COMBEMALE: Conversation initiation

Sustained Dialogue encourages discussion on all topics without fear of disagreement

Growing up, my parents taught me their golden rule for social interaction: when you meet someone for the first time, make sure never to bring up religion or politics. This seemingly harmless rule betrays a deeply held but little-expressed attitude about personal relations: it is assumed that if the opinions of others differ from our own, particularly on deeply held and personal beliefs like religion or politics, the result of the conversation must be conflict and a failure to find any common ground.

Since I began my college career, I have witnessed many events at this university and in the nation that seem to support this perspective. Notably, the ouster of President Sullivan by members of the Board of Visitors suggests that an inability to compromise and engage with different opinions is the norm at the highest levels of governance. The saga played out through a series of back-room deals and large-scale protests, rather than through transparent and honest conversations. On a national level, the federal government shutdown last October dramatically illustrates the real and damaging consequences of a failure to engage in open communication and productive dialogue. It appears to be true that when there is disagreement, conflict inevitably arises.

Hoping to avoid conflict, we end up seeking to avoid disagreement altogether. We are taught not to bring up potentially divisive topics like race, religion or politics, but to steer clear of them completely. The problem with this approach is that serious issues are never fully addressed, but rather tensions are allowed to bubble under the surface until one day they erupt unexpectedly, as in the affair with President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors. I am convinced that many of the most serious issues facing our University community and society, like sexual assault and race relations, could be better addressed if we stop stifling honest dialogue with taboos and concerns for political correctness.

Joining Sustained Dialogue my first year was an amazingly refreshing experience because no topic was taboo. Each semester, with a different group of 10-15 random students, I discussed everything from our stereotypes of others to our sexual preferences, and even our religious and political beliefs, in a space completely free from judgment. My opinions have been disputed, supported, challenged and changed; I have learned more about the human condition from these honest conversations with my peers than I have from any college class.

My experience with Sustained Dialogue has convinced me that our society must move toward a different model of engaging with others, a model where disagreement does not have to lead to conflict. Instead of assuming we must battle with those we disagree with, we assume we can learn from them. Instead of dismissing other people’s beliefs, we seek to understand why they hold them.

Instead of passing judgment on others, we examine what compels us to judge. Disagreement should be harnessed as a productive force that has the power to generate new ideas and help resolve problems in our community. Only by accepting the inevitability of disagreement and embracing it can we truly hope to avoid conflict.

Mallory Combemale is a fourth year Global Development Studies major in the College, and Chair of Sustained Dialogue. Sustained Dialogue groups begin the week of Feb 3rd. For more information and to sign up visit

Published January 28, 2014 in Opinion

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