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Fort Lewis College students explore ways to have more civil political discourse

Misinformed stereotypes among reasons for divisiveness

By Tyler Brown Herald Staff Writer

Friday, Mar 29, 2024 12:30 PM Updated Saturday, Mar. 30, 2024 2:52 PM

In a world that seems divided by political discourse, a Fort Lewis College political science professor and his students are examining how things became this way and methods for holding more civil debates.

Students and community members gathered in groups Wednesday at the FLC Ballroom to discuss divisive issues. Each table included topics such as student loan debt relief, banning of books and environmental issues.

Political science students, meanwhile, stood by to help participants understand how to engage in civil conversation about politics.

The workshop was part of a Paul DeBell’s political psychology class.

“We believe that identifiable facts are the basis of important political conversations and effective policymaking,” said Wyatt Bair, vice president of the FLC Political Engagement Project (formerly the Political Science Club). “Good-faith negotiation between parties is essential to solving the issues that we care about, and that public interests should always come before personal interests or party interests.”

DeBell and his students sought to demonstrate how a person’s reaction and body language when confronted with other’s political beliefs can create a vitriolic environment.

DeBell said people often make assumptions about opposing political beliefs based on stereotypes. He referenced an article published in The Washington Post called “Democrats are gay, Republicans are rich: Our stereotypes of political parties are amazingly wrong.”

According to the article, a survey was given to people with conservative views and those with liberal views. It found that people with conservative views believe that 30% of Democrats identify as members of the LGBTQ community. But in reality, only about 8% of Democrats identify with the LGBTQ community. By the same token, Democrats taking the survey estimated that 40% of Republicans make $250,000 or more per year. But that salary range applies to only 2.5% of conservatives.

DeBell took it a step further by saying 74% of National Rifle Association members support background checks for gun owners, based on data from the Center for American Progress.

“That’s pretty surprising,” he said. “I’ll bet a lot of us, if we saw somebody’s NRA sticker on their car, would make all sorts of presumptions about them, and what they believe in.”

It is a perfect example, he said, of how people can find common ground, despite their political differences.

“It’s really easy to focus on differences. Again, that’s profitable for a lot of people. Not for us, but for certain political elites, pundits and media,” DeBell said. “It’s really profitable to show the fight. But as we saw earlier, there’s a lot of research suggesting that we agree on many issues.”

Students discussed methods such as active listening to help navigate political conversations.

“There’s four main components to active listening, which are understanding, communicating, observing and correcting,” said FLC senior Esai Gomez.

He said it is important to use listening skills to create a respectful environment.

Near the end of the event, DeBell played a clip from Robb Willer’s TED Talk, “How to have better political conversations,” which led to a discussion about how both sides of the political spectrum endorse values.

For example, Willer’s findings indicate that liberals tend to endorse values like equality, fairness, care and protection from harm, while conservatives tend to favor values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity.

That was used to show how people will take their political perspective and use those inherent values in conversation rather than approaching a political opposite based on their values.

Wednesday’s workshop was the first of multiple events to be hosted by DeBell, the Political Engagement Project and Restore the Balance.

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