If we as a community have not quite been able to achieve real discourse, at least we have begun to discuss why this is the case. As a student—and more specifically, as a student who has worked to broaden dialogue in regards to the Israel-Palestine issue here at Columbia—I have taken great pleasure reading some of the pieces that have been recently published within these pages. Jake Goldwasser lamented the rejection of non-liberal discourse here at Columbia. Sarina Bhandari called on students to open their ears to new opinions and strive to learn from, not win, debates. And most recently, Leo Schwartz pointed to the way in which one’s identity too often precludes others from respecting their opinion. These pieces prove that my peers who have written in advocacy of better discourse have produced just that.
But I find something missing in these pieces—missing, too, in the way Columbia students, and perhaps all college students, approach discourse more generally. While we bravely promote notions of respect, tolerance, and dialogue, we often forget to think about why we are talking in the first place. Discourse—be it on politics, religion, economics, or feminism—has become something we do because it is the convention to do so, not because we aim to gain something tangible from the conversation. We’re so jealous of students who boast about having a mind-blowing 2 a.m. conversation about the existence of God that we want in on the discussion without even asking ourselves why it’s a discussion worth having. We do not shy away from discussing the tough issues, but we rarely immerse ourselves in the complexities of our words and arguments.
It’s hard to get good conversations going in the first place. In a campus environment, where the Students for Justice in Palestine refuses to talk to anyone who labels themselves as pro-Israel; where the Veritas Forum is one of the few campus groups bold enough to raise the big questions in an inclusive, frequent way; and where a student who finds fault with Obama, secular humanism, or feminism can’t find a platform to speak from, maintaining a civil and effective discourse at all is a tall order. And I do not mean this judgmentally: Pro-Palestinian students have reason not to talk to their pro-Israel counterparts, students who identify as pro-life see the world fundamentally differently than their pro-choice colleagues, and a stirring defense of biblical orthodoxy goes against the grain of the secular approach that we are all taught in Contemporary Civilization. Building a respectable campus dialogue is no small task. But we should not strive only for civil dialogue. We should strive for good dialogue.
What is good dialogue? I will defer here to Columbia’s motto: “In Thy light shall we see light,” a phrase that I believe relates to the endeavors of all those whose names we see on the top of Butler. A good conversation should aim to find the “light,” whatever it is. A good conversation should be an unapologetic, unguarded, serious discourse on any given issue. Good dialogue is able to escape from peripheral issues such as identity politics and conversational politeness, and aims to reach deeply into a given issue. It does not automatically reject the opposing side but approaches contrary viewpoints critically and attentively. It is free from the bland language of mutual agreeableness and goes straight to the heart of the matter.
Due to the diversity of identities in our environment, conversation has necessarily become about agreeableness and tolerance. But tolerance must not become the goal of meaningful conversation. Tolerance is a respectable thing, but it is a negative virtue. It tells us what not to do. There are also positive virtues—things that guide us in what we should do. While the search for the “rightest” set of virtues traces from Plato and Aristotle to a number of liberal and conservative thinkers in the 20th century, the idea that there is some kind of positive virtue to attain has remained constant in global thought. We should strive to continue the search in our own conversations—rejecting faulty ideas when they seem plainly wrong and building on ideas that appear to contain some inkling of what is good, useful, or truthful. We should stop confusing disagreement for intolerance, and we should not be afraid to stand up for our own views, as controversial as they may be. We should debate them, learn from others, and not expect acceptance.
The first step on this path is to remotivate ourselves. Bringing both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students to the table will be a success, but it will be less so if those involved fail to delve into the underlying factors tying each side to the same land. Bringing students of multiple faiths is noble, but the motivation for doing so should not be the beauty of seeing both views side by side but forcing both views to struggle with one another. This will be both daunting and challenging. There will always be those promoting discussion solely for discussion’s sake. But learning, after all, has never been easy.
Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs alternate Mondays.
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