Political Beliefs Workshop

Last month I hosted a series of workshops whose purpose was to help people better understand their own (as well as other people's) political beliefs. It was a project that solely resulted from my own initiative, and to my surprise, was a large success.

The reason why I decided to host these workshops was twofold: one, I like discussing the fundamentals of politics; and two, I believe I have a civic duty to contribute to a healthy democracy. Allow me to elaborate a bit on both of these reasons. First, I love political philosophy. Thinking about what makes a just society brings me not only joy but intellectual achievement. It is what keeps me up at night and fuels many of the best conversations I have. The workshops provided me with a way to share my love of the subject. Regarding the second reason, I believe I have a general duty to help others. And given that it would be better to help more than less, the way that I contribute to society should be partly determined by my skills. Furthermore, since political philosophers are especially well-equipped to contribute to a healthy democracy, and since I am a political philosopher, it follows that I ought to contribute in that way unless there is a good reason not to (which there is not in this case). As to why political philosophers are especially well-equipped for that task, the argument goes like this. A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that engages in productive, civic debate. Productive, civic debate requires, among other things, logical thinking, and an understanding of the fundamental ideas of politics. Both of these qualities are possessed by political philosophers.

With these reasons in mind, I decided to create a group on meetup.com. I had no idea if anyone would even join or if anyone would even know that it existed. But as it turns out, meetup sends out notification emails to people in the area whose interests match the interests of the group, so I actually got a number of members in the first few days. As of now, I have 22 members in my group. Out of those members, around 6-7 people attended each of the workshops.

Here are the 3 lessons that I have learned from this experience:
  1. Non-philosophers are not used to philosophical discussion. I found that the participants were tempted to talk about everyday politics and legislation instead of the abstract principles that underlie the specifics. Thus, I had to guide the discussions by asking the questions. 
  2. It is very easy to go on tangents, especially in a group. I spent maybe around 20% of my time focusing the discussion by bringing people back to the issue at hand. 
  3. Discussions work best when there is structure. For my first workshop I did not pick a topic; it was more of a general background discussion, and that conversation went everywhere and nowhere. Consequently, I picked one topic for each of my subsequent workshops, and they went much more smoothly. I also sent out a handout to everyone beforehand. 
The lessons that I have learned regarding discussion management will undoubtedly prove useful in my future teaching career, and I have my participants to thank for this. None of this would have been possible without them. They were interested, engaged, civil, and sincere. I could not have asked for more. I hope I see old and new faces at future workshops.