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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Walking the Tightrope

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

In our first set of blog posts, my team provided a context for our commitment to the Hackworth Fellowship, and offered several explanations of why we believe our topic, Freedom of Speech and Civil Discourse, is worthy of our time and dedication. Behind this mission lies not only a belief in the objective importance of those values, but a conviction that pursuing and nurturing them on campus will better our community. However, much like anything that matters deeply in a community, the sheer fact of its existence is not sufficient for generating positive change. Rather, there are ways we can pursue these values well, in which we contribute to the overall health of our community, and ways we can pursue them poorly, in which we further its fragmentation.

As we have discussed the distinction between leading well and leading poorly, my team has come to realize the significance of the language we use, and has grown increasingly attune to the nuances that either consciously or subconsciously craft the delivery of our message. Upon that realization, one of the concepts we have considered most intentionally and thoughtfully is the balanced role that both speaking and listening play in our mission.

Even in our decision to name our blog “The Power of Our Voices,” we considered the possibility of that sentiment being co-opted by individuals who might misappropriate the word “power” and may see our title as a justification for dominating others. After all, the reality of our world is that some voices do inherently carry more power, and we often see the voices of the majority drowning out those of the minority.  This is not an order we are interested in preserving, nor is the sentiment that “power” is equivalent to domination. To achieve this clarity, we amended our title to read as, “The Power of Our Voices: The Courage to Speak and the Humility to Listen,” because we believe both speaking and listening are integral to productively promoting freedom of speech and civil discourse on campus.

The challenge, then, becomes not only how to speak and listen in such a way that fosters meaningful dialogue, but when to speak and when to listen. We acknowledge that it is important to speak up for what’s right and to speak out against evil—to be an “upstander” in the face of misconduct, and to advocate for just causes. Yet we also believe in the importance of listening to other perspectives, in opening one’s mind to recognize an alternate point of view, and in thoughtfully considering the experiences of others. So how do we use our best judgment to make this distinction? What sorts of tools, checklists, and values do we call upon when trying to decide whether to stand up and say something or whether to sit down and listen?

There is no one-size-fits all method to making these choices, and quite frankly, the decision-making process may vary from person to person. But regardless of what your process is, the first step is simply to have one. If we hope to speak and listen effectively, and to engage in those behaviors with wise discernment, we ought to spend some time thinking about what our values are and where we draw the line. Without thinking critically about the impact of our actions and the motivations behind them, both speaking and listening can be dangerous. We may cause direct ham to others with our careless words, or we may cause indirect harm by passively allowing a hurtful statement to go unchecked.

If we want our words to contribute something generative and our silence to provide a deliberate space for others to share, then we must be intentional with those decisions, and must take the time to consider what guiding principles are informing them. The simple act of taking a few minutes to write down your most central values can be an excellent place to start. From there, it may be useful to think about what you’ll look for and how you’ll respond if you are put in a situation where those values are at stake.

So, how about it? When will make you speak, and what will make you listen?

Oct 27, 2017

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