sokoloff encouraged attendees to scatter among the tables, asking that no more than two students/representatives from the same school sit at a table together. The moderators, Chris Satullo and Dr. Harris Sokoloff, led the event with a brief introduction and review of ground work rules:
- Listen with a willingness to be changed by what your hear.
- Try to make room for everyone to speak and be heard.
- Be honest, but not mean or cruel.
- Ask questions to genuinely understand.
- Explore arguments and/or disagreements rather than shying away from them.
The moderators then led the attendees to a multiple identities exercise, an activity in which people around the table shared a list of labels they associate with their identity. As a second option, attendees who were familiar with this exercise were also encouraged to share a political discussion they experienced with someone in the past year and how it went. After the brief exercise, the moderators asked if anyone listed American as their identity. While some attendees listed their state identity, no one used the United States as an identifier. A number of international students, however, listed their birth country as their national identity.
Moderators Chris Satullo and Dr. Harris Sokolof, using the groundwork rules, lead the discussion with the following questions:
- How were politics and political discussions handled/dealt with in your family?
- Think of a recent event or issue that fostered strong feeling in you and/or caught your attention. What is it, why did it stir so much emotion in you, and what would you like to see change/improve?
- Have you heard something in your discussions that struck/challenged any of your own opinions?
- Do you think your campus is taking the right approach to spark conversation and civilized dialogue?
“The event is worth repeating because over the past several months, more and more people are isolating themselves, talking only with those who confirm their existing beliefs,” says Greg Schaller, adjunct professor of political science for Cairn and president of the John Jay Institute, who helped organize this year’s event. “The need is even more pressing to continue finding ways to have constructive dialogue among those who disagree with one another.”