Saturday, February 25, 2006


I’m afraid of my opinion. So are you. Consider this situation. Spring quarter, I became involved in a political debate with a couple friends during a class break. It started calmly enough until I realized the opposing views that we represented. A couple of us supported Dino Rossi, and one of us supported Christine Gregoire.

The tension grew as mild statements turned into bald faced assertions. We were in deep water before long, discussing pro choice versus pro life views, and Bush versus Clinton. I knew we couldn’t go much further before one side would be seriously offended, and I didn’t want to risk a friendship over the issues. We swept the entire debate under the rug. It hasn’t come up since.

Still don’t believe me? Have you ever listened to a teacher say something you completely disagreed with and just sat there? Have you ever said ‘uh huh’ just to avoid a dispute?

I would contend that we’ve become so afraid of our opinions that we can’t even discuss elections with other people in a civil manner.

More than a few times I’ve kept my mouth shut simply to avoid an argument. I didn’t speak because I feared someone’s opinion, thought that the ensuing conversation wouldn’t be productive, wasn’t prepared to defend my position, or simply had no desire to have a conflict.

A naïve, no-conflict attitude seems to be common among my peers, leaving us unprepared for a vocal onslaught. We perceive an argument as something to be avoided at all costs, which causes a lack of communication, and an inability to support our arguments.

Because many of us haven’t learned how to debate in a civilized manner, feedback often turns into an ill considered combination of sweeping generalizations and accusations. During a discussion with a coworker, I mentioned that I thought public school teachers were overpaid. My coworker immediately responded defensively, telling me I was wrong.

It wasn’t a debate—she thought I was attacking her. She didn’t perceive it as a learning opportunity—she thought my motivation lay in destroying her argument.

I don’t like the implication of this, because it assumes that conflict is a bad thing. Not necessarily. The Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington presents an interesting take on conflict in their paper, “When Conflict Helps Learning.”

The paper targets conflict in a learning environment specifically, but emphasizes two ideas. They write, “Conflict motivates learning because people do not like to repeat frustrating, embarrassing, or painful experiences.” Approached with the right attitude, conflict can be an ideal opportunity to understand an opposing viewpoint.

Expanding on this idea, the paper continues, “Conflict inspires innovation by illuminating areas of misunderstanding, invalid assumptions, personality or value differences that, when explored, can result in greater value to everyone involved.”

Ideally, Americans should have a free exchange of ideas, especially among college students, who vary considerably in backgrounds and beliefs. A debate should not destroy a friendship or relationship, but should be approached non-combatively and with a desire to understand the other point of view.

I’m still afraid of my opinion, and you probably are too. However, if you are willing to share frightened opinions with me, I will do my best to use our conflict to learn and understand.

No comments: