Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, May 27, 2018

The importance of respectful discourse

About a year ago, I participated in a filmed debate on-campus regarding ROTC. A couple of weeks prior, I wrote a column criticizing ROTC’s role at AU which spawned a slew of negative feedback. I was as popular as “wonk.” Actually, make that less popular.

Before the debate I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and entered the AUTV studio.

I didn’t really know what to expect. Pissing off people in the military is a bit like antagonizing a Rottweiler. Or so I thought.

Once I opened the door, a knot of folks gathered by the couch warmly introduced themselves. Each one shook my hand with such politesse; it took me off guard. Don’t these people despise me? Maybe I anticipated cold shoulders and hasty nods (OK, that is what I anticipated). How wrong I was.

Throughout the debate (which is archived online), the tone remained amicable and afterward we congratulated each other for offering provocative insights.

I remember walking out of Mary Graydon Center into the frosty winter air smiling. It wasn’t a smile of righteousness, nor was it a smile of victory. I smiled because civility overcame contention; kindness triumphed over rigid opinion, respect over virtue.

In an ironic twist of fate, I presently work for the Department of Defense.

One of the highlights of my day is when the janitor, Michael, comes with his crew to vacuum and empty the trash on our floor. It’s not a glamorous job, his forehead is damp by the time I see him at three in the afternoon.

These guys work determinedly and expediently, but always pause for a few minutes so we can chat about the lowly Wizards and Redskins.

Mike is an Army veteran. He has a son who enlisted. I have no idea how he would react if he knew I espoused viewpoints opposing war or the military.

We chat nonetheless. And moreover, even if he were privy to my views, it wouldn’t alter the way I treat him in the slightest. I doubt he’d modify his behavior either. We’ve become friends and exhibit mutual respect.

As spring semester approaches and seniors jostle for jobs like bridesmaids elbowing over a tossed bouquet, I offer a word of advice. Be kind. Perhaps the most important thing we can do on a daily basis is to treat others with dignity and kindness.

No doubt work ethic, ambition, professionalism, etc., are valuable tools that can augment our employment opportunities. However, what’s lacking in the quotidian resume workshops and career center promotions is the reminder to be gracious in our interactions.

Let me put it this way, I wasn’t hired full-time because of my political views. My supervisor recommended me primarily because she was impressed by my attitude. I’m constantly fascinated by stories I hear when genuine amiability unlocked unlikely windows for my peers.

When I told my mom this column topic she was quick to chime in, “Remember the adage: Kindness is always in our power even when fondness is not.”

My viewpoints regarding war haven’t shifted, but it doesn’t mean I can’t maintain warm relationships with my colleagues.

It’s a simple lesson and one that we all forget or lapse on occasion. So don’t stifle your beliefs, stand up to injustices and institutions of power, be critical, but do it with an ounce (or pint) of respect and sincerity.

Your impact may be even greater than you expect.

Conor Shapiro is a graduate student in the School of International Service.

Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.