Students avoid conflict with peers despite varied viewpoints

Megan Lee | The Chronicle

As the echoes of the recent election make their way through Mason High School (MHS), students and staff emphasize the importance of facts, empathy and political discourse. 

With the conclusion of the November 7, 2023 election and as voters begin to prepare for next year’s Presidential election, this has recently emphasized a vast array of political views. With increased discussions of politics, students and staff at MHS are working to maintain professionalism within classroom-based debates. 

MHS offers a variety of classes that discuss politics, most prominently AP Government, where students have to actively engage in discussions over solutions for political issues. Junior Emma Zellner is an AP Government student, and said she knows the importance of political opinions and the opportunity to learn about differing beliefs gives others the ability to acknowledge other sides of the political spectrum. She said this skill has proven to be helpful as she navigates controversial topics that arise throughout the school day. 

“I think that everyone should be able to have an opinion, even if that’s hard for me to accept,” Zellner said. “Opinions on specific topics can sway from person to person, we need to respect that.” 

Zellner said the use of accurate information and a respectful mindset within these debates, especially when discussing political opinions, provides students with a comfortable platform to discuss their opinions without invoking an argument. Zellner said that having evidence as to what you believe can be helpful to have reasoning behind your opinions.

“I like relying on facts and statistics,” Zellner said. “It’s one thing to make up your own logic and reasoning, but you can’t deny evidence.” 

Zellner said that with the diverse range of opinions at such a large high school, she knows she will encounter peers with different views. Zellner said that she chooses not to encourage bias towards others, and to not let differing opinions be the source of an argument.

“Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Zellner said. “I personally have a hard time understanding why someone might believe something, but I find it easier when I try and just take a moment and put myself in their perspective.” 

In AP Psychology and Sociology teacher Paul Reedy has the students in his classes take the Big Five personality test to identify major sections that make up one’s personality. Reedy said one section of the test has to do with how agreeable a person is, which relates to how a student would react when placed in a debate. 

“I do think for most people, it’s part of our nature to feel like ‘I don’t want to be attacked,’” Reedy said. “And when you’re verbally attacked, it can be emotionally painful, especially when we’re talking about someone you’re close to.”

Reedy defines the psychological term, Cognitive Dissonance, which is the inner conflict a person may experience when given new information that clashes with previous beliefs. Cognitive Dissonance ultimately causes the typical defensive response.

“It is not easy for us to admit when we were wrong about something or someone, that’s very common in politics where there’s cognitive dissonance, and you have to figure out how to resolve that,” Reedy said. 

Reedy said that here at MHS, there is a distinct culture of respect between students and staff. Reedy said Comet Culture has given reinforcement to the idea that students are open to voicing their opinions while maintaining respect for the opinions of the other side. 

“We have this idea of Inclusive Excellence that most students really believe in and live up to,” Reedy said. “[But some] students may feel a certain way, [and] they realize if they were to say that publicly, to another student or in the classroom, it might rub some people the wrong way so they just keep it to themselves.” 

Sophomore Emori Witmer-Gautsch said that in a classroom setting, conversations between peers can easily turn from debating into a verbal argument and that it is important to be cautious regarding those situations. 

“Especially if it’s a class that you would have to talk about those topics, I’m very careful,” Witmer-Gautsch said. “I don’t want to disrespect anyone.” 

Witmer-Gautsch said she has identified the difference between projecting her political views onto others and simply voicing her opinion. She said that she chooses not to incite arguments with others who have differing political opinions. 

“I’m pretty open about my opinions, especially on social media, which is so public,” Witmer-Gautsch said. “I haven’t struggled with backlash because I tried to separate myself from people that I know that I’m not going to get along with politically.” 

Witmer-Gautsch has made it a point to educate herself on multiple controversial topics to justify her opinions. 

“I think having political conversations is crucial to the success of our country no matter where it takes place,” Witmer-Gautsch said. ”If we’re not having those conversations, then we aren’t going to be politically educated.”

Witmer-Gautsch said that by participating in political discourse, students can normalize a healthy format of debate. AP Government teacher Maria Mueller said that the skill to identify and discuss differing opinions will encourage students not to let a disagreement ruin relationships. 

“If anyone has a genuine wish to solve problems then they must have an understanding of how to have civil discourse,” Mueller said. 

Mueller said that in her classes, when students debate, the assignments are concise and thorough, requiring multiple accounts of research and evidence. This differs from political discussions that are fueled by controversy. 

“You cannot solve problems by ranting or by looking down on the person who disagrees with you,” Mueller said. “It’s just not possible.”

With acknowledging others’ opinions comes the ability to easily problem solve and come to an agreement. Mueller said this skill will be important for students even after their high school career, especially as they continue to learn about the government. 

“A healthy democracy contains people who respect all the people, not a matter of having to earn each other’s respect,” Mueller said. 

AP Government teacher Susie Wilcox said that learning how to listen to your peers is what ultimately allows for compromise and problem-solving. 

“We’re not even talking about solving the world’s major political topics,” Wilcox said. “We’re talking about having a skill that when you go out into the world, you have the skill to be able to have a conversation with someone and to problem solve despite a differing opinion.” 

Wilcox said that she makes it a point to connect her students by emphasizing the importance of hearing what each side has to say and taking into account a person’s experience. 

“I use the phrase ‘I hear you’ a lot in my classroom,” Wilcox said. “It’s not about saying we have to agree with each other, but it’s about acknowledging to someone that I hear what you’re saying, and what you’re saying is valid.” 

Having the ability to be open about politics and spread their ideas in a school environment is important for students like Witmer-Gautsch and Zellner. Zellner said that as she grows closer to politics, the more she comes to appreciate how needed educational conversations are.

Zellner said that especially for high schoolers, there is a need for balance when it comes to when it is acceptable to discuss politics, and that every political conversation does not need to end with a clear person in the right or wrong.  

“We need a place to speak our opinions without being scared,” Zellner said. “Opening up these conversations with our peers can be educational to all parties involved.”