Samantha Szuhaj: Finding common ground

Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 12:20pm

No one likes it — disagreement.

It’s uncomfortable. It manages to creep its way into many a conversation, ranging from a new show on television your friend thinks is great (but you find genuinely terrible) to a political issue. It can be the elephant in the room at Thanksgiving dinner or in a group project. There is something inherent in human nature to avoid tension at almost all costs, to smooth over the potential discomfort and just agree or refuse to acknowledge something. 

This past summer, I found myself in a conversation about disagreement. I had just attended a political event, and my friend had struck up a conversation while we were there with a person who had entirely different ideas on the issue addressed at the event. She said, while they disagreed, they were able to openly talk about their perspectives on the given issue and find common ground. This is not the norm, as I am keenly aware. 

Disagreement seems to be entirely present in society today: from pundits on Sunday morning talk shows undercutting one another regarding the state of our nation to the most recent spat between Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. There are endless channels through which division flows, and while not all forms of disagreement are intrinsically bad, I cannot argue all are healthy either. I believe, sometimes, individuals get so wrapped up in their own views they refuse to acknowledge that not everyone feels the same way. 

Coming to college gave me exposure to perspectives and viewpoints outside of my personal realm of familiarity. I had never been confronted with the possibility that so many people felt the same, particularly with regard to political or social issues, but that so many also felt differently and that there were platforms to discuss these differences so openly. In the past, I had ducked these contentious conversations about politics with family members and others, knowing we may disagree. I never had so many venues to voice how I felt about different issues, and I know I am not alone in this. 

How can we as college students and beyond move past the fear of creating division and work towards productive conversation? How can we turn disagreement and the constant back-and-forth so prevalent in the media, politics and popular culture into something constructive? 

I know I am strongly opinionated and often tense up when I hear arguments I don’t agree with or when I know a disagreement could arise between friends, family members, classmates or even strangers. I struggle knowing there is continuous disagreement over the little, and, often times, larger issues. However, I know as I grow into my own beliefs as a college student and adult, I need to be comfortable knowing disagreement is a fact of life, avoidable or not, and invite conversation instead of shying away from it.

As my friend reflected on her discussion with the individual at the political event, something stuck with me. She said, up until recently, if she had been faced with the same conversation, she would have failed to even try to see their perspective and, instead, would have stuck to her own ideological agenda. I, in all honesty, probably would have done something similar. I challenge myself and others, in an age when we quiver at the thought of contention or fight to prove each other wrong, to find common ground. I am not saying all contrary opinions are a good thing or a similarity can always be found, as there is no place for bigotry, hatred or discrimination in any place or conversation. What I am saying is we need to recognize that with the prevalence of disagreement comes the responsibility of making it constructive and finding a middle ground instead of remaining in a place of socio-political stagnation.

We owe it to ourselves, our communities, our campus and our country to take a step back and recognize the power of listening first and talking second. Disagreement is everywhere, but the humanizing moments are those in which individuals of differing perspectives can recognize, while they may not see eye to eye, there is space for conversation and some form of agreement. As we begin the new school year, let us work toward collaborating, understanding and creating spaces in which disagreement can be constructive. Let us welcome conversation instead of pointing fingers. Let us find common ground, which is the only way disagreement can turn from potentially being spiteful to being productive. It is time to move past contention and work toward making substantive socio-political change.

Samantha Szuhaj can be reached at szuhajs@umich.edu.