Panelists speak on religion, journalism

By Hannah Neumann
Staff Writer

Students and staff are using what many have described as a controversial Baylor Lariat column to encourage dialogue and acceptance.

Wednesday night a panel discussion took place at the Bill Daniel Student Center den, with a central theme of understanding, religious tolerance, journalistic integrity and personal growth.

This was the second discussion held by a new Baylor initiative called This Matters, which according to its Twitter is “a series of dialogues connecting leaders from diverse perspectives to offer context to society’s most challenging questions.”

Moderated by Baylor’s director of student activities, Matt Burchett, the panelists for the discussion were: Dr. Jerry Park, associate professor of sociology; Macarena Hernandez, professor of journalism; and Dr. Michael Stroope, associate professor of Christian missions.

One of the overarching topics during the debate was seeing people for more than their religious affiliation.

Offering a theological view, Stroope said he believes religious engagement and communication is a great solvent for misunderstanding.

“Rather than talk about human rights or human dignity, while those are important topics, I think we have to talk about the fact that every person, from my perspective, is created in the image of God,” he said.

Stroope said he believes the only way to know the wholeness of a person is through interaction.

“I have to realize that mine is an outsider perspective and therefore I can never speak adequately for someone who is an insider,” he said. “That means I am to listen and I am to learn from the insider. I have a lot to learn from those who are inside if I am able to ask the right questions and if I’m willing to listen intently.”

Burchett said the conversation stemmed from a column published last month by the Lariat, titled “Politically correct isn’t always right.”

“The opinion, composed by a Baylor junior staff writer for the Baylor Lariat, made an argument that political liberals have a misguided view of Islam and the actions of Muslims, particularly related to the ISIS conflict,”  he said. “The author emphasized violence and violent acts by Muslims, the statements of the Quran, and perceives support of Islam being promoted by leading American political leaders as quoted ‘apologists for Islam.’”

Burchett said the column sparked numerous remarks from readers, with  over 190 facebook shares, 99 retweets and several responses written to the Lariat from alumni, students and members of the Waco community.

Attendees were encouraged to tweet questions to the #ThisMattersBU account or submit topic ideas via notecards distributed during the event. During the question-and-answer portion, Paul Carr, director of student publications, said columns are not representations of the institution or publication they are affiliated with, but rather a representation of the writer.

“Did the writer get pushback afterwards? You bet,” he said. “Internally and externally. A lot of the time with columns, the rest of the staff doesn’t know what’s going on until it is in the print.”

A student asked how Lariat student staff members balance their undergraduate learning with their personal perspective.

“How does anyone in this room balance their personal opinions with their areas of study?” He asked. “And how do you keep your message of hate off of your tweets and your Facebook? These are students just like you learning a craft. The difference is that their craft is published and you get to see their mistakes along with what they do well. How would you like the lowest grade you made in your worst class to be how you’re viewed for the rest of your time at Baylor? There’s a thousand things published in the Lariat every semester and sometimes mistakes get through. They’re trying to do the same thing as you are, which is to learn and improve.”

Hernandez said she thinks it is easy to shame people for their opinions and that she hopes this isn’t the case in this circumstance.

“If you want to encourage an honest conversation with someone, the last thing you want to do is shame someone into feeling guilty,” she said. “I think if anything we need to create spaces where people can have actual conversations and invite the writer and make it a place where everyone feels safe.”

Burchett said Baylor’s desire is to understand the student’s feelings more fully and to walk alongside those with concerns through civil discourse and honest dialogue.

“This Matters is our communal response to respectful discourse, Christian hospitality and intellectual honesty,” he said. “Our hope is that you leave today considering the vast array of viewpoints and information available on these topics.”

Parks said there were three particular concerns in dealing with the issues at hand.

“One, what is at stake if we, as a community of advanced learning, only support the right to free speech?” he said. “Two, what is at stake if we only support the critical reaction to that argument. And three, what is at stake when Muslims share the same community space as the author?”

Parks said it is the third question that is the most important to be considered.

“Protecting the right to discuss Islam, whether in support or dissent of a particular view, upholds our commitment to free speech,” he said. “But that very expression also validates anyone who agrees with this student, which in turn can place our Muslim peers in a very vulnerable position. Consider how you would feel if your group was presumed to be prone to violence and prone to blind allegiance to your religion, in a context where you are the numerical minority and your skin tone or attire is presumed to indicate your affiliation with that said group.”

Parks said those who should receive attention for merits, ability and skill are often viewed only for their religious identity, or assumed religious identity, due to discrimination.

Dr. Elizabeth Palacios, Dean for Student Development said this notion of getting to know one another and understanding from the outside through somebody inside is a positive that has come from this controversy.

“We need to learn from the students. It’s not so much of them learning from us,” she said. “We need to have more intimate conversations and dialogues and start talking about the healing and how to make cultural change.”

Palacios said she is optimistic about the chance for the column to bring discussion and change.

“This has brought our attention to something that is already going on,” she said. “We made this into something that is going to benefit because now we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, we need voices here.’”

Palacios said the column and events that have transpired since its publication lead to their attention important, but often overlooked issues.

“God has a way of making the most ugly things come into something bright and beautiful,” she said. “My hope for this is that we learn to give voice to the voiceless, to make sure we are respectful in all that we do and to be self-critical to how we are contributing and how we are empowering. I think we’re going to take something and make it something better.”

Student body external vice president, Kristyn Miller, Woodville junior, said she was extremely happy with the panel discussion and attendance.

“This was a beautiful example of civil discourse and I think that is something to be proud of,” she said. “I think that the students expressed their opinions clearly, respectfully and that we had dialogue that was challenging and responsive to student concern. This was successful, and what will be even more successful is if students continue to be a part of this conversation and the solution process.”

The next meeting, an intergroup dialogue will be held Monday at 5 p.m. in the SUB, with location to be announced.

“We will be trying to bring light to ways that we can be proactive as students, ways that Baylor can be proactive as administration and ways that we can create a culture of respect and trust and of engagement.”

Houston senior Hassan Dagha said he thinks the This Matters actions are a great first step to understanding the problems at hand.

“Once you know what the problems are and you address them you can start to move forward towards the healing process,” he said. “There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered and as a University we are trying to grow and learn from this. We want to get ahead of this because we don’t want to be in the backend fixing every situation, we want to be in the forefront so these kind of things don’t happen. Discussions like these help us learn what went wrong, how it went wrong and what can be done about it.”