It seems as if everyone is mourning the death of civil discourse these days.
Last spring, distressed by a cultural inability to have productive and meaningful conversations, four friends and I pitched an idea for a new student organization at Baylor University, which we tentatively called “Table Talk.”
Our name comes from an idea expressed in the well-known maxim: never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table. We wanted to subvert this idea by creating a space for civil discourse around a variety of issues, opening a space for conversations with our peers that would occur while seated around a table.
In our organization’s constitution, we list four purposes for the club. The first is “to promote empathy through civil discourse on a myriad of controversial topics.”
During our first year of existence, we have been able to host discussions on hot-button issues such as vaccinations, gun control and critical race theory. We devoted an evening to talking about Texas’ Senate Bill 8 “Heartbeat Act” in the days after it became law.
Our discussions have ranged from personal to political, from marriage to body image, from the death penalty to social justice.
Though these topics are difficult in many respects, the conversations remain welcoming. While discussing these issues, our members do not raise their voices in anger, stereotype, name-call or assume poor intentions on the part of other participants.
Most of our attendees are less concerned with debating rightness than they are about being attentive in order to understand the viewpoint of people different from themselves.
The second purpose of Table Talk is “to educate Baylor students by exposing them to opposing viewpoints.”
In the fall of 2021, I witnessed a productive conversation about COVID-19 vaccinations at a table of people who identified themselves at completely different places across the political spectrum.
The next month, I listened as a progressive woman and libertarian man sought to find common ground in a conversation about free speech and censorship.
In the spring, I watched a table full of conservative men become open to the idea of defunding or otherwise reforming the police after having a conversation with a woman who participated in the Black Lives Matter movement.
From my experience, I have found that meeting other people at the table is vital, as the tables we create for ourselves often insulate and affirm our preconceived notions.
A third purpose written in our organization’s constitution is “to respectfully engage in difficult conversations.”
As an officer within the organization, my primary role during each weekly meeting is that of moderator. Each Tuesday evening, I enter our meeting room with the expectation that I am to mediate between people.
Practically, this looks like sitting down with 3-8 members at a table and ensuring that their discussion remains within the bounds of our rules (affectionately deemed “Table Manners”). These rules are not meant to hinder free discussion, but to encourage it.
Among other things, we ask our members to stay off their phones while at the table, to avoid generalizing about any group of people and to ask questions instead of making assumptions.
Sometimes being a moderator requires being the bridge between people. During our weekly conversations, my role is to listen and to help people listen to each other.
One conversation I had the privilege to moderate was a discussion about Baylor’s relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community.
My table was filled with members of the LGBTQIA+ community, most of whom have experienced deep hurt because of religious rhetoric. I was able to moderate a conversation in which they shared their pain as well as their joy with myself and another participant at our table, who openly identified himself as a conservative Christian.
The vulnerability and stories expressed at that table were powerful and profoundly moving. To this day, it is a conversation that feels sacred to me.
The final purpose of Table Talk is “to uphold the freedom of speech and the exercise thereof by fostering civil discourse.”
In an age where people often lament the death of civil discourse, the success of our organization has proven to me that many people, especially those in younger generations, are ready and willing to engage in difficult conversations.
Many people, disheartened by the illusions and dogfights of social media, are desperate to talk to real people about real things.
My friends and I began Table Talk because we wanted to challenge the assumption that no one in polite company should discuss things of importance at the table. My question is, what better place is there to talk about hard things than the table?
Across various cultures, the table is defined by mealtimes and preceded by invitation. The table is a place of togetherness, feasting and rest. The table is a place that signifies fellowship.
Recently, I listened to a sermon about the importance of making peace in reference to Matthew 5, where Jesus speaks, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” In his sermon, the pastor differentiated between those who keep peace by avoiding difficult conversations and those who make peace by fostering safe spaces for open discussion.
Moving forward, my hope is that we are increasingly a people who create spaces to have sacred conversations in order to make peace, as well as progress.