Don’t be afraid to say what you mean

Guest column by Chris Strople, College of Educational Studies professor.

“I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was for me to come to class tonight,” Alice said to me as she walked into our Organizations, Ethics, Society class. “There is just too much going on with the election right now to have to be here.”

I knew exactly what she meant and I appreciated her willingness to make that statement. It revealed that the sense of community we’ve been working to build in our classroom was palpable for her. Saying what you mean in our class is a necessity, especially because we venture to learn from, and about, one another.

This necessity is not an exclusive endeavor to just our class. The opportunity to learn from listening to another’s experience is consistent with the experience of higher education.

We’ve been discussing ethical complexities present in both smaller organizational structures as well as in a larger societal context, and how these complexities lead us to consider that often there are no clear “solutions” to problems arising from ethical concerns. Initially that can be challenging to understand because often we imagine that the primary objective to any problem is to find a solution. Interestingly enough, that kind of objective can have an unintentional effect on whether we allowed ourselves an authentic opportunity to listen to the experience of other people. What happens when we discover that problem is so complex that it affects others in ways that it does not necessarily affect us?

We’ve spent some time scrutinizing complex social policies in our class. For example, affirmative action, a social policy devised with an ethical consideration of historical racial injustices in mind, attempted to address the complex implications of inequality for people of color in the United States. Whether that policy has proven effective has not been the central point of our class discussions. Rather, we have discussed what might replace such a policy and whether such a policy does merit replacement.

What we have found through discussing topics like this is that the experience of engaging in complicated conversations has the potential to enrich our understanding of the world. This potential is somewhat fragile though because to be so authentically engaged is to risk saying what you mean, even when you are uncertain how that statement might be interpreted by others.

The issue of race in the recent presidential election is a rather appropriate metaphor for the phenomenon being discussed here. Far too often people will hide behind politically correct conversation or even act the opposite, in a belligerent and offensive way, because the risk inherent in saying what they mean is fraught with apprehension.

So to support that risk taking, we’ve worked to create a sense of community in our classroom. It does provide a very real sense of security knowing that one’s perspective, knowledge, and life experience is respected and valued. We want an opportunity to voice the knowledge we’ve gained from our life experience and the possibility that such a statement can contribute to these complicated conversations.

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