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Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations: ‘The Challenge of the Future’

Date published: June 5, 2018

Bringing Truth Into the Light

“Graduates of this university are academically well-prepared to dialogue with our pluralistic world,” said Cardinal Kevin Farrell at the ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for UD’s new building, Cardinal Farrell Hall, named in his honor. “Pope Francis every day calls upon us to open our hearts and minds — even to those who do not like us, and to those who oppose us, and to those who do not think as we do. The University of Dallas has the potential to do this. ”

He went on to discuss how proud he was recently to watch the live-stream of the 2018 McDermott Lecture, “The Papacy in the 21st Century,” featuring Ross Douthat of The New York Times and Austen Ivereigh of Crux and Catholic Voices, moderated by Crux founder and editor John Allen Jr. The lectureship was centered on a discussion between two Catholics with opposing views of Pope Francis and the church; it was indeed a courageous conversation, but it was far from a hateful one.

“It was certainly a Christian experience,” said Cardinal Farrell. “It was very respectful and was not reduced, as happens on many occasions, to a demonization of the other person. That to me was the greatest message I could hear from the University of Dallas in these days.”

UD faculty have always provided examples of how best to engage in these respectful yet thought-provoking dialogues and courageous conversations, guiding their students to do the same. In fact, Professor of English Scott Crider outlines how the university’s Core curriculum particularly prepares students and alumni for this task of encountering the world bravely yet mindfully, of demanding critical thinking without attacking, of maintaining the dignity of others while always striving to bring truth into the light.

Overcoming Your Lesser Angels: 10 Ways to Improve Our Culture

Scott CriderBy Scott F. Crider, Ph.D.

Most of us have noticed recent stress cracks in American discourse and culture. Although apocalyptic warnings of a coming civil war are over-caffeinated, it is true that we have become rather shrill these days, more likely to speak at or about our opponents than with them. Whatever the advantages of a hyper-connected world of social media and televised everything, that world abets the shrillness. What might we do to improve this incivility? It may seem naïve to say so, but we might rededicate ourselves to the moral and intellectual virtues of a liberal education.

When I reflect on my own rare triumphs over the lesser angels of my nature, I almost always remember a moment or two from class when, in the presence of spirited debate over a text, I find myself better than usual — more reasonable, more patient, more humane — and I rediscover something I value about UD more than anything else: our students make us better. Or, to put it more precisely, our students during liberal educational moments make us better. In the disciplined leisure of pursuing wisdom, truth and virtue together, we find ourselves guided by our better angels.

How might we be guided by them in public life after and beyond that wonderful season of disciplined leisure that characterizes the UD education? Allow me to offer 10 ways to put one’s UD liberal education to public service, a Decalogue of Civil Society. Every one of these laws might arouse an educational memory of your time at UD — in a Core class, in Rome, in your major — a memory of your better angel.

  1. Thou shalt determine the issue at hand. During undisciplined arguments, it is often easy to miss the issue at hand, that precise question that must be addressed to make progress, so we flail about and confuse issues, often talking at cross-purposes about innumerable, undetermined issues.
  2. Thou shalt study the issue. In our post-fact world, we often allow ourselves to assume things in a determined issue without having studied it sufficiently. Although we all must rely on experts, there is a general level of study required of each of us to support our opinions about the issue, sifting evidence and reasons, not by whether they agree or disagree with us, but by whether they are strong or weak. This requires a varied intellectual diet of reading and viewing.
  3. Thou shalt define terms. A determined issue requires defined terms — consistent words or phrases for understanding and judging arguments about the issue — terms we and our opponents can hew to for progress.
  4. Thou shalt decide what the best position on the issue is. That decision is reflective: one needs to think before arguing, giving oneself the leisure to weigh and decide what the best decision is.
  5. Thou shalt make arguments to defend that position. It is not enough to assert a position on a placard, a bumper sticker or a tweet; one must defend it by offering arguments in its defense.
  6. Thou shalt listen to people who disagree with you. Smart, honorable people do disagree, and we need to listen to one another, not for hasty dismissal, but for the possibility that the other is right about something we have missed.
  7. Thou shalt distinguish between being mistaken and being evil. Too often we assume people on the other side of an issue from us are not simply wrong in an opinion, but immoral in holding it. Our opponent may simply have failed in the difficult act of sifting good and evil — and so may we have.
  8. Thou shalt remember a time when you changed your mind. When in heated dispute, we often presume that there is no possibility of conversion, that we are who we are and they are who they are, but people change their minds all the time.
  9. Thou shalt treat your opponents as you would have them treat you. Think of your own frustration when someone ignores or misrepresents your argument — or even dismisses you as beneath recognition or respect. If you want them to attend to and respect your argument and your person, then attend to and respect them and theirs.
  10. Thou shalt love your enemy. Don’t take my word for it. The double command of love of God and neighbor is arguably the Christian mandate, and although it is difficult to see your opponents as your neighbors, they are and must be treated accordingly.

Of course, every UDer remembers Aristotle’s point that one can know the good without doing the good; that is, we might nod in agreement at the above list — remembering moments in our UD education — then ignore it and re-join one of the ignorant armies clashing by night. And, granted, it is easier to be dialectically lawful in class. Even so, we are free to remember and act upon what we know how to do — to behave like Socrates and Jesus. That is, after all, the freedom of a liberal education.

Being Not Afraid

As Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Be not afraid. Cast the nets out into the deep and gather everyone you can.”

Reminding us of this injunction from JPII, Cardinal Farrell said, “Let us not be afraid, and let us resist the temptation to close ranks and become a self-referential community. Let us not be afraid to engage in the world today.”

In the summer of 2017, Professor of Global Business Ruth May engaged in a conversation triggered by a truth upon which she had stumbled, one that kept nagging at her because no one else seemed to be acknowledging it. Finally, she realized that she would have to be the one to bring it to light.

Envisioning the World Differently

Ruth MayBy Ruth May, Ph.D.

What inspired me was the thing that always drives important research in any field — a burning question that compels you to search for answers.

In the summer of 2016, when cyber thieves hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, I immediately suspected it was Russia because I’ve closely studied their state security apparatus under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Russia has some of the best hackers in the world, and I was well aware of Putin’s loathing of Hillary Clinton, which stems from her public criticism of him in late 2011 for manipulating elections to guarantee that his party would win majority control before the start of his third term as president. Over his (now four) presidential terms, Putin enacted legislation and approved hostile corporate takeovers to punish both individuals and media companies that publicly criticized him. Consequently, I fully expected Putin to exact revenge on Clinton when she ran for president.

On Oct. 7, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence issued a joint statement confirming that the Russian government had directed the cyberattacks on the DNC and disseminated thousands of stolen emails through WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.

After Donald Trump was elected, we learned that Russian intelligence operatives had also hacked into our state voter registration rolls. They had purchased ads on Facebook critical of Clinton and posed as Americans on Twitter and Facebook for the express purpose of sowing discord in the U.S. political system. Russia’s interference was an egregious attack on our democratic institutions that demanded a strong retaliatory response. Republican leadership had always taken a hard line on Soviet/Russian aggression, so I was sure it was only a matter of time until Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell took the lead on making sure that Russia paid a heavy price for attacking our electoral process.

I waited. And I waited. And I waited. But nothing happened. No sharp criticism from the top GOP leadership; no push for an aggressive investigation; no action. Why? Why? Why? This is the burning question that gnawed at me relentlessly and drove me to search for answers.

In early 2017, I was reading an article on a flight to New York about the soon-to-be-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. At the time, Ross was still co-chair of the Bank of Cyprus in a country known for its money laundering, particularly Russian money laundering. Buried deep in the article was a one-sentence mention of a $1 million donation to Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership PAC on Oct. 25, 2016, by a Soviet American billionaire, Len Blavatnik, whose Russian business partner, Viktor Vekselberg, is one of Putin’s closest oligarchs. Vekselberg also happens to be the largest shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus. My jaw dropped, my heart sank, and I began to feel nauseous. There was no way that Mitch McConnell would have taken $1 million from a billionaire oligarch with ties to the Kremlin only a week after American intelligence had confirmed that Russia had meddled in our election. This had to be a mistake.

As soon as I got off the plane, I went straight to my hotel and got on the internet. I searched the donor database of the Federal Election Commission, and my worst fears were confirmed. Not only did McConnell take $1 million from Blavatnik, he took $2.5 million, and five other top GOP leaders had accepted donations totaling at least $3 million. I was sure this story would be reported by leading journalists and news outlets at any moment, but it didn’t happen. By late summer of 2017, a few of my close friends who were aware of what I’d discovered convinced me to stop waiting for someone else to break the story and to write it myself. So I did.

I first reached out to the New York Times and the Washington Post, but got no response. When I contacted the Dallas Morning News, they immediately responded, but they wanted to see all my original sourcing. Once they realized my story was sound and factual, they jumped on it.

I often tell my students how dangerous ideas that require you to engage in courageous conversations will find you. You don’t have to go looking for them. They will come right to your doorstep — in your company, in your church, in your classroom, or among your colleagues in your university. When you get that sick feeling in your stomach; when you would rather look the other way and keep silent; when you wish you didn’t know what you know; you can be certain that you’re being faced with a truth that requires a courageous conversation. My best advice to students is to be ready: Don’t be caught off guard when truth lands at your doorstep, and don’t fail yourself by keeping silent, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. You have to be willing to pay a price. You might lose money, or a job, or even close friends in the process, but you won’t lose yourself, and in the end, this is all that really matters.

The email responses I received from readers ran the gamut from one calling me “an unhinged, liberal, snowflake fascist” to another telling me that I should win a Pulitzer Prize for my reporting. Overall, the responses were positive and appreciative of the detailed research I had done in knitting together a rather complex story. My UD colleagues have been very supportive because, as Professor William Frank said in his King Fellow address earlier this year, “Our teaching asks our students to envision themselves and the world differently. We ask them to face the reality that a huge part of their dignity as persons lies in their taking up their responsibility to listen and hear and speak the truth.”

Accepting ‘the Challenge of the Future’

As Cardinal Farrell told us when speaking of the McDermott Lecture, it was refreshing to hear such a  respectful, intelligent exchange of ideas. It is his hope now that others — other universities, other Catholics, other leaders of thought and action — will follow our example.

“It is time in our lives to stop the polarization of our church and nation,” said Cardinal Farrell. “We need to bring the message of Christ to all people. To do so requires that we enter into dialogue in a respectful manner with each other. If there’s one thing we can do to improve the state of life in our nation, it is to listen and to dialogue with each other, respectfully. This university and its graduates have the potential. I pray that we will accept the challenge of the future.”