The Quaker Way – Gabrielle McPhaul-Guerrier

In Quaker tradition decisions are made by coming to consensus. While I don’t advocate that we all sit on Paresky lawn in as many concentric circles ad you need to accommodate 2000 people and talk endlessly until we agree, I think that we can take cues from the way the end goal of consensus forces Quakers to have discussions.

Coming to consensus necessitates listening carefully and empathetically to everyone’s ideas, not just the ideas of people you think will agree with you. In fact it become even more important to listen to ideas contrary to your own because it turns out that coming to consensus has very little to do with shouting each other down to end the conversation, and it has quite a bit to do with working very hard to understand opinions you don’t agree with. It also requires acknowledging that there is a real possibility that your own arguments are wrong. That last part is the most important. It means that other arguments could possibly right, and that they are worth the time and effort to understand.

My primary criticism of the current mode of discussion on campus is how easily we dismiss and ignore each other. Now of course we haven’t quite deteriorated into shoving our fingers in our ears and shouting, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but I don’t think we’re far off. We use identity and offense to easily dismiss each other and end conversations. While I acknowledge that it can be easier or harder to understand a given point of view coming from a certain set of experiences, we ought not discount each other’s logical abilities by implying that large groups of people are entirely incapable of understanding our views. That reflects poorly not only on those groups, but also our abilities to explain ourselves.

I’m wary of my own advice because I’m afraid it will be misinterpreted. I can’t stress enough that I’m not advocating for reserved, dispassionate discussions. And I’m not advocating that we all suddenly have the same views. Quakers usually come to consensus only after extremely lively discussions. The difference between their discussions and our own is that everyone is obliged to participate and every contribution is valued. Quakers engage in discussion without fear of offending or being offended. In our own discussions we’ve become so afraid of offense that we’ve created a million little safe spaces to hide out, and exclude anyone who might challenge our truths. I believe that it’s more valuable to come out in the open, and to take the opportunity to feel intellectually unsafe. Take an opportunity to consider that you might be wrong, but also to prove that you might be right. Have the conversation instead of running away from it.

I didn’t come to college to have my opinions unchallenged for four years. I came to have my opinions battered by other people’s logic endlessly so that I could see if they held up. And if they don’t, I want them replaced with better sturdier beliefs. Instead, I can barely find anyone willing to share their opinions for fear that I might be offended by their contrariness to my own.

-Gabrielle McPhaul-Guerrier

One thought on “The Quaker Way – Gabrielle McPhaul-Guerrier

  1. A nicely written note. One part that particularly resonated with me is the following: “Quakers engage in discussion without fear of offending or being offended. In our own discussions we’ve become so afraid of offense that we’ve created a million little safe spaces to hide out, and exclude anyone who might challenge our truths.”

    I have found, far too often in my years in academia, that certain issues cannot be discussed, and as such opportunities to learn and grow are missed. While some topics are delicate and have to be addressed carefully, I fear that in fostering environments where people are not comfortable to speak opposing views that what happens is the views are expressed, but in private. This leads to a loss of opportunities to educate each other, and to have people’s perceptions and misperceptions permanently fixed.

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