It’s important to get controversial

By Carl Legg

Opinion Contributor

One of the first friends I made at college was a loud mouth from Boston named Bryan. We got along great but everyone else hated when we were together. Bryan and I never talked, we argued incessantly. Our voices would grow louder and louder as we declared our beliefs on anything from sports to politics to the weather. Even when we agreed on something it felt like an argument. By the end of the semester, we learned to have our never ending debates in private but my love for them remained. People may hate my love for controversial topics but I will always defend my belief that it is healthy and crucial to have our beliefs criticized.

The disdain I received from others when I challenged them stopped surprising me. Many of our human relationships are built from what we have in common, so why should others risk that by talking about what we disagreed on? I eventually enrolled into an internship program called Common Ground at the University at Maryland where I could have these arguments. It was multicultural dialogue program that focused on controversial topics, I had found where I belonged. I quickly realized that it was not only okay to love discussing these sensitive issues but that it was good for me. A study by David Johnson at Minnesota University in 2009 said, “studying and debating controversial topics in school helps increase student attention, motivation, achievement, creativity, and self-esteem.” For me that meant that the more I talked about my controversial beliefs, the less bad I felt about them.

After six months at Common Ground I was finally ready for the real thing. I would finally be able to lead a group of my peers on some of the most controversial topics imaginable over a 4 week course. My first group’s topic was abortion, I spent days doing research getting ready to mediate. When the time came to prove my worth, the last thing I expected happened. In a room with an incredible diversity of opinions on abortion, there was nothing short of the utmost respect and civility. My peers who did not even know each other were doing everything they could to understand each other’s viewpoints. I still feel melancholy about it, I felt as if I was not even needed but how can I be mad over such a wonderful display of humanity.

A case study of the Common Ground Program revealed that my experience was not unique. In it Nicole Mehta wrote, “ Although conflict was present during the dialogue sessions, the respectful nature of the participants‟ interactions ensured that the conflicts were handled with civility.”

If done correctly, a lot can be gained from a controversial discussion. To create a better experience, it can be important to follow these guidelines that the University of Michigan laid out for these conversations in the classroom: identify a clear purpose, establish ground rules, provide a common basis for understanding, create a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow, include everyone, have an active facilitator, summarize discussion, and gather feedback from everyone involved. If you can get out out your comfort zone and embrace your differing opinions, the rewards will certainly be worth it.

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