One of the keynote speakers at this year’s FIRE Student Network Conference was Daryl Davis, a rock ‘n’ roll piano player and the patron saint of dialogue. In addition to his illustrious musical career, Davis, an African-American man, spends his time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. As astonishing as this sounds at first, evidently there’s something to it: More than two dozen people, including a former Grand Dragon and a former Imperial Wizard (state and national Klan leaders, respectively), have left the KKK as a direct result of Davis’ influence ― not through censorship or intimidation or judicial prosecution, but through simple conversation.
Davis’ progress has been well-documented over the years, including by FIRE’s podcast, “So to Speak.” Earlier this year, he was featured in a documentary called Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. I would encourage anyone interested to listen to him tell his story. Hearing Davis speak about his experience with dialogue was as entertaining as it was inspiring, and it struck a particular chord with me.
As free speech advocates, we spend a lot of time thinking about men like Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill, and Louis Brandeis. This, of course, makes sense, as each of these men gave brilliant philosophical defenses of free speech — useful aphorisms like Brandeis’ “if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech…” Too often, however, we forget to recognize the people like Davis who apply Brandeis’ remedy, and make those brilliant words a reality.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an article arguing that my school, the College of William & Mary, and more specifically the student body itself, needs to do more to foster a culture of conversation on campus. It’s my contention that doing so could help solve the political polarization and the rancor across ideological and party lines that I’ve seen on campus, and Davis’ example shows me that all our talk about the value of speech is not just empty rhetoric. It serves as an important reminder of what conversation can do, even among people who are diametrically opposed in their viewpoints.
Importantly, Davis’ story is not unique, even among groups at the fringes of our society. One of the most controversial groups of the last twenty-odd years has been the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious organization in Topeka, Kansas that became infamous for picketing the funerals of American soldiers―a practice that eventually brought them to the Supreme Court. In 2012, a lifelong Westboro member and granddaughter of its founder, Megan Phelps-Roper, left the church along with one of her siblings, partially as a result of conversations she had on Twitter.
In a recent TED Talk, Phelps-Roper spoke glowingly about her “friends on Twitter” and about how these conversations “showed her the power of engaging the ‘other’.” She describes how their conversations began to evolve as she and her adversary “started to see each other as human beings,” and how ultimately those conversations led her to reconsider the beliefs she’d held her entire life. This serves as yet another example that even in the most extreme circumstances, Brandeis’ remedy of “more speech” can be effective in practice.
Of course, the practical power of dialogue lies not just in speaking with members of fringe groups. For instance, programs like the National Issues Forum, which give people a platform for dialogue with other members of their community about difficult and divisive public issues, have been shown to increase participants’ interest in and understanding of political issues. After participating in just one National Issues Forum discussion, people’s political views were shown to be more refined and internally consistent. Additionally, participants are shown to develop better conversational practices as they learn to listen to those with whom they disagree.
Programs like the National Issues Forum not only serve as a model for similar programs we can and should be offering students on our campuses, but also as a real-world example of how rigorously challenging our own beliefs can sharpen those beliefs where we’re right as well as help us understand and appreciate the views of others with whom we disagree.
While Daryl Davis may not end racism in this country single-handedly, he can serve as an important example of how we all ought to act in our everyday lives. The epigraph at the beginning of Accidental Courtesy reads, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of these acts will be written the history of each generation.” If each of us can remember the lessons of people like Daryl Davis and Megan Phelps-Roper and carry them into every conversation we have ― especially conversations with those with whom we vehemently disagree ― and if we can utilize the structure offered by groups like the National Issues Forum to give students a platform to have these difficult conversations, I believe we will have taken the first step towards solving the problem of polarization on our campuses.
Jacob Hill is a rising junior at The College of William & Mary and a FIRE summer intern.