State of Salem debate aims to tackle hot topic with civil discourse

SALEM, MA — A first public university in Massachusetts is designed to bring civil discourse to a debate that has been at the heart of so much vitriol across the country in recent years.

The topic of Salem State University’s first Braver Angels debate on Wednesday night: “Should government health and safety measures trump individual liberties?”

Amid often bitter public battles over mask mandates and vaccination requirements over the past three years, the issue has been tug of war between those who believe it is the responsibility of the many to benefit collective society and the most vulnerable within it, and those who believe that it is up to the individual to make personal choices in the best interests of themselves, their families and loved ones.

The goal of the Braver Angels debate is to take a topic that could be immensely partisan and divisive and encourage civil discussion through parliamentary-style speech.

“We wanted a topic that people were interested in and we would also have a wide range of opinions so that it wasn’t just a one-sided event,” said Vanessa Ruget, Salem State Professor of Politics, politics and international relations. In Monday. “We did surveys of staff, students and faculty and this one met those criteria.”

The Salem State Center for Civic Engagement and Politics event will take place Wednesday evening from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Marsh Dining building on Central Campus. It is open to the public for both attendance and participation.

People interested in attending or participating in the debate can register here.

“It is meant to foster civil dialogue on college campuses,” Ruget said. “These debates try to get students to really think together and listen to each other carefully around controversial issues.

“The idea is that maybe they will be moved by other people’s stories and ideas.”

Ruget said one of the concerns she hears from her students leaning right and left politically is the inability of those across the spectrum to at least understand each other’s point of view, if not. find a way to find common ground, on important issues.

“Many people in the United States today are concerned about the polarization of our country and are genuinely looking for opportunities like these debates to engage with each other respectively and discuss ideas important to our community,” said Ruget.

One of the hopes is that by exchanging views and ideas earlier in life, students might remain more open to different perspectives later in life.

“It’s a time when people are just starting to think about their own political views and how they fit into this landscape,” Ruget said. “I hear a lot of our students say they’re starting to vote. They’re starting to get interested in politics. They see the divisions within our political system. They find it frustrating and discouraging.

“They’re happy to listen to people who have different opinions. They just always have the opportunity to do that in the community.”

(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

Jessica C. Bell