Where Should Common Ground Go From Here?

Hamilton deserves praise for Common Ground, the new series aimed at bringing together distinguished individuals from across the political divide to engage, with the help of a moderator, in civil discussion about some of today’s most controversial topics. Last year, Common Ground focused more on the speakers than on subjects for debate. Hamilton could expand this platform by making ideas, not just the guests, central to it.

Those who have attended past Common Ground events may have been entertained and enlightened, but also sensed an air of hesitation in truly getting at the core of an issue. David Axelrod and Karl Rove last fall adopted the role of elder statesmen, swapping old war stories and looking back nostalgically from the twilight of their distinguished political careers. Condoleezza Rice and Susan Rice, last semester, displayed more disagreement on policy and were willing to sharpen their language to address core disagreements, but only came to serious conflict on the Iran nuclear deal. In both cases, the names and personas on stage drew us in as a community, at the expense of heated yet civil debate.

So far, Common Ground has missed an opportunity to truly test the notion that two people who disagree can sit down and rationally discuss issues that polarize our nation. Rove and Axelrod easily found common ground in commenting on President Trump’s unorthodox approach to governing. Condoleezza Rice and Susan Rice, as members of the Washington foreign policy establishment, certainly had more agreement than disagreement in condemning the current administration’s foreign policy. The college has not yet had a pair of speakers who held and discussed positions which fundamentally conflicted with each other. In particular, Hamilton should invite logical, informed, balanced, and persuasive speakers to campus to discuss, in detail, something from a broad range of divisive current issues. They should aim to find “Common Ground” while disagreeing on topics such as abortion, gun control, or immigration, presenting arguments that are reasonable, persuasive, and defensible.  

Hamilton’s student body could take the opportunity to truly test its ability to hear and appreciate dissenting opinions. While many on this campus hold strong convictions on certain issues, how many of us have listened to two experts calmly articulate their conflicting viewpoints? It would reflect especially well on our student body if we could appreciate and acknowledge the strength of a competing argument, even when it runs completely opposite to one’s own view. If the Common Ground series included more real debate between the guests, it would provide the Hamilton community with good examples of how emotion can be minimized in discussions of highly charged but complicated issues.

For these events to fully achieve their purpose, students must adopt two important attitudes. First, they must approach each event with an open mind. Acknowledging the strength of a competing argument does not necessarily weaken your own position. Second, students must engage in conversation within the framework of the event. They should, in other words, be open to having their minds changed and should submit questions which indicate a willingness to amend one’s own position, not just to highlight agreement or disagreement with a speaker’s. Furthermore, students during an event should show support for a speaker not necessarily based on a position, but on how well it is argued.

The right way to address divisive issues is to listen first, then speak. Trying to speak over someone, or not listening at all, would only suggest that civil discussion and bridging the divide on an issue are not possible. Our student body should make our college proud by always showing an air of respect at these events, without disruption from audience members who are too rigidly invested in their opinions.

Under these conditions, our community will gain a valuable forum in which to have our views strengthened, modified, refined, or even completely changed.