Common Ground: A shared challenge, not shared beliefs

Scott St. Louis

A thoughtful column by Claire Fisher, published in the Monday, Jan. 23 issue of the Lanthorn, responded to a dialogue held by the Hauenstein Center in partnership with the Division of Inclusion and Equity. This dialogue, “Race and the American Dream,” featured Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine and Jason Riley of The Wall Street Journal.

Kudos to Fisher for sharing her commentary. She has made an admirable choice, lending voice to nuanced views in order to galvanize public discussion. I thank her for it.

In response, I would like to note that Fisher’s critique of the event contains three misconceptions.

Fisher notes that “asking two people with very different viewpoints on an issue to find some way to agree on stage in one hour is unrealistic.” Such a characterization misses the central purpose of the event. “Race and the American Dream” was never about promoting misty-eyed false unity on one of the most challenging issues in American life.

Instead, the event was a response to what Barack Obama described in his farewell address the “great sorting” of our time: a tendency “to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who … never challenge our assumptions.”

At the Hauenstein Center, we share the former president’s concern. It is why we are cultivating a public forum outside of the country’s ideological echo chambers, a place where scholars and writers of different views can encounter one another face-to-face in a divisive time, openly and honestly. That the disagreements between Hannah-Jones and Riley are profound is obvious. It’s why we invited them!

Challenging such voices to find common ground is more important than actually locating consensus. It is the challenge itself that keeps public attention on a crucial democratic process: that of maintaining humane conversation (not facile agreement) across lines of serious difference.

This brings me to the second misconception. Fisher states that, instead of “forcing the two speakers to agree, the Hauenstein Center should have respected their differences in opinion and moved on.” At no time did anyone force Hannah-Jones and Riley toward the same opinion. Rather, their divergent views were purposefully on clear display. The conversation emphasized a search for areas of mutual understanding and shared commitment simply because this task is more difficult than rote airing of disagreements.

Lastly, Fisher concluded that the event “was unnecessarily discouraging to members of the community who hope to find common ground.” To this claim, my response is simple. If such conversations are “discouraging,” then their absence would be truly devastating: toxic to the mind and soul. Engaging thought leaders of different persuasions is never cause for despair. It is invigorating, illuminating, and liberating.

In spite of our disagreements, I encourage all members of the Grand Valley community to heed Fisher’s call, and keep talking about things that matter. At a liberal arts university, this is common ground we all can share.