The Breakdown of Civil Discussion and the Importance of Difficult Conversations

By: Eli Saperstein  |  May 12, 2022

By Eli Saperstein, Opinions Editor

Everyone knows that person who they simply cannot talk to. Whether it is because they talk too much about politics or because they do not care about politics enough, after a conversation with either, it often feels futile to dream that hearts and minds and policies could ever be changed. Reasons to avoid controversial topics are only increasing. Political correctness has morphed into an accountability/cancel culture. More and more people feel that they are unable to express themselves or ask questions about these controversial topics to their peers, even if it is with only pure intentions. This is leading to a “spiral of silence” and an absence of the important, difficult, discussions and conversations that can make those who disagree with their peers more capable of either compromising or changing their own viewpoint in a way that reflects their shared humanity, interest, and values. 

With the recent anniversary of the Yeshiva University Pride Alliance lawsuit, as well as the leaked announcement from the Supreme Court regarding overturning Roe v. Wade, I have found that there is festering resentment from both sides towards one another. Coupled with the idea that many are unable to speak to one another civilly, no progress can be made for a solution to either of these issues. This is because all the interactions between the different sides consist of virtue signaling and the same point after prepared points, which are typically being yelled at by one another. These forums quickly devolve into a way that is only meant to express yourself and your opinions and not a conducive way to hear the other side out. We all know how these conversations typically end: with one side trying to de-escalate or leave and both parties feeling worn out, disappointed, and even angry that they wasted their time, convinced that the other side is more wrong than ever.

Throughout my time at YU I have seen how rarely it is that a debate changes anyone’s mind. The disagreements usually result from differences in values. However, debates and dialogues do not change values. Discussions do. Conversations do. Listening, realizing, and truly hearing what the other person is feeling, thinks, and believes about an issue is the way to both perceive where they are really coming from as well as why they place more value on some things and less on others. In my experience, most who come in with the honest intention of trying to learn about the other side, even if they originally come into a conversation with the viewpoint that they believe an issue is black and white, quickly realize that there is in fact a plethora of color surrounding the issue at hand.

I have found that there are many who either intentionally or unintentionally try to take the easy way out by professing their ignorance on an issue and saying that they do not feel qualified to give an opinion. They may say that both sides are valid. But if the response to them is then, “silence is violence,” it threatens these individuals and may make them less likely to truly agree with the position being taken instead of only giving lip service and agreeing and then begin looking for other outlets to express their true thoughts and feelings. This is especially true when it has become normal and even expected to cut others out if they express dissenting opinions. However, as someone who tries to advocate and talk about many issues, whether it is related to politics or an issue on campus, I have found that there have been students who have come over to me asking how I can support certain things. The reason they approached me, I later found out, was because they were confident that I am their friend first, activist second. That I value them and their opinions and that I want to share my knowledge and ideas with them, not argue with them until they say that they agree with me. They typically feel that there are things that they and their community do not support and find it strange that a friend of theirs would have dissimilar opinions to their own. To me, this is strange because as a firm believer in the idea of “two Jews, three opinions,” I do not think we here at YU, should ever aspire to have a monolithic ideology. 


Yet these experiences showed me that the way to change others’ minds is not through debate. While debates may humiliate those who have not done their research or are not articulate enough, it does not matter. Oftentimes people feel that because they are part of a “side,” something bigger than themselves, then it does not matter that they have been proven wrong. Even though they do not know how they have been stumped, that failure on themselves or their opponents’ victory is not necessarily a failure of their ideas, in their opinion. It is a fault in themselves but the ideas and ideologies that they ascribe to cannot be faulted.


But how can these conversations begin? Today’s world is more activist and polarized than ever. We constantly hear stories about our crazy family members who either our families or we try to avoid. If it’s not family, it could be coworkers, where bosses and other coworkers feel free to express and shout their opinions from the rooftops, but you know that no matter how politely you express yours, your boss or coworker will look at you differently. In my own experiences, heaving a discussion and pinpointing exactly where the disagreements are, or the different experiences and attitudes that led to different conclusions is healthy. We would be better served if we emphasized our common humanity as opposed to focusing solely on the things that divide us.


Another thing that I have found is that if the conversation about a controversial issue is easy and everyone is agreeing with each other, then there has not been all that much progress towards a solution. In fact, we are seeing an echo chamber effect where people become more and more radicalized and separate themselves from others. Having these difficult conversations is definitely easier when there is already an incredibly strong foundation of mutual respect for one another. However, in today’s world where despite the internet, if one chooses to isolate their ideas they can then the only times those sides come together is during a debate, and no matter what happens, even if you agree with another viewpoint during the debate, without conversations where you can discuss these ideas in a calm setting you will likely get sucked into the rest of your life and your values would not have shifted long term.


I have also found that when people try to discuss ideas it is not an honest dialogue but a monologue directed at one another where each party only listens enough to respond, never to understand. Never trying to understand these ideas in their fullest or why the person may think things as they directly counter so much of who you are. In fact, there are studies showing that the internet is radicalizing people based off of our algorithmic platforms. The dissemination of information is not equal, especially not on programs that have learned your politics.


Exposure to new ideas is important. While there are currently discussions on what Torah u’Madda is and should be here at YU, I believe everyone can agree that exposure to new ideas is an important part of that. Being exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking should not be approached with fear here at YU. Rather YU should approach and embrace new and controversial ideas steadily, albeit cautiously. Yet, it feels as if many at YU prefer to continue talking if not outright gossiping in echo chambers as opposed to having nuanced albeit difficult conversations with peers they might deem opponents. This “othering” at YU is not unique. What we are facing now, where there are multiple cultures fighting for a seat at the table while the majority not bothering to speak or reach a compromise, is happening all over the country.


Everyone needs to be given a fair seat at the table here at YU and be enabled to join the conversation so that it can contain all of the different perspectives, nuances, and gray areas that are necessary in order to resolve the complex, difficult, and nuanced issues facing the student body. Sending out a dismissive email saying that there were conversations for a mere four months and summarily rejecting the YUPA club is likely what led to the lawsuit in the first place. Many current students are uneducated and unaware of the circumstances and history surrounding the events that have led up to the current situation. Rigidity benefits the status quo when neither side is willing to compromise or even have a civil albeit difficult conversation with the other party.


I have heard from many individuals, on all sides of the political spectrum, that there is little benefit to conversing with those that disagree with them. I am curious as to how many conversations these people have had with people who disagree with them. However, creating a simplistic worldview without the nuances of other perspectives and other ideas will not help create a better environment for anyone, least of all the nonhomogeneous student body at YU.


Criticism especially of oneself and of one’s own ideas is a good thing. However, nowadays it appears as if the only time you hear criticism is from someone not from your group. Therefore, it will be rejected. But the problem will still be there, still allowed to remain and fester because no one in “your” group is able or allowed to say such a thing.


Difficult issues and ideas cannot be adequately summed up or expressed by 3-4 word chants at protests like “My body, My Choice” or “Make America Great Again.” What needs to take place in order for our country and our beloved Yeshiva University to move forward, is an important, controversial, and revolutionary resurgence in conversation that is respectful, nuanced, and civil. The importance of debating and the breakdown of monologuing fade in comparison to the necessity of all the different sides to come to the table and have a conversation about their values and their vision for the future.