Not being able to find Common Ground

By Claire Fisher | 1/22/17 11:17pm


This past week I attended an event hosted by Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and the Division of Inclusion and Equity called “Race and the American Dream.” The event was a Common Ground Initiative and involved a moderated discussion between two journalists: a progressive Nikole Hannah-Jones and a conservative Jason Riley. Yet, despite the moderator’s best efforts the two guests were unable to find common ground.

Common ground is not easy to find. And asking two people with very different viewpoints on an issue to find some way to agree on stage in one hour is unrealistic.

While both speakers agreed that there are problems regarding race in the United States that need to be fixed, they did not agree on what the problems were and did not agree on how to fix them. The moderator repeatedly asked them to find some way to agree and they repeatedly found themselves in increasingly intense arguments.

At the end of the event, the moderator tried one last time and asked the two journalists “How do we find common ground?” and Hannah-Jones replied very simply, “I don’t think that we do.”

While I commend the Hauenstein Center’s effort to bring in varying viewpoints and to open up a dialogue between them, it was awkward to watch the two be asked to find a way to agree over and over only to end up arguing more intensely with each other. Instead of forcing the two speakers to agree, the Hauenstein Center should have respected their differences in opinion and moved on.

If we could just find common ground by sitting people down on a stage and asking them to, there would be far fewer issues in Congress. Frankly, there would be far fewer issues in general. Hosting an event with the intention of forcing two people who don’t agree to agree was foolish.

Coming to an agreement takes time. It takes empathy, and it takes understanding. If the Hauenstein Center would like to encourage people to open a dialogue and encourage our community to find some sort of agreement, they should continue the conversation. Reoccurring events with more involvement from our community would go a long way to making change in the world. This event was unnecessarily discouraging to members of the community who hope to find common ground.

If you’re seeking substantial and meaningful common ground don’t be discouraged by the event, continue to engage people in conversation about the issues you care about. This was likely the intention of the event, to engage people who disagree in conversation and it’s a commendable intention. If you find someone you don’t agree with sit down with them and talk about it. Don’t give up because it’s awkward, continue the conversation.

Talking about these issues, attending events surrounding the issue and continually educating yourself is the only way that we can find solutions to the problems. I appreciate the Hauenstein Center offering these types of events to the public. They have tremendous value in our education and in furthering the conversation. Don’t be discouraged by one unsuccessful attempt to find common ground. Reassess and create a more meaningful way to engage the people around you in discussion.

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