Christopher Phillips ’81 encourages open-mindedness in political conversations

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The computer science department is intends to hire five new faculty members for the fall 2019 semester. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

March 25, College of William and Mary students attended a talk entitled “Civil Discourse in a Civilized Society” given by nationally-recognized scholar and Williamsburg native Christopher Phillips ’81.  

Phillips’ primary objective in the talk was to convey that people with diverse viewpoints can hold a civilized discussion without it reaching an abrupt, unproductive conclusion 

Christopher Phillips has combined the entrepreneurial and the academic successfully,” government professor John McGlennon said. “… He wants to help people figure out ways to address significant issues of societal and public policy, to think more deeply about those questions and to engage in constructive discussion with others.”  

Phillips remarked that his time College was characterized by a different atmosphere in terms of political discourse than the one found on campus today. 

“My professors at William and Mary were really critical at that time of my life for helping me discover what my views amounted to in the first place,” Phillips said. “We used to go to the Dirty Deli where we curated conversations. Strangers would slide over and join us sometimes.”  

Through the inspiration of his experiences at the College, along with the legacy of his “yiayia,” an affectionate Greek term for grandmother, Phillips came to found his organization, Democracy Café, which strives to facilitate conversations between people of differing opinions.  

 “I started Democracy Café during the second term of the Clinton Administration when [Clinton] was undergoing impeachment proceedings,” Phillips said. Most times when I would turn on the TV or the radio, it was billed as a dialogue… but most of the times it was not. It wasn’t even really arguing since that would entail actually listening to someone.” 

For Phillips, his organization desires to alleviate the dysfunction that is frequently evoked by people arguing without listening. Phillips theorized that if people could listen and keep a discussion going despite their differences, then they could begin to start understanding one another.  

 “You want to keep discussions going... Someone on the left might see someone on the right as not coming from sincere position — and vice versa,” Phillips said 

 “You want to keep discussions going... Someone on the left might see someone on the right as not coming from sincere position — and vice versa,” Phillips said 

Carmen Kleiser, executive partner at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, expressed her concerns for cordial discourse in the age of social media. 

“Social media has not necessarily helped our discourse,” Kleiser said. That’s one of the big issues of the day. Working with MBA students here at William and Mary, we have to fact check things and look at it from different perspectives to find the intersection where truth might lie. It seems on social media that people are not listening to each other. As an anonymous medium, people can be as obnoxious as they want.” 

Phillips likewise cautioned about discourse being able to tear friendships apart due to the inability to separate politics from their friendship.  

 “I have two high school friends who graduated with me, and they had been in touch for decades, seeing each other at high school reunions,” Phillips said. I noticed recently that they were no longer mutual Facebook friends. I finally asked why, and they got into it over abortion rights, or lack thereof.” 

Despite having a bond that carried back decades, Phillips’ friends decided that it would be easier to simply not be friends because of the disagreements evoked by their ideological differences.  

“I assumed that for a bond going back decades, that they were probably willing to give each other benefit of the doubt. But they reached the point where they could no longer be friends. I worry that we reach a point where we think it’s better to just cut people off, Phillips said. 

Political polarization can happen offline as well, stemming from the lack of ability to understand others on a fundamental level.  

“After the tragedy in Charlottesville, I was asked to come over and hold a dialogue there and it was a diverse event with a wide range of views,” Phillips said. Someone there wondered how people could have views of white supremacy. They start the world as babies, but how do they come to have these views?” 

However, Phillips expressed his alarm that some people on both sides of the aisle occasionally espouse violence as a response to misunderstanding one another.  

“On the other hand of the spectrum, I was at a university in Portland, Oregon and I was asked to facilitate a dialogue and at one point, a professor there said, ‘I wish I had more free time to go out and kill white racists.’ He got this huge applause, and I got all these chills, Phillips said. 

He said that being able to take a step back while seeking to understand one another is vital, especially when others hold views that contradict one’s own perspectives 

“If someone on the other end has views that we find abhorrent, they still have a story,” Phillips said. “What if we did no more and no less, especially if someone’s views are radically different than our own, than just learn more about someone’s story without the goal of changing their minds? 

“What if we did no more and no less, especially if someone’s views are radically different than our own, than just learn more about someone’s story without the goal of changing their minds?” Phillips said.

Williamsburg native Michael McGurk expressed his willingness to accept people with different opinions and backgrounds.  

“I work with teams at my job and when I hire new people; I intentionally seek out people that I don’t necessarily agree with because it makes better teams when you get all the viewpoints,” McGurk said. “It’s okay to have friends you debate with that have much different viewpoints… You have to understand a little bit where they come from.” 

McGurk latched onto Phillips advice to understand someone else’s background before condemning their political opinions.  

“A lot of people would say there’s no reason anyone should possess a semi-automatic weapon with a high capacity magazine, McGurk said. What if I told you that my parents were Jews in Warsaw in 1940, and they really would have liked to have a high-power rifle? You might change your mind. It all depends on your background and experience.” 

Attendee Angie McGurk likewise attributes polarization to the growing culture of fear-mongering.  

We are becoming a society where we create these humongous fears and we are feeding on that, Angie McGurk said. I’ve seen this develop, and my personal impression is that this is getting bigger and bigger.” 

When prompted by Phillips about how he combats polarisation in his own classes, McGlennon responded with the strategy that he takes.  

“I try to study the issues as well as I can and listen to everyone’s point of view, but I make my best judgement. I make that heartfelt attempt, McGlennon said. 

However, in the eyes of Lucy Painter, a board member of the League of Women Voters, polarization stems from a lack of voter education.  

“Education is an issue for voters,” Painter said. I’ve come to understand how many people don’t understand the simple process of voting, how it works and where you need to go. Our goal is to educate people to become voters. I’m a native Virginian, and when I went to school, we had civics, but somehow they don’t teach civics anymore.” 

In his closing words, Phillips left his audience with an anecdote about Greek culture, with the hopes that people could apply it to their own lives.  

“Coming from my Greek heritage, we have this concept of philia. We’re a colorful people. We argue, yell and shout, but ultimately, we can hug and kiss each other no matter how much we differ. This is what American society needs.” 

“Coming from my Greek heritage, we have this concept of philia. We’re a colorful people. We argue, yell and shout, but ultimately, we can hug and kiss each other no matter how much we differ. This is what American society needs.”