Editorial: Including Experience in Conversation

One of the ideas present in last week’s editorial was the importance of focusing on people’s ideas, not the identities of those holding them, during discussions about race—the importance of being “hard on ideas, not people.”

One of the ideas present in last week’s editorial was the importance of focusing on people’s ideas, not the identities of those holding them, during discussions about race—the importance of being “hard on ideas, not people.” To a certain extent, this holds true—we should not be hostile or attack others during conversations. However, there is a danger that this phrase could lead us to think that our experiences do not shape the ideas we hold and should thus be ignored during conversations. When we discuss issues, whether they be police brutality, immigration, or economic policies, we must recognize that each person’s experiences deeply affect their arguments. It is impossible to avoid the influence of one’s personal experiences on one’s thinking, not only for minority groups most affected by the topic in question but also for white students. Discounting one’s experiences only creates an artificially comfortable conversation, which ultimately does not bring us closer to our goals of creating meaningful change.

In order to fully absorb each other’s ideas, we must examine the context behind them to fully enrich our understanding. Over the past few months, the nature of our political conversations on campus has changed. As we resume discussions, people’s experiences and emotional baggage—cultural and racial biases and problematic behaviors—are being referenced in the conversation to a greater extent than ever before. The issues at hand are much more complex and pressing than ever before, requiring us to both engage with each other and to self-reflect. For many white students, it is jarring to examine their own actions, biases, and privileges that come with their own race. Thus, the phrase “be hard on ideas, not people” suggests that people should not be examining their personal experiences in conjunction with their ideas. It is that scrutiny that creates uncomfortable and vulnerable conversations; conversations that are truly productive.

While some may feel discomfort with sudden attention to their personal experiences, we must understand that for many groups on campus, this discomfort is nothing new. The expectation to only examine the experience of students of color reflects of our community’s tendency to treat white experiences as the norm. In reality, each individual’s perspective offers something to learn from. Instead of shying away from discomfort, we should embrace it.

In our first editorial last spring, we discussed the role of Harkness as “the great equalizer” of our Lawrenceville experience. If Harkness is to truly act as an equalizing force on campus, we must first recognize the complexities and diversities of our own experiences, while also continuing to value experiences which are not our own. Even though we value the experiences of others, it doesn’t mean we have to agree with every opinion that emerges from them—we owe them dignity, not respect. In truth, complete objectivity in a conversation does not exist. Thus, we can only work towards understanding the roots of our subjectivity, and how it manifests in our conversations.

Civil discourse is not synonymous with “everyone being comfortable during the conversation.” It’s about pushing each other to have those difficult conversations and learning from them. In truth, our discomfort emerges from recognizing the subjective nature of our ideas. This recognition is indicative of our personal growth, reflecting the increased awareness of the relationship between our current ideas and our experiences. Ultimately, this is a learning process that does not happen overnight.

We should take advantage of the four years we have at Lawrenceville and the environment in which much of our learning takes place: a Harkness table. We are a diverse and complex community, which allows us to be exposed to valuable ideas and criticisms we’ve never heard. These ideas and criticisms are constructive—if we let them, they will help us grow. We should be prioritizing that learning and growth over ease and comfort.

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