In My Words: How to disagree in close quarters
The Burlington Times-News and The Huffington Post recently featured a guest column by Anthony Hatcher, associate professor of communications, who writes about the lessons learned from students who disagree without being disagreeable.
By Anthony Hatcher, firstname.lastname@example.org
Two students in my Journalism in a Free Society class sent me emails on the same evening recently. Each message contained a disturbing video depicting a racist incident, but from two widely divergent points of view.
One of the students is a white female who leans conservative. The other is a mixed race African/Native American male who leans liberal. She is voting for Trump; he’s not voting this year. They had engaged in a respectful but insistent exchange in class that day, voicing opposing viewpoints about racial intimidation.
What struck me about the tone of their emails, as well as the tone of the earlier wide-ranging discussion by the entire class about race, politics, free speech and the role of the news media, was how civil it all was. Various students were passionate about their points of view, but no one accused those they disagreed of being bigoted, stupid or idiotic.
Without any interference from me, the students maintained an invective-free zone.
The liberal-leaning male student had talked in class of a racial incident in which Black Lives Matter protestors had been harassed by a white man in a gorilla mask. The conservative-leaning female student related a personal anecdote about when she and a male companion were verbally assaulted on a public street by a group of black men shouting epithets such as, “We’re going to kill white people.”
He said there are more established white supremacist groups who intimidate blacks. She said the individuals who verbally accosted her were evidence that racism exists on both sides.
No one yelled. No complaints of hurt feelings. No whining.
That night, each of them sent me links to stories that supported the points they were making in class. The young man sent me a video that has been viewed widely on social media. In September, East Tennessee State University campus police arrested Tristan Rettke, a white freshman, on a charge of civil rights intimidation.
According to press accounts, Rettke wore a gorilla mask and overalls, carried a rope in a bag, and tried to hand out bananas at a campus Black Lives Matter gathering.
Rettke told protestors standing peacefully around a fountain and holding signs, “I identify as the gorilla. I’m just supporting my people.” Police report that Rettke said he was trying “to provoke the protesters,” who recorded the incident but did not retaliate.
My female student sent a video of members of the Hebrew Israelite movement, a group of African-Americans who believe they are descended from ancient Israelites. She suspected the black men who had communicated verbal threats to her and her male companion were part of this movement, the extremist fringe of which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as “black supremacist.”
In the video, black men on a sidewalk hold up a poster depicting “The White Man’s Destiny,” showing whites in slavery. A man shouts to white passersby, “All the atrocities that were done to our people are going to be done to you, times two.”
The video has been posted and touted by a number of conservative websites as evidence of black racism.
In this ideas-centered journalism class, we discuss a wide variety of topics, ranging from historical incidents such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, to contemporary issues concerning WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, to press coverage of police shootings and Black Lives Matter marches. And of course, the weirdness of the 2016 election.
The young man and woman involved in the disagreement sit within four feet of each other in class, and neither has chosen to move elsewhere in the room. They greet each other every class day. No trolling on social media, no violations of the Honor Code.
Issues of race have always been on America’s agenda, even more so of late. It seems we’ve stopped listening to one another, stopped caring who we hurt.
This is why this class exchange between two ideologically opposed students has stuck with me. On college campuses across the nation during this highly charged political season, young people are often showing more restraint, patience, and common sense than their elders.