In my English 111 class we began by discussing rhetoric, the study of how people tell stories. For our first assignment, we were asked to think of a topic, or argument, that we feel strongly about and have difficulty listening to. We then had to describe this argument and explain why we have such a hard time listening to it. Within the paper, we had to examine the argument more closely, explaining what is at stake if I actually did listen to these arguments. In our paper, we had to incorporate class readings from Booth, who advises us to stray away from closed-mindedness and be more aware of others opinions—one can never know how their views might change if they truly listen to others. The end goal was to go out of our comfort zone and acknowledge the fact that the true reason we have such a difficult time listening to stories that challenge us if because they change our sense of self, who we feel we are or have come to be.
One unusually hot Friday afternoon during my sophomore year of high school I stumbled into my Bioethics class, dreading what argument would be debated that day. It was last period on a Friday and all I could think about were my big plans for the weekend. However, when my teacher said we would be watching a movie, I lay on the floor relieved. As she started to play the video, Dead Man Walking, a documentary about Sister Helen Prejean, a nun aiding individuals on death row, I knew this movie was not what I expected. I was not very familiar with the complex and controversial issues of the death penalty but I was looking forward to watching a movie, any movie, at that point. My teacher explained that it would challenge some of our beliefs and would be difficult to watch, but overall it would provide us with concrete examples of the process and help us understand why people feel the way they do about it. Although I did not think this film would affect me, after seeing it, I was shocked that this was occurring on a daily basis and was even more shocked that it was acceptable.
Through my religion, my background, and my personal experiences, my belief in the opposition of capital punishment has clearly been defined. Growing up in a strong Catholic family has defined my beliefs, the most common being that all people have dignity and worth and deserve the right to life, which will never change. Therefore, I outright oppose the practice of capital punishment and cannot fathom why anyone would accept it. More specifically, because of my Catholic values, which have shaped my identity, I have a very hard time listening to anyone who could justify the act of killing another individual, regardless of the circumstance.
There are many reasons as to why I oppose this practice. One is the fact that killing is a sin. If a convicted serial killer were sent to death row, what message are we trying to teach? Obviously, we are trying to prove that killing is wrong. If this is truly the message, why are we killing this convicted murderer? Is our murder justifiable simply because this individual was bad or made mistakes? No. I believe all killing is wrong, regardless of what someone may have done. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their bad actions; acts need to have consequences. I believe, though, that life in prison is a far worse punishment than the death penalty. Life in prison forces a criminal to deal with their sins on a daily basis and constantly reminds them of the harm they caused to society. I strongly believe that everyone has good inside of them, although it may not always show. I believe that all individuals have dignity and worth and no one deserves to die, not even the worst of humans, making capital punishment wrong.
As Booth suggests, I realize I need to try to stray away from my closed-mindedness and be more aware of others opinions around me. Everyone has come from a different religion, a different background, and has had different experiences than another, which has shaped their own beliefs. I also recognize that all individuals have an opinion and each of those opinions is equally important. Without differences of opinions there would be no diversity in our world, our nation, or our community today. Therefore, while my opinion did not necessarily change in a drastic way, by truly listening and allowing this foreign thought into my head, I accepted other’s beliefs and truly allowed myself to understand their perspectives. This particular instance of listening rhetoric occurred in the same sophomore religion class where I was first introduced to this issue through Dead Man Walking.
After hearing classmates debate their opinions, I heard arguments as to why the death penalty should be allowed. If I placed myself in someone else’s situation, someone who may have had a family member murdered, I would want revenge. I would be so angry that I would want the killer to die and pay for the pain he caused me. Those with personal experiences, especially horrible ones, want justice. The death penalty, the worst possible form of punishment, offers those directly involved with relief, reassurance, and closure. It provides them with safety, knowing the person who destroyed their life is paying for their actions in the worst possible way. Another reason why some may support the death penalty is their background. We all have conditioned beliefs that have come about in the earlier parts of our lives. Usually, if our parents believe one idea, we will most likely believe that same idea as well. If an individual grew up listening to their parents support the death penalty because it brings justice to society, the same individual will probably support this issue for that reason. Some may also support this particular issue out of fear. If a criminal who was so violent is simply locked up in jail, what happens if he or she escapes? They will be free to kill again. Lastly, since my Catholic beliefs play such an important role in my opposition to the death penalty, another’s religion may accept it or even favor it. Some religious practices, or those who are not affiliated with any religious belief at all, may favor it, believing that it is right to harm those who have harmed others even worse. I am well aware that ones values, beliefs, and identities can define who they are and why they believe certain things. Everyone has different reasons as to why they have ideas, and mine will most likely always be different than someone else’s, which I need to always keep in mind.
Through hearing others opinions and examples, my views did not change drastically. However, I was open to others opinions and understood why they feel the way they do. Listening to something I was in such strong opposition to before was very hard and challenged my identity, but it did not change it. Dealing with people who completely disagree with us causes us to feel threatened. Therefore, we get defensive and try to fight back, arguing our opinions more intensely. When someone argues my opinions on the death penalty, I feel they are attacking my identity, my self, particularly because my religious ideals play such a vital role. However, I know I have to listen to them in order to become aware of their ideas. I would never want someone to judge my opinions or beliefs without understanding them, and therefore I will listen to others even if I know it will not radically change my opinion.
If I had not listened to different arguments than my own, I would still be closed-minded. I would not understand different ideas and I would remain unaware of the different views other people have. I understand why those in opposition to me have the opinions that they do. I now see where they are coming from and why they believe these particular aspects. It makes more sense to me how they initially formed these ideas, why these ideas have stuck, and why they feel so strongly about their ideas. Everyone has his or her own opinions for different reasons. Mine are the way they are because of my religion, my background, and my experiences but all other people have different religions, background, and experiences, which shape their beliefs too. It is truly a learning process to step back from your own values and acknowledge others. Even though others opinions may challenge your identity, which is a scary reality, it ultimately gives you a broader picture and more clearly helps you not only understand but identify with that person. I believe that this learning process, even if a large truce may not be made, benefits both individuals on either side of the issue.