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Notes From a Q&A

When a fact changes an entire conversation.

September 12, 2022

A few months ago, I gave a public talk at Brookdale on party polarization in U.S. politics. Someone in the audience was a member of a local Jewish center, and he invited me to give a shorter version of that talk there in September. I was the afternoon entertainment on Saturday.

After making clear that I was only speaking on my own behalf, I went through some of the causes of party polarization as I see them. It was a welcome chance to dust off the political science side of my brain. The audience was about 25 people, mostly older than me and apparently mostly conservative. The first half of the talk was mostly presentation and the second half a lively Q&A and conversation.

Anyone who has taught American government has had to learn how to handle pointed questions that may come from semireputable sources, so that was old hat. I made it clear that I wasn’t trying to change anyone’s politics; I was just trying to shed light on why ticket-splitting is much less common than it used to be, and why partisan leanings have become more geographically clustered over the last few decades. (The classic treatment of that is Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort.) Inevitably, of course, the Q&A was focused much more on very current events. Still, one exchange surprised me.

Someone asked pointedly why it makes sense to forgive some student loans when other people are going hungry. Several others immediately agreed, voicing various versions of “kids today …” When I responded that CUNY and the University of California used to be tuition-free, so students didn’t need loans to pay tuition, that seemed to be shocking new information to most. I was relieved when one man in the back thanked me for mentioning CUNY and added that CUNY was free when he attended it. That shifted the tone of the conversation. Suddenly what had looked at first (to many) like some sort of payoff or handout started to look more like an intergenerational apology.

Over the rest of the weekend, that was the moment I couldn’t stop mulling over. A piece of relevant context changed the entire tone of the conversation mostly because most of them didn’t have that piece at first. What if they did?

Television news is terrible at offering context. It doesn’t have to be, but it usually is. It presents measures proposed to deal with long-standing issues as if they’ve come from the clear blue sky. That’s true even when the long-standing issues have been previously reported. The absence of context—the basic connecting of dots—tends to favor responses that only make sense in a vacuum. In the absence of context, it’s easy to fall back on stereotypes.

The encouraging part of the conversation was that when presented with relevant context, some folks were able to move from an adamantly held view to a willingness to engage an alternative. (I don’t know how many actually changed their minds, but they suddenly saw some value in the other side.) Without key information, conversation is pointless; the “right” answer seems as obvious, and as beyond dispute, as simple arithmetic. But with key information, some folks realize that the “right” answer may not be obvious. That’s when real conversation can occur.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure many of you have had similar moments. For those of us in higher education, what conversational nuggets have you found to help dispel (or at least soften) strongly held views?

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Matt Reed

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