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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Trust is key to productive SMC dialogue

This week, conversations about Saint Mary’s Catholic identity have been occurring in response to two letters. One recently summarized in The Observer argues that Saint Mary’s has decided to “cater to popular culture and celebrate secular values,” over fidelity to our Catholic identity. The other, published in response, argues that our priorities at Saint Mary’s flow from “true Catholic teachings and theological perspectives that uphold equality and diversity.” As someone who has invested my professional life at Saint Mary’s working with our community to build skills for open dialogue, it feels like an urgent time to speak up. We must reflect on what is possible if we take a path of dialogue, calling on empathy, curiosity and intellectual humility to guide our conversation, compared to what we risk if we take a path of polarization, fear and alienation. Two things are clear to me in the passion of students whose writing I have read and those who have shared their individual thoughts with me: 1) Meaningful conversations about what it means to attend a Catholic, women’s liberal arts college matter enormously to students and 2) Saint Mary’s forms and empowers our students to speak up with conviction and to speak truth to power, even when that is uncomfortable, risky or unpopular.Alongside this passion expressed by students, I hear so much pain. We not only encourage our students to speak up, but we also equip them to discern and respond to the pain of others, especially those who are vulnerable. Concern for vulnerable folks is a consistent commitment of Catholicism, Christianity more broadly and many of the world’s ethical and religious belief systems. When we tune into others’ pain, we can transform conflict so that we can flourish alongside each other even as productive tensions remain. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of us at Saint Mary’s want a space where we feel that we belong and where our flourishing matters. And further, we want that for not only ourselves but for others who live, work and study at Saint Mary’s, even those who are quite different from us. But how does dialogue help us build a thriving community with productive (rather than destructive) tensions? To start, transformative dialogue requires an honest account of what’s real in our context. In my view, we don’t engage with our complicated identity as a Catholic, women’s college enough and in the right ways. But in order to do better at engaging questions of our institutional identity, we first need to invest in building a culture of trust from the bottom up and from the top down. What obstacles make these complicated conversations about Catholic identity hard? First, when we make an issue binary or two-sided, we create polarization and alienation. Perhaps you have experienced this. Maybe you signed one letter but now you’re concerned about what others think of you because of that. Or perhaps you are seeing who’s sharing what on social media and drawing conclusions about acquaintances that don’t add up. Perhaps you are so enraged or hurt by some of the views expressed that you’ve found it hard to focus on school, work or relationships. This is painful, and it’s a path to a divided community with limited trust and dim prospects for good conversations, let alone conflict transformation. To reduce polarization, we need to honor complexities and nuance in everyone’s view, and that means we can’t make everything about us vs. them. The letters have given us a starting point that helps us discern what matters to folks on our campus, but they cannot be the end or we will be like two battalions lining up on opposite sides for a destructive conflict. This is not the path to a community in which any of us can thrive. Second, to have a productive dialogue, it must be non-negotiable that every member of our community belongs here. All of us are welcomed and loved and respected. Because you are here, Saint Mary’s is committed to ensuring you can flourish intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This means we have to invite those who are feeling pain or exclusion to share their experiences if they wish, and while we must tend to everyone, we have to prioritize the pain of those who are on the margins. We may not all agree at the outset about whose experiences are marginalized and whose are centered at Saint Mary’s. Disagreements about relevant facts are a significant obstacle to dialogue of any kind, but seeking credible evidence and fact-checking are prerequisites for good-faith engagement. From there, interpretations may still differ, at which point we can either reasonably conclude that productive engagement is impossible and save our energy for other pursuits, or we can marshal empathy and curiosity to try to learn from others what is invisible to us given our own experiences. We can also practice humility, modifying or expanding our views in response to compelling information from good-faith dialogue partners.One important caveat here: Those experiencing pain, exclusion or ostracization may have limited energy for this work, and that is fine. You never owe anyone an accounting of your views or experiences. These are a gift to be freely offered in an environment of trust but never coerced or required. Conversely, those with the most power, who have experienced the fewest obstacles to belonging, will likely have the greatest energy and responsibility to do this work. You’ll notice that I didn’t bring up the issue of abortion here or weigh in on specifics of what Catholicism calls us to in the classroom, in Saint Mary’s spiritual offerings for students or in anyone’s personal viewpoints. These are important conversations to have, but they will not bear fruit outside a context of trust. That is why I think our first urgent job is to build trust, so that we may have more productive conversations about Catholic identity across differences, as President Conboy emphasized in her letter to our community last Tuesday. To do this, I’d like to see us do the following. First, ask leadership to prioritize listening to those who are affected by their policies, especially proposed changes, and ask leadership to model practices of collaboration and dialogue that center empathy, curiosity and humility. Secondly, ask ourselves with curiosity: What do I need from this community to feel that I truly belong and that I can trust others? And then, share that answer with those who have the power to help make structural changes on campus. Thirdly, ask others with empathy: What do you truly need to feel that you can trust others in this community? And then, listen and act on what you hear to the extent you are able. Building trust will enable conversation about the hard but important questions raised this week. Those questions are urgent, but productive outcomes are more likely if they are posed in a context of trust.I think we are at a point of momentous importance. We can choose the path of polarization, fear and villainization that is modeled in our broader culture. Or we can chart an alternative path of conflict transformation and trust building, contributing to a community that is distinctively and joyfully Catholic, that supports women, that is radically inclusive and that is committed to offering special attention to those who are vulnerable. We can create a community energized by difference rather than exhausted, excluded and enraged by it. I know which future I’ll be working towards, and I invite each member of our community to participate in this work alongside me. 

Megan Halteman Zwart, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy

Director, The Dialogue Project at Saint Mary’s

April 20

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.