By Laegan Smith ’24 (DCI Fellow)
When I completed the training to become a facilitator for deliberation, one of the first things we discussed was how to select topics for deliberation. That seemed easy enough to me at first—surely you can just choose any topic and talk about it—but I soon found that there are a lot of questions that must first be asked to determine if a topic will make for a productive conversation.
For example, what issues are people interested in talking about? Will participants have enough background knowledge to deliberate about the issue? Is it possible to gather people with diverse viewpoints and opinions to deliberate? Can participants have disagreements about the issue? Are participants emotionally ready to deliberate about the issue? All these questions are used to determine whether a topic can be considered timely and “ripe” for discussion for a group.
These questions have come up again and again as the DCI has organized and hosted deliberations throughout this year. During our initial training, we were tasked with coming up with some possible deliberation topics for Davidson College and my fellow trainees and I disagreed on whether some topics could be considered “ripe” for discussion or not. I felt like the topic one of my peers suggested was too sensitive and emotionally charged to deliberate given the recent events surrounding it in the news, while my peer argued that that was the exact reason it would be a good topic for deliberation. While I was more focused on the question of emotional readiness, he was focused on the question of community interest. I realized then how subjective choosing a “ripe” topic is.
These questions came up for me again at the deliberative forum on Schools and Parents: Who Should Teach our Kids about Race, Gender, and Sexuality? that the DCI hosted last semester. After the event, I spoke to some of my peers who disagreed that the event should have been held to gauge why they didn’t want to participate. The overwhelming answer that I received was, “I refuse to deliberate about something so personal to me.” That resonated with me: though I did not feel the same way about that particular event, I felt that that was absolutely a valid reason not to partake in a deliberation. The other feedback I received was that the deliberation shouldn’t have even been held—that it was too personal and sensitive of a topic to deliberate at all.
The next week, another one of the DCI Fellows and I shared our thoughts on this issue during our weekly Commons Conversations. We and some other students discussed not only what topics we felt were timely for deliberation, but also what topics we felt should and shouldn’t be deliberated given the feedback from the forum. It was difficult to draw the line between uncomfortable topics that might hit too close to home for some people and topics that are inherently unsuitable for deliberation due to their sensitivity.
My initial reaction was that there definitely are topics that are too sensitive to be deliberated. However, the conversation raised some important questions: if topics that are too sensitive aren’t deliberated, how will we ever understand other perspectives on those topics? How will we be able to explain our point of view to someone who disagrees? How can we as a society move forward on the most personal of topics if we do not discuss them?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and I’m still not sure where the line should be drawn—it’s incredibly subjective. I’ve learned from these experiences how difficult it is to select a topic for deliberation and how impossible it is to please everyone when doing so. Ultimately, I think it’s up to the organizer of a deliberation to gauge the emotional readiness of the community it serves and up to the participant to decide whether they personally are emotionally ready to attend, and it’s okay if the answer is no.