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Not ‘safe spaces’: New group at UNLV tackles divisive topics

By the time violence broke out at a white nationalist march and counterdemonstration in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, UNLV senior Robert Gipson II had had enough.

The violence resulted in one death and multiple injuries. It fueled Gipson’s desire to address political polarization and prevent similar events in his home city and on campus.

With help from faculty adviser Emma Bloomfield, Gipson, a 24-year-old Shadow Ridge High graduate, founded the United Conversation Network, a student organization designed to create productive discussion about difficult topics. The group had its first meeting Nov. 27 at the Student Union.s’ military involvement worldwide in the past century. 

Gipson’s goal is to bring together people of many backgrounds and beliefs to discuss controversial topics and learn proper elements of rhetoric. At the group’s first meeting, students discussed psychopathy and trauma with the Oct. 1 shooting as a backdrop.

The aim is for the group to combat the narrative that college campuses are “huge safe spaces where you can’t say anything controversial.” That’s just not true, Gipson said.

“I’m sure there are places all across America in all institutions of higher education where students are being challenged,” he said. “I wanted to create, again, another space where people could be challenged … we could deliberate respectfully and subject ideas that are unpopular to scrutiny.”

Gipson said he believes denying people with radical views the freedom to speak simply inflames them and their followers.

Psychology professor Stephen Benning, the lead researcher on the university’s study of the development of post-traumatic stress disorder in Las Vegas residents after the shooting, led the first discussion.

Benning posed open-ended questions to an audience of about 20 students, staffers and faculty members.

“How can we heal from such a tragedy (as Oct. 1)?” Benning asked. He then summarized the PTSD study, which found that Las Vegans who weren’t at the Route 91 Harvest Festival during the Oct. 1 shooting may still exhibit symptoms of PTSD.

“So with an event like this, what do we do?” Benning asked. “How do we increase access to this therapy? … Is it acceptable as a society to have these kinds of events that will trigger this level of trauma in individuals? If so, what does that mean about our society?”

The conversation lasted an hour. Some addressed Benning’s questions and others took the opportunity to steer the discussion toward gun control. At certain points it got contentious; at other points attendees veered off course, but that was to be expected during the group’s trial run, Gipson said.

Now that he knows people are interested, he hopes to organize two meetings per month. One would be dedicated to lessons on proper rhetorical strategies, and the other would be discussion-based.

“(The group) requires people to be able to engage in these conversations respectfully and do that with sound reasoning and all the elements of proper rhetoric,” Gipson said.

“One of the things we can do in this club is we can work with you individually to make your case as strong as it possibly could be,” Dr. Michael Bruner, chairman of the communications department, told the group. “(We can make you) aware of the counterarguments that you would be susceptible to … Then we could really have a very productive dialectical argument that would be very well-structured.”

Bloomfield, Gipson’s adviser, teaches upper-level classes on rhetoric and persuasion and said she believes the United Conversation Network can work.

“I’ve found that if you challenge students and put the kind of assignments that force them to think and construct arguments, they have a proclivity to do so,” Bloomfield said. “People are naturally rational and reasonable creatures. But we don’t do enough to foster that kind of behavior, and instead we reward yelling and screaming.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at mreese@viewnews.com or 702-383-0497. Follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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