The Republican elephant symbol pictured next to the Democratic donkey symbol. Some may say that Republicans and Democrats make up the two ‘sides’ of most controversial topics.  Illustration by Bijou Allard.

There’s no question that our country has become more polarized in recent years. Unlike in previous years, there is now a much bigger difference in views on controversial topics, making it nearly impossible to go a full week without coming across some sort of contentious conversation. With the polarization that we are all facing, more and more people are being excluded from controversial conversations. No matter what ‘side’ we might take on a particular topic, it’s still important that we listen to the opposing points of view.

When we are divided into ‘sides’ of a discussion, we begin to no longer listen to what the other ‘side’ is saying. The act of listening is something that takes practice and patience. When we live in a society in which controversial topics include the extent to which we value other people’s lives, it can be extremely hard to listen to someone who we don’t agree with. Examples of these topics include race, sexual orientation, gender identity, bodily autonomy, and so much more. Talking about these topics and how they affect the way we value other people isn’t easy. Although it’s difficult, we need to be able to have these conversations and listen but not necessarily agree with the people we are talking to.

In recent years, the idea of ‘cancel culture’ has become much more visible within the media. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, cancel culture is defined as “to withdraw one’s support for (someone, such as a celebrity, or something, such as a company) publicly and especially on social media.” Cancel culture has become apparent on social media, the news, and even on school campuses. The act of canceling someone is typically a collective action in which a group of people will speak out against and even say that someone or something should be canceled, meaning boycotted or no longer supported. 

Social media plays a massive role in the cancel culture we are facing today. On social media platforms, anyone is able to voice their opinions and thoughts, making it even easier to create a large-scale removal of support for celebrities, political figures, companies and ideas. The concept of canceling someone isn’t necessarily a problem. However, when the act of canceling isn’t balanced between different viewpoints, echo chambers—environments in which we only encounter the beliefs, opinions and ideas that we agree with—form. These echo chambers reinforce our existing views and don’t give us access to different ideas and viewpoints.

When we continuously cancel one half of a conversation and no longer listen to what people are saying, we have no way to understand the full picture of what we are talking about. By hearing all viewpoints, we get to understand on a higher level the complexity of any given topic, as well as getting an opportunity to examine our own beliefs. When we ensure that our conversations have a wide representation of different beliefs and points of view, we ensure that we are able to obtain a more rounded understanding of why people think the way they do about any given topic.

The more ‘sides’ of a discussion we hear, the more education about a topic we can have. That education doesn’t necessarily refer to the content of the conversation at hand, but more about the different angles people can approach a topic with. By listening to other points of view, we can further our own self education to determine whether or not the information someone is sharing with us is accurate. Hearing another person’s opposing thoughts on a topic offers us an opportunity to reflect on our own beliefs and determine if we need to adjust the way we think about something.

We need to start educating young individuals about how to have these conversations because it’s inevitable that we will have discussions about political and controversial topics. 

If students succeeded in creating bubbles of intellectual ‘safety’ in college, they would set themselves up for even greater anxiety and conflict after graduation, when they will certainly encounter many more people with more extreme views,” argue Greg Lukanoff and Jonathan Haidt in “The Coddling of the American Mind.” This book examines the idea that overprotection when it comes to controversy and political debate is having a negative effect on university students.

Meagan Stinson, a high school student who’s exploring her political identity, says “There will always be people you don’t agree with in your life.” She added, “it’s really important that we learn how to listen to those other opinions as well as opinions we agree with, not just one or the other.”

All this being said, listening to someone challenge our belief systems is extremely difficult. It becomes even harder to listen when someone is talking about the extent to which we should value another person’s life. When we hear statements that we find to be harmful, there’s no doubt that it’s uncomfortable and agonizing. It’s important to acknowledge that in no way am I saying that you need to agree, nor respond to someone, but when it comes to a conversation, political or not, we should listen to what others have to say. According to “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “Grant [Lichtman] offers the following four rules for productive disagreement: Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict. Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong (and be willing to change your mind). Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective. Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.” If we are able to implement these four principles along with making an effort to include a more diverse set of viewpoints in our conversations, we will be able to be more grounded in our belief systems and learn how to have conversations in which our ideas may get challenged. Collectively, we must acknowledge that when we cancel people, we don’t give them an opportunity to learn and grow, making it nearly impossible for the ‘cancelled’ to make progress within our society. We need to educate young individuals how to have these crucial conversations in order to make any sort of impact in the future, especially concerning the controversial topics whose solutions we are struggling to find right now.

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