Moral Dialogue

In class, we’ve been exploring “moral networks.” Earlier in the semester, our students mapped their networks, responding to prompts like What abstract moral principles seem compelling to you? and What personal virtues do you strive to develop?

Today they paired up, map in hand, and asked each other questions. What did you mean when you wrote that? How do these ideas connect?

After the conversations, we came back as a full group to discuss. Was this conversation like a one-on-one? We asked. Is it deliberation?

We also asked about spaces where these conversations can take place – and whether lack of such spaces has a negative impact on civil society.

“These conversations” would, of course, not literally be citizens coming together with diagrammed morals. But are there spaces where you can genuinely talk with others about what you believe and about what they believe?

Some people had these conversations. Many did not.

In Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life, sociologist Nina Eliasoph observes how people interact – constantly avoiding conflict. They may have passionate discussions around what type of cookie to sell at the bake sale, but the moment someone raises an issue of institutional racism the conversation gets shut down.

Problems that seem to hard, too solvable, and too likely to raise real debate are avoided in dialogue again and again and again.

Conflict avoidance isn’t the only barrier to authentic dialogue.

As Kenji Yoshino, describes in Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, people often hide their true selves – cover – in order to adhere to social norms. This covering, and this social pressure to cover, results in people burying their true selves, trying desperately to be the person they think society wants them to be – often with seriously detrimental results.

Yoshino argues that everybody covers to some degree, but looks particularly through the lens of civil rights. People of color who cover to fit a white social norm. Women who cover to fit a male social norm. Working class people who cover to fit a middle class norm.

You could add countless other forms of covering – the stigma around mental health, for example, leads many to “cover” those aspects of themselves.

Like Yoshino, I’m not intrinsically anti-covering, I’m okay with the guy who always says exactly what he’s thinking whether it’s a socially acceptable thing to say or not – but I don’t know that we all need to aspire to be that person.

But I do think covering is a problem. It’s a problem for the individuals who are unable to genuinely express themselves, and it’s a problem for all of us who lose those voices and perspectives from the conversation.

Covering diminishes all of us.

So, for yourself, try to push the boundaries of your comfort – try to trust people to accept you for who you are even if it seems impossible to imagine that they could. Even if you try just a little, its important to try.

And, more importantly, when you’re talking to others, know that they may be covering – that they probably are covering. They probably have thoughts and ideas and feelings that they assume you will judged them for. Pieces of themselves that they are unsure to share, but which are core to their identity, no matter how far they’ve tried to push it down.

A dialogue takes two people. It’s your job to not only to listen and talk, but to share your authentic self and to openly welcome others to do the same. A conversation isn’t about you, it’s about inviting the other person to share a piece of themselves – and, importantly, to accept and welcome the piece they share with you.


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