Dialogue and Taboo

by Scott Brown | 11/3/97 6:00am

I appreciate Abiola Lapite's response ["In equality of Wealth is a Force for Good," Oct. 22, The Dartmouth] to my Oct. 20th column, "The Growing Economic Divide." Someone asked me whether I had paid him to help me spark a discussion. I did not, but I am grateful for his courage. On the other hand, I hoped to stimulate a dialogue, not a debate. When we debate, we tend to waste valuable intellectual energy proving the other person wrong, rather than promoting our point of view. One of the most valuable lessons we can learn before we become too set in our ways is how to disagree without being disagreeable. If we really want a dialogue, rather than a debate, our internal critic should always be asking a few questions before we write or speak: Am I going to get a response or a reaction? Will I open someone's mind or close it? Am I likely to persuade or provoke? Those who learn to persuade rather than provoke are likely to be more successful leaders. (Provoking can be fun, of course, but it's a bad habit that some can't seem to control.)

That said, I am happy with all the commentary on the issue of social class difference. We could use more discussion at Dartmouth of many social issues, but social class is a special case in America -- a taboo. When was the last time you had a good conversation about the poor? One in ten Americans lives in poverty. Do you know any? You probably do, but you may not know it. I believe the poor in America feel as demeaned because of their poverty as homosexuals do because of their sexuality.

President Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg, noted prior to the last election that 90 percent of Americans classify themselves as middle class. Why do so many wealthy and so many poor call themselves middle class? The only persuasive explanation, I believe, is that they are afraid or embarrassed to admit anything else -- even to themselves. The poor are embarrassed by their poverty and the privileged are embarrassed by their privilege. The issue of class has become taboo.

Conversations about class almost inevitably make someone angry or defensive. The issue, like race, has become virtually undiscussable, sealed from the kind of public discussion that may relieve the tension that surrounds it. Even discussions about diversity rarely talk about class. When we compose committees and consider what groups need representation, how often do we include members representing different socio-economic circumstances? Despite extensive evidence demonstrating the deep impact of socio-economic background on perceptions and opinions, we rarely consider this a valid form of diversity.

In June, the Tucker Foundation and the Dean of the College office coordinated a discussion of social class differences for forty students. The discussion was facilitated in small groups by members of the Public Conversations Project, an award-winning group that facilitates discussions between polarized groups. At the end of the evening, students noted the unusual nature of an open conversation about class. One student said, "It's nice to be able to talk about something so touchy that we encounter all the time but rarely talk about." Another said, "I'd like this to happen more at Dartmouth." Almost all commented on the rarity of an open and honest discussion about class and other taboo subjects like race, gender and sexual orientation.

We will make little progress as a nation in dealing with the divisions in our society unless we are willing and able to discuss and understand our differences, rather than debate them. If our mission at Dartmouth is to prepare leaders for our communities, then we have a responsibility to help each other deal with difficult issues. This means learning to engage in a civil manner with issues and people that might make us uncomfortable. In the process we will begin to understand and empathize with each other in a way that will help us appreciate the privilege and community we share.

Note:This commentary is one of a series of articles on the issue of social class difference in American society -- the subject of a year long conversation sponsored by the Tucker Foundation.