Douthat, West conversation proves civil conversation possible across political divide

| April 18, 2017 | 0 Comments

Cornel West, left, speaks alongside Ross Douthat about “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today” April 7 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Mike Ekern/Courtesy University of St. Thomas

More than 1,000 people filled the University of St. Thomas’ Woulfe Alumni Hall in the Anderson Student Center April 7 to hear a conversation about Christianity and politics from two prominent public intellectuals — New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West. Dozens more viewed the nearly two-hour discussion via screens in overflow seating.

The large turnout signaled to St. Thomas law professor Elizabeth Schiltz that there’s a desire for civil conversation on challenging topics that traverse ideological divides.

“The response reflected a real hunger for some model, some sample, some images of people who disagree with each other talking to each other at a level that is both polite, engaged and respectful, but one that is also deeper than the sound-bite kind of arguing that you get on television, on the web and in the blogs,” said Schiltz, who moderated the conversation.

Along with Catholic Studies professor William Junker, Schiltz co-directs the university’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy, which sponsored the event. She said the idea to pair Douthat, a conservative who is Catholic, and West, a Christian and liberal who’s served as an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, was sparked by both men’s “fierce intelligence,” yet personalities that are generous, marked by a sense of humor and “animated by Christian faith.”

The pair discussed a wide range of topics, from President Donald Trump’s April 6 missile attack on a Syrian airfield seen through the lens of just war theory to Black Lives Matters’ relationship with the 1960s civil rights movement.

The speakers showed that discussing views on difficult and often divisive topics “doesn’t need to be stressful, it doesn’t need to be tense,” Schiltz said.

“What’s been growing is a fear of talking to each other, a fear of what can happen when you really try to engage people in debates,” she said. “There’s this feeling that the things we fundamentally disagree upon are so important to different parties, and our differences [are so] intractable that there is no way we can talk to each other again, there’s no way we can ever hope to ever understand one another. The lines seem to be drawn so starkly.”

An increase in boycotts and public shaming have fueled that fear by stifling debate, she said. “There’s a fear of the other side — ‘How can you possibly not understand what’s so important to me?’ — and there’s a fear of what might happen to you if you try to go a level deeper,” she said.

Several recent incidences have taken place on college campuses, where controversial speakers have been protested, shouted down or — in the March case of political scientist Charles Murray at Vermont’s Middlebury College –— threatened with violence. Schiltz said that St. Thomas’ campus safety was prepared if it met similar efforts to disrupt the event, but Schiltz was confident it wouldn’t be an issue.

“I had utmost faith in the two of them [Douthat and West]” she said. “I have faith in Minnesota Nice, and I have faith in our Christian community here in Minnesota.”

The audience experienced what Schiltz described as a good-natured exchange marked by a “generosity of spirit,” where Douthat and West sought areas of common ground while sharing differences of perspective and opinion. The audience was generous in return, she said.

Frequent laughter — from the speakers and audience — buoyed the conversation despite the serious nature of the topics and depth of thought conveyed in their responses.

“I thought it was a phenomenal community event,” Schiltz said. “I was really impressed by the energy and the communication that was going back and forth between the speakers and the real feeling of a conversation that was taking place.”

A university is “supposed to be the place in society where people can go a little bit deeper than they sometimes have the luxury of going in their everyday lives,” she added, “and it’s certainly a level deeper than you can do in public media today.”

For Schiltz, the conversation’s highlights were the discussions about race, white supremacy, and liberal and conservative views of sex. She also appreciated the speakers’ response to the final audience question posed by a 16-year-old Latina, who asked West his advice to youths as “racism, discrimination and xenophobia feel more prevalent under the Trump administration.”

“I wouldn’t be obsessed with Trump,” West said. “Don’t fetishize him, don’t give him magical powers. He’ll come and go. The crucial thing for you … is that you have your whole life to live.”

He suggested she dedicate herself to spiritual and moral excellence — “integrity and honesty and decency and courage that puts a smile on your grandma’s face.”

Douthat added: “I think it’s useful to remember that real life is not the Internet. The Internet is a magnifier of anxiety — and I’m not saying that you should not be anxious about the presidency of Donald Trump. … I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be anxious about racism and discrimination and every form of evil in the world, but you should be anxious about them where they affect your real life, where you really live, in your family, your neighborhood and your community. If you encounter those things in your family, neighborhood and community, you should dedicate yourselves to fighting them.

“But there is a temptation to go out and seek out virtual experiences that confirm your anxieties and magnify them in ways that don’t reflect the reality of everyday life,” he added. “And the reality of everyday life is that America in the year 2017 is decadent. … But most periods in human history have featured evils and corruptions greater even than the ones that we confront now.

“People in those contexts have found ways to live their lives heroically, bravely and courageously without falling into a palsy of anxiety and victimization when bravery and heroism is what’s actually called for. … Whatever else you do in response to the Trump presidency, live as fully as you can in flesh reality, whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

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