Jonathan Lounds on conversing with civic superstars
The 3rd annual Festival of Faiths was held on August 30th and featured a variety of events and activities for participants to attend. One of the highlights of the festival was the Social Awareness Table Conversations event which was organized by the Desmond Tutu Center, Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation, and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. This event brought together some of the leading public intellectuals in Indiana along with community members to discuss important issues facing Indiana, our country, and the world. The conversations included the topics of dying well, RFRA and marriage equality, hate speech, diversity in religious institutions, community violence, and racial tensions, the threat of terrorism, and the future of Indiana.
The conversations were held at roundtables in the Indiana War Memorial downtown, and if you have ever been to the War Memorial, you know it is truly awe inspiring when you enter. However, it was not the architecture or décor that was the most impressive on August 30th, it was civic leaders that were assembled at the Social Awareness Table Conversations event facilitating the discussions. The organizers of the event were able to recruit facilitators who were not only prominent leaders in Indiana but also the foremost experts on the issues. The conversations lasted nine minutes each and at the end of each conversations participants moved to another table for the next discussion. This allowed for enough time for participants to attend four table conversations of their choice. The facilitators prepared questions or other prompts to stimulate the conversation. All of the dialogue I witnessed at the discussions was very thoughtful and respectful. Even though participants and facilitators disagreed with each other, everyone was extremely respectful of each other’s opinions.
The Social Awareness Table Conversations event represents an important aspect of our current political and civic life that is lacking; civil discourse. In the current political atmosphere, rhetoric beats rational debate. The 24 hour news cycles provides an endless loop of political rhetoric in order to sell advertising instead of informing the citizenry. Social media and news apps give us the ability to customize information to our political preferences and gives us a lopsided view of the debate. Our political opinions are constantly reinforced by the echochamber of similar opinions we create for yourself. Much of political dialogue that we do engage in comes more and more in the form of tweets or comments on social media sites. As a society, we are increasingly isolating ourselves of opposing views and contributing to the hyperpolarization of politics. This description of the current debate on policy issues in the news and on social media is in sharp contrast with the Social Awareness Table event. At the tables, attendees were able to have a calm and thoughtful conversation on contentious issues even though there was a plurality of strong opinions being expressed.
The conversations were not meant to solve any of the issues that were being discussed but instead to begin a dialogue among people who care about these matters and the future of our community. The organizers wanted the event to mark the beginning of an ongoing discussion on the topics. Participants of the event were provided opportunities to follow up and be involved in the topics and continue engage in civil discourse. Events such as the Social Awareness Table Conversations are a perfect example of what civic engagement should be and how citizens can be actively involved in the debate on important issues facing our community. If we want to move beyond hyperpolarized politics and the culture wars, as a community we need to continue to engage with one another in civil conversations such as these.