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"Ask Me Why" says the Illinois Humanities Council

September 21, 2011 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

In today’s highly connected, techno-driven society, we’re surrounded by an avalanche of news and information from sources all over the world. Tweeting. Facebooking. Texting. Blogging. These platforms all allow people to voice their thoughts, views, and opinions for all to see.

Yet, how many times do we use outlets such as these to foster dialogue, to actually listen to what others have to say instead of attacking those views that differ from our own? This question is one the Illinois Humanities Council (IHC) has addressed with their program Ask Me Why, produced in partnership with Chicago Public Media (WBEZ-Chicago).

Taking their inspiration from StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening, IHC crafted a program of conversations between two participants with opposing viewpoints. The pairs of people, who all know each other yet disagree on an issue, were not allowed to debate, argue, or challenge each other within this discussion. They could only foster dialogue by asking questions and listening to the answers they received. The goal of these discussions is not to make a point or counterpoint, but instead to allow participants to better understand why the other person thinks the way they do; to bring personal experiences into the dialogue, with the goal of enabling both parties to step outside their comfort zone and understand a differing viewpoint in a civil manner.

In recruiting participants in this program, IHC sought out pairs who knew each other previously, yet held strongly differing opinions on current issues. The most important qualification was that these pairs needed to be able to talk about their views without the conversation devolving in to a heated argument. The first sessions were recorded in November 2010 and are available on the websites of Illinois Humanities Council and WBEZ-Chicago. Some of the topics covered include hot button issues such as gay marriage, school vouchers, and religion.

While this program does not seek to solve all the issues faced in dealing with public discourse, the IHC does hope that it can serve as a reminder to behave in a thoughtful manner when participating in public discourse. Truly listening to others who may disagree with you is vital to maintaining civil discourse in public dialogue.