Tonight’s debate almost didn’t happen, but democracy thrives through honest exchange of ideas

Jon Rou/LMU

Loyola Marymount University is proud to host the Sixth Democratic Presidential Primary Debate. We almost lost the opportunity — more than once — for the very reason we want to host it: because our society exhibits increasing difficulty in navigating disagreement and honoring differences while pursuing solutions that benefit everyone.

In early November, when the Democratic National Committee pulled out of an agreement with UCLA because of a labor dispute with the UC system, LMU was chosen to host. Then, last Friday, a similar controversy threatened to derail the debate, this time involving a dispute between workers on our campus and their employer, Sodexo.

Although LMU was not a party in the negotiation, the labor dispute still threatened the debate. The union had promised to picket the debate over stalled contract talks, and by noon all seven candidates had pledged their support for the workers and the workers’ struggle for higher wages and improved health benefits.

LMU consistently urged both parties to negotiate in good faith towards an agreement, and with the help of friends like DNC Chair Tom Perez, they succeeded in arriving at an equitable solution. The two sides exhibited the virtues LMU prizes but our society too often lacks — listening patiently, honoring differences, and working together to find common ground.

The first time LMU almost lost the debate was within hours of the Democratic National Committee’s announcement in November. Activists opposed LMU’s selection on the grounds that, as a Catholic institution, we should not accommodate candidates whose positions are incongruent with those of the Catholic Church. Others urged the DNC to back out of holding the event at LMU because they made assumptions concerning the university’s policies on health care, gender equity, and inclusiveness.

We knew that hosting the debate would invite such criticism. Despite the fear among some that conflicts between these kinds of opposing ideas may be intractable, our willingness to confront divisive issues head-on is essential to who we are.

LMU has a long history of hosting speakers with varying perspectives. We faced similar criticism when President Bill Clinton joined us as our commencement speaker in 2016 and when Ben Shapiro spoke on our campus earlier this year.

We hosted these speakers not because all at LMU agreed with their views, but because of our commitment to intellectual debate, which is central to our Jesuit and Marymount identity. We explore all ideas with open hearts and critical minds — championing a culture of authentic encounter.

We could shut our doors to opinions deemed unacceptable, or to personalities whom some consider objectionable, but if we did, the lesson to our students would be the opposite of what we aim to impart.

At LMU, we educate with purpose. We challenge our students to use their education for the sake of the common good, which means learning at every turn, slowing down to discern what might otherwise be overlooked and seeking solutions to humankind’s most pressing problems for the betterment of all.

We favor engagement over intransigence, because the only way we are going to create the world we want to live in is if we listen to other perspectives, attempt to hear other voices, and meet people where they are.

Since the establishment of the first Jesuit college five centuries ago, Jesuit higher education has prided itself on doing just that. The Jesuit rhetorical arts, a pillar of our core curriculum, demand reflection and compassion in the interest that reason be attained and expressed responsibly, with grace.

The truth is, while watching the debate, most viewers won’t be thinking about where it’s being held. Their attention will be on what is said, who gets the bump, and ultimately who will win the Democratic Party’s nomination: the here and now. However, what our country needs most is routinely open and constructive discussion. Let us embrace the areas where our ideas may be in conflict, with the goal of gaining deeper understanding and finding solutions that build humanity’s collective strength.

Reaching accord within a single political party, let alone a nation, is hard enough. But we have a chance, through dialogue, where we listen and question, where each of us is prepared to melt a bit, to move a bit, to walk away changed, through our engagement.

Together, we hold the responsibility for our human future — to discern the beauty and truth amidst the tumult, not just on the debate stage, but in our world, as we attempt to accommodate our differences and understand the disconcerting — even if that includes being a part of the controversy every now and then.

Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D. is the President of Loyola Marymount University, which is the venue for the sixth Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on Dec. 19, 2019. The event may be followed on social media via #DemDebateLMU.

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates Bill Clinton Democratic debate free speech on college campuses Intellectual freedom LMU Loyola Marymount University Tom Perez

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