Illustration of two people talking

Illustration: Kim Salt

Navigating Hot Button Issues

While at Lehigh, Raihan Alam ’23 co-founded the Douglass Dialogues, a student club that encourages civil discourse about social, cultural and political topics.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

There's no way we can solve our problems together if we don't have these conversations. We're not going to figure out how we're going to solve the climate crisis if we can't even talk to each other, right? Civil discourse is a necessary condition for solving our greatest problems.

I don't think it's good for our culture that we might hate half of our country based on their political beliefs. That's not even good for our individual health, always being stressed by that.

Headshot of Raihan Alam ’23

Raihan Alam ’23

You just might be surprised by what happens when you sit down with someone and have a conversation. And you realize … they're actually not as extreme in their beliefs as you thought. And maybe, you think, they actually have thoughtful and good reasons for believing the alternative thing they believe. You might still disagree with them, but it's hard to hate someone once you're in conversation with them.

First, people have to be willing to hear both sides.

People have to be intellectually humble and understand that they might not know everything about every topic, that it might be worth listening to another side. When you have people with different beliefs, just being in the same room and talking to each other is key because you learn you actually agree on a lot.

Once you have people willing [to have a conversation], you want to create an environment that makes that conversation more likely to happen. Decide on common goals, common guidelines to facilitate that conversation. [In Douglass Dialogues] we have rules about making sure we talk about our personal experiences or facts we have, being mindful of how long we take to make our point and making sure we don't let someone who is talking for a long time keep going on.

Even though we have these structures, we can't guarantee that the conversations are going to be perfect conversations. When you touch on hot button issues, they can turn very extreme and disrespectful. …If it gets there, it's best to regroup and realize that, okay, this seems like this is not the time to have a deep intellectual conversation and maybe we should come back to this.

The problem with social media is, the most extreme people tend to be the loudest. On social media, it seems like everyone is far left or far right, when in reality, most people are in the middle. So you have to remind yourself, just because you're seeing this, just because it’s louder, it doesn't mean they represent the majority of Americans.

It goes back to dialogue skills too. Even if more moderates exist, they might not have the skills to have conversations in public. What we know from research is, you can teach people to intentionally think about opposing viewpoints, to avoid moralizing language, to focus on personal experience and signal that they're receptive to opposing views. Learning those skills can help the moderate voices come into the equation and show that our culture isn't as toxic in actuality.

Raihan Alam ’23 graduated with a double major in psychology and political science. He is pursuing his doctorate at the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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