This semester, my best friend and I have had the distinct pleasure of co-chairing the Informed Citizens Discussion Group(s), and it has been a stressful blast. With 10 groups and over 100 participants, I think that it is safe to that the recent political turmoil both in the United States and abroad has contributed to significant growth in the groups, a significant decrease in attrition, and a significant broadening of the kinds of people we bring in to the discussion.
For example, a few weeks ago, I was reading a piece of political satire regarding punching Nazis to the group that I co-moderate, and one of my discussion members said that he didn’t really think that was appropriate. I, assuming that he simply disliked the idea of engaging in physical violence based on someone’s ideology, asked him to explain why he thought that. “Well,” he said, “as someone that identifies as being on the alt-right, I find that offensive. The dude that was punched isn’t even a Nazi, he’s just a White nationalist.” My group fell silent. For the past three weeks, we had all assumed that we all fell somewhere along the left…. Sure, some where more libertarian and some were more socialists, but no one in my group identified as anywhere along the right-wing spectrum, except now for this member. To his credit, one of the members attempted to engage the alt-right student in a discussion about why he thought what he though, but there are only so many times that someone can argue for a racially and culturally “pure” America before you my liberal group will come after you. Between myself, my co-moderator, and some of my more outspoken members, it was like Milo vs. Rachel… and the results weren’t pretty. No one yelled at anyone, but that seemed to mostly be because anytime anyone got close, they just held their tongues and waited until their blood pressure has fallen enough to respond in a basically cordial way. We spent the last 30 minutes of that discussion grilling this student, wondering how in the world he believed what he believed, and when the members decided that they didn’t agree with the basic premises on which his argument rested (namely, that the United States is a country of White people for White people by White people), they went on the offensive. I don’t think that’s the worst thing.
The prevailing logic surrounding this situation is that we should have respected his difference of opinion and attempted to engage in a constructive dialogue so that we can all come to a reasonable conclusion and respect each other’s differences. However, as in most situations, I don’t think this was the time for respectability politics. One of my favorite sayings is that I’m always willing to have a constructive dialogue between two equal and opposing viewpoints. For example, we need to raise taxes versus we need to lower taxes is an acceptable discussion to have. We need to raise taxes versus we need to create a racially homogenous nation through genocide and mass deportation is not a discussion of two equal propositions, and I don’t regret my reaction in this situation. What’s even worse is that I didn’t even get to finish reading my piece about punching Nazi’s. This dude would’ve certainly benefited from hearing it.
This semester, I had the pleasure of moderating an Informed Citizens Discussion Group with Student Body President Daniel Pae (10/10 human being). While most of our weekly meetings were spent hanging on the bottom floor of the Conoco Student Leadership Center, we took one special week to visit the Asian Food Fest in the Armory. What a fun experience! I didn’t realize how many authentic and diverse Asian eateries there were in the Norman area, and I was especially impressed by the Asian-American Student Association for bringing them all together for one big event. I got the opportunity to talk to one of the store owner’s at length about their experience in the Norman community and walked away with a new gratitude for restaurant owners. This particular business isn’t easy, and surprisingly, the competition in Norman for authentic Asian food is actually reasonably high. External to the Food Fair itself, we also had a discussion within my group about recent events in Syria. Some of my group members had gotten to go to Professor Landis’ President’s Associates Dinner, and had found some of his observations about the region to be particularly poignant. It was great to get to hear an abridged version of his presentation, as I was unable to go that evening. His concept of “The Great Sorting Out” also has some interesting similarities to what I perceive to be a phenomenon in the United States, that is, the movement of people to places where their ideas are more represented (basically, liberals moving to the coasts). It is certainly fascinating to see how patterns of human behavior replicate themselves around the world, despite being in different situations. All in all, I can’t wait for next year’s Food Fair!
This semester, I had the opportunity to serve as a moderator within the Informed Citizens Discussion Group, a student organization that promotes open discussion of current events by providing students with a forum in which to talk about issues. It was a really great experience to serve in a leadership position, but it also made me think a lot about how to have a conversation about controversial issues. Over the course of the semester, we tackled a number of particularly difficult topics, but the only opinion that seemed to emerge from our discussions were the fairly left-winged ones. Considering that a number of our members self-identified as social liberals, this was hardly surprising, but as a moderator I was supposed to ensure a balanced conversation that respected all opinions. Often times, this meant playing devil’s advocate or explaining the merits of ideas that I didn’t necessarily subscribe to. That being said, I think that my work there was vitally important, as it challenged individuals to think about why they held the convictions about the international community that they do, which is the only way to promote change or eliminate potentially harmful ideologies.
This last semester, I’ve had the delight of spending an hour a week with a group of diverse students discussing domestic and international political issues with my “Informed Citizens Discussion Group”. We used articles from The Economist as a springboard for our talks, and covered everything from GOP hopefuls to the relationship between current oil prices in the US and the ups and downs of the oil industry in the Middle East.
There were many specific conversations among American students that were of note, but the ones that I found the most interesting occurred when one of the groups members brought their significant other from France. It’s really easy to talk about how certain governments and international actors might react to events abroad from an American perspective, but getting an authentic, international viewpoint was really interesting. For example, when discussing the Democratic nominees, he said that, by French standards, Bernie Sanders was an incredibly moderate politician. He also told us that, much like in America, there’s a really stark difference between the older and younger populations in terms of political thought. The elderly in France tend to possess a fierce French national identity while the younger demographic usually identify themselves as members of the European Union/a larger, European state. This distinction becomes especially relevant in discussions of refugees, Greece, and various other issues facing contemporary European states. It was really interesting to draw comparisons between ideologies in France and America, especially in demographic philosophies. In France, as in American, the elderly are generally more conservative and nationalistic, while the younger population is more concerned with social activism. Granted, in France, the scale is shifted quite significantly to the political left… as this member’s boyfriend indicated, Bernie would likely not be socialistic enough for the majority of French voters.