Student leaders discuss engaging in controversy with civility


BGSU Diversity & Belonging

In the current political climate of the United States, and the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris on Jan. 20, the nation is in a state of divisiveness and instability.

Through the recent decade, conversations regarding topics such as race, sexuality and other social elements have been a source of conflict, especially when an opinion may be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Student leaders across the BGSU campus decided to join together with Director of the C. Raymond Marvin Center for Student Leadership Jacob Clemens for “Controversy with Civility: A Discussion on Engaging Across Differences.”

The panel focused on “what it means to engage in controversy with civility” when faced with politically tense and unjust situations in the U.S.

Since the state of the nation is tense following the 2020 Election and a year of heightened social unrest, it is necessary for civility and accountability to be made, according to Clemens’ description of the discussion.

The panel featured Xavi Boes, a senior communications major and vice president of Undergraduate Student Government; Cali Vaughn, a senior history and sociology double major and vice president of the Economic and Cultural Events for University Activities Organization; Zeltzin Contreras-Gomez, a junior visual communication technology and president of Latino Student Union; and Bri Scebbi, a senior multiplatform journalism major and channel director of BG Falcon Media.

Clemens mediated the panel and helped to guide the conversation for each student leader participating. He had questions for each participant focused on topics from accountability to future hopes. Each student leader answered with a focus on how to engage in civil conversation.

“Being able to have that confidence and understanding of like, ‘I see maybe you do or do not see where they’re coming from.’ But, just being able to have that confidence within yourself to be like, ‘This conversation is not going to go anywhere. If anything, it’s just going to make us angry,’ and being able to really just openly say that I think that it takes time and a little bit of experience of having those difficult conversations, … I think it’s a very important aspect and skill to learn is to, like I said, know your limits, know your boundaries. And being able to really stand up and be like, ‘You know this isn’t going to go anywhere, it’s time, I’m going to excuse myself from this conversation,” Boes said.

In recent years, there has been a persistent outcry because of injustices, and there has been a call for justice and unity from minority communities. Yet, much of the outcry from these communities were met with serious hostilities.

The term of accountability has developed in a time where tensions have amounted regarding social issues. In the outcry, accountability has allowed a process of social change to start in response to the globalized outcry. The term has spread across global communities and across social platforms, it has become a widely-utilized term when an individual may make an insensitive remark.

Scebbi pointed out how accountability is significant when it comes to controversial conversations, especially the conversations where tension is present.

“I think a big part of accountability is making sure that people know that discussion doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, anything goes.’ Because while you are, for the purpose of having civil discourse, you need to be open-minded and respectful to people. But, when it comes to things that people would say are opinions, but are just isms,” she said. “So someone’s coming in with racism and homophobia, and transphobia and misogyny, all these things. Make sure that accountability piece is saying, ‘Okay, we can talk about specific things and we can try and reach an education point here.’ But, if someone’s coming in like full throttle racist; free and not even aware of the fact they might have committed a microaggression. Making sure that they know; that accountability piece is letting them know.”

With accountability comes a response, commonly a defensive response, which may bring about tension between people within a conversation.

In response to these conversations, Vaughn made a point about the cruciality of not involving momentous emotions in controversial conversations. When emotions are involved in these conversations, it may bring forth dismissal rather than understanding — contrary to the objective of the conversation. When there is an intent to listen and have real communication within a controversial topic, it will hopefully lead to a constructive conversation where there is no dismissal or erasure of an individual’s experience.

“I personally think that the emotions, as long as they allow you to still convey your thoughts clearly and get your point across, and aren’t causing you to harm anyone else, should be welcomed. That’s a part of your experience and how you feel in that present moment. Don’t minimize that as long as, like I said, you can still be present and think clearly, and be thoughtful in what you’re saying,” Vaughn said.

When having these conversations, it is significant to acknowledge the experiences people have gone through, and are still going through, which can lead to a greater understanding of all people, especially those who are different.

“I’m hoping that towards the future, we see more of that critical-thinking and open-mindedness, where we can have those conversations. And be open to, maybe not how we were all saying, ‘Like you stay with your opinion,’ but being able to sit down and listen to people, I think is an important thing,” Contereas-Gomez said.

There’s a hope conversations will not hold hostilities or tensions, but rather open-mindedness and understanding. Boes mentioned the current divide in the country, as well as the greater hope for the future of the U.S.

“There is an evident divide in our country, and I think over the course of the next year and, of course, over the course of the next four years — four years is going to be a lot of rebuilding … I think, if there’s something I guess that I can foresee that’s going to relate to the largest change, I think it’s going to be kind of the mitigation of division and kind of that unification, to be able to learn and grow as a nation,” Boes said.

Toward the end of the panel, Clemens reminded the significance of having controversial conversations that people may learn and understand the people and world in 2021. Especially learning to listen and understand individuals and groups who are persistent in their outcry and fight for their basic rights.

“Learning about our history, learning about the history of the past  year, learning about what we did well as a society, as a global community … And so, learning from our history, understanding why certain things are the way they are, understanding that some of these fights and these arguments come up over and over and over again.” Clemens said.

Click here to watch the panel discussion on the Diversity and Belonging BGSU Youtube page.