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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Show me a sign: Toward a more constructive dialogue

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Opinions

It is no secret that Brandeis is filled with opinionated parties—this fact is one of the many reasons that I chose to come here.

This political charge brings an incredible energy to campus and often provides students with incredible opportunities, often originating from the hundreds of student interest groups on campus.

These interest groups plan social events, host informative sessions and workshops and—as we have seen in the past few weeks in particular—bring in tons of incredible speakers pertaining to their topic of focus.

Some recent speakers brought by student groups include Food Not Bombs founder Keith McHenry, former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, professor from Yeshiva University Ellen Schrecker, Pro-Palestine activist Hedy Epstein and conservative writer and policy maker David Horowitz.

These speakers have been interesting, thought provoking and often controversial and their lectures had the potential to have sparked meaningful conversations on campus between those with opposing views but, in reality, it seems that these speakers just provided an opportunity for those with pre-formed opinions to jump into conflict with those whose opinions conflict with their own.

It seems to me that we, as a student body, are engaged in a passive aggressive conflict between groups on campus.

A prime and present manifestation of this phenomenon on campus is the interaction between different Israel activist groups.

One group puts up a poster in Shapiro Campus Center and another group puts one up in reaction or rebellion.

This trend continues until the purpose of sign posting is deemed completely irrelevant. Instead of paying attention to the world issues the signs are meant to advertise, students paying attention to the signs are fascinated with the conflict going on between interest groups.

Also, if by definition, every Israel group on campus is advocating for the same—that goal being a mutual desire for peace in the Middle East—it would be logical to think that this common thread would be enough to compel these groups to sit down and engage in dialogue together.

Groups are focusing all of their energy on putting their opinions out into the open in the most public—and what often ends up being the most inflammatory—way possible.

However, if every group is making as much noise as they can, it is inevitable that important information will be drowned out in the process.

This method of interaction doesn’t breed conversation, but rather argument between those with opposing views. .

It’s time to use the power of organizing to not only project our own messages but also to increase dialogue and communication between those with opposing viewpoints.

Via email correspondance, Professor Gordon Fellman (SOC) attributed this lack to “a combination of binary thinking (a party is the right or wrong, rather than both, as is so often the case), reluctance or refusal to question narratives one brings to Brandeis, misunderstanding of liberal arts education as encouraging questioning of all assumptions and seeking for truth even unto its innermost parts. The critics of speakers usually come to the talk with prepared questions and wait for their turn to speak them. Meanwhile, they appear not to be listening to the speaker or responding to the speaker’s actual presentation but rather to concentrate on prior and controversial issues really peripheral to the speaker’s remarks.”

He suggests, to remedy this issue, we create “dialogue groups that put the controversial issues aside and focus on how people can learn to listen fully to views whatever they are, how to be honest with oneself about reluctance to listen to views at odds with what is familiar and approved by one or another part of one’s home community culture, and how to factor in the usually unacknowledged emotional components of political disagreements and arguments. I.E. I’d look at process as well as substance and work towards a goal of opening up to what any speaker is saying, trying as fully as possible to empathize with why the speaker may be saying that, and finding points of human connection with the speaker and what the presentation represents.”

Thankfully, it seems that Brandeis groups are moving in the right direction, towards dialogue and greater understanding.

I am thrilled to report that on Thursday Oct. 28 a summit was hosted on campus by J-Street U that brought together all groups on campus that deal with Middle East politics.

The summit was held with the intentions of starting a dialogue between groups with opposing viewpoints on campus and figuring out a way in which groups can interact more harmoniously, engage in more valuable dialogue—something that will be beneficial for all involved parties.

I’m excited to hear about the results of Thursday night’s meeting between all Israel activist groups on campus.

I hope that this kind of inter-group dialogue can continue and bring greater success to all groups involved.