Phil Ensler: Personalizing political discussions

Few things are more invigorating than a fiery political debate between two GW students.

On this politically charged campus, conversations – and sometimes, screaming matches – about controversial issues are ubiquitous. While such intellectual interactions might be worthwhile, these conversations have an inherent problem. They are often so abstract that they become more like hyperbolic boxing matches in which each debater is overly motivated to win the argument, rather than exchanges of ideas.

I am guilty of enjoying such debates with friends about everything from the need for a government mandate for health insurance to the justification for higher marginal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. But my trip to Israel with GW Hillel over winter break served as a necessary wake-up call for me. Political debates, I realized, should be about actual people and the implications of policy on their lives.

We debate politics, war and peace because we want to flex our own persuasive muscles, but too often these duels never go anywhere. Now I see why: Students rarely focus on the units affected by the issues they discuss. We should not debate in the abstract, but rather with a focus on the impact that the issues or policies we are discussing has on individuals’ livelihoods.

The University is preparing to enter an even more debate-laden era; an election year is just beginning, and the political debate series has been established. At this time, we’re all going to find ourselves talking the issues whether we want to or not, wearing our political affiliations like badges and using our extensive knowledge of given topics like weapons.

Prior to my trip, I engaged in dialogues with friends and peers about Middle East politics in wonky, political terms. We would argue about armistice lines and whether the Democrats or Republicans were more pro-Israel.

But my travels led me to view the conflict on a local, humane level. My conversations with Israelis allowed me to see beyond the politics and understand how tensions in the region impacted their daily lives.

But now that I am back to the GW bubble, it is tempting to revert to old tendencies of trying to out-duel peers and feel a sense of pride from beating them in debate. But I am mindful that, while it may be important to talk about such topics on campus, it would be wise to take a deep breath and not feel the need to triumph over someone else’s position merely because it is self-satisfying to do so.

This is not to say that every debate we have is to boost our egos. In fact, many student organizations – including those dedicated to Middle Eastern peace – have very productive dialogues attempting to foster mutual understanding of beliefs. I admire their efforts to better educate themselves and the community about different viewpoints.

But too often, such forums become contests for who can raise their voices the loudest or make the other side look the most foolish. Such debates would be more useful if participants were less concerned with trying to out-perform one another and instead were more willing to genuinely listen to the other side and ask questions to better understand his or her position.

By all means, debate health care until you are ready to pull your hair out. Stay up all night discussing a two-state solution. But do not forget that at the root of the politics and policy is something as personal as a woman’s access and ability to pay for a mammogram, or an Israeli family’s fear of not seeing their children come home because of indiscriminate bombings.

Phil Ensler, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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