TEDxUTK co-director Cat Trieu introduces the "Crossing the Divide" salon event on Oct. 6, 2020. 

TEDxUTK’s latest salon event, titled “Crossing the Divide,” was born out of necessity. With an election just four weeks away, the inability of many Americans to engage in meaningful conversation with those of the opposite party or of a different creed seems to pose an existential threat.

Like the organization’s first salon event in September, which addressed the issues that come with living through a pandemic, “Crossing the Divide” utilized breakout rooms and small-group activities to help equip students to better address pressing societal problems.

Cat Trieu, senior who serves as co-director of TEDxUTK, opened the event over Zoom Monday night by telling the 40 or so participants why the organization decided to host the event.

“With elections coming up, and really just with the whole country kind of at a divide, it’s really, really important to kind of cross that divide, and by that we mean having meaningful conversations with people we may or may not agree with,” Trieu said. 

“And we know that’s a really difficult thing, whether that’s in person or over social media, so we really hope that from this event you can take away tips for having more meaningful conversations.”

The event was put on in partnership with the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society (TSDS), whose members provided special insights into how best to listen and debate. Throughout the night, leaders from TSDS served as moderators, leading group discussions about how students can better approach challenging discussions.

Josh Madzak, junior and current vice president of TSDS, shared that some conversations, while they may be difficult, must be had.

“We’re pretty much forced to have a lot of conversations and a lot of debates about things that we disagree with, some things that we disagree with very strongly, we still have to argue them,” Mandzak said.

“I mean, if you join one of our group chats on GroupMe, you would see that we enjoy it … It’s something that we do because we love it, and we feel like it’s extremely important to be able to have conversations with everyone, no matter what they believe in.” 

In the first of two breakout rooms, participants were asked to take a stance on a controversial issue, and then write down arguments in favor of the opposing side. These issues included whether masks should still be worn after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and whether there should be tighter restrictions on gun ownership. 

In the second breakout room, participants were asked to brainstorm questions that they could ask an imaginary person who has made a controversial claim, such as “Today’s democratic party is socialist,” or, “Immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants.”

The purpose of such exercises was to help students challenge their beliefs and prepare for tough conversations that they may face, especially in the month before the election in November.

But the event was also full of tips for how students should navigate the myriad of pitfalls of social media, where the majority of political conversations are happening.

Linus Cho, junior and a current co-speaker head for TEDxUTK, gave advice to participants on how they might want to approach the sticky situation of unfollowing friends on social media over political disagreements.

“It begs the questions of, why were we friends in the first place? Were we friends because of our political alignments?” Cho said. 

“I am … friends on Facebook with my high school teachers, and they hold quite different political views from me, but I follow them not for their political view, but to just know what they’re up to in life, and so that’s why I have not unfollowed them.”

Isabell Marshall, junior who serves as alumni coordinator for TSDS, recommended that students not help spread misinformation by boosting its presence on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. 

“Don’t ever give it the kind of engagement, like quote, retweeting or liking or commenting on it, because why they’re spreading misinformation most of the time is to get attention and because a lot of times, they’re making these outrageous claims to get more engagement,” Marshall said. 

“If you want to call attention to it, just screenshot it and share it on [your account] … just don’t give it the engagement that it wants.”

Marshall, as one of the upperclassmen leaders with the Speech and Debate Society, gave one closing piece of advice that students can adopt as a foundational rule when entering into conversations that have potential to become offensive or aggressive.

“We come from different understandings, different perspectives, we may get our news from different sources, and so we may just be ignorant of each other’s perspectives,” Marshall said.

“If we’re going to get anywhere, we have to recognize that first and then go forward.”

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