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Can anyone have a civil conversation about Silent Sam? A UNC student and a Confederate son give it a try.

Can anyone have a civil conversation about Silent Sam?

Two people on opposite sides of the Silent Sam issue - UNC student Tarik Woods and Sons of Confederate Veterans member Bill Starnes - sit down to discuss their views on the controversial Confederate statue.
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Two people on opposite sides of the Silent Sam issue - UNC student Tarik Woods and Sons of Confederate Veterans member Bill Starnes - sit down to discuss their views on the controversial Confederate statue.

Silent Sam, the Confederate statue criticized and then toppled by protestors at UNC-Chapel Hill, has sparked protests on campus and around the region.

The anti-Silent Sam group maintains the statue is a painful symbol of slavery and racism. The pro-statue group wants to preserve it as a historic monument.

The debate has roiled through the year. Photos, videos, social media and news reports contained the same themes and images: chanting, screaming, in-your-face confrontations — punctuated by fights, pepper spray and arrests.

Is it even possible for people on either side of the Silent Sam debate to have a civil conversation? At The News & Observer, we wanted to find out.

We invited a 20-year-old UNC student leader and a 68-year-old Sons of Confederate Veterans officer to The News & Observer’s downtown Raleigh studio. Both Tarik Woods and Bill Starnes have talked and written about their strong views on Confederate monuments — and Silent Sam, in particular.

But they’d never met, and enthusiastically agreed to do so. Clearly proud of their respective institutions, the two men arrived at our photo studio wearing shirts that designated their support.

With the video camera running and no moderator, the two native North Carolinians talked for almost an hour on their views on Silent Sam, on the Confederacy, on history, and about racism in America.

The conversation, which has been edited for length here, wasn’t entirely easy. At times, it appeared strained and uncomfortable. Historical “facts” may have been muddled. (A word of caution: Their conversation with each other has not been fact-checked by The News & Observer.)

Both men agreed: It was worth the effort.

“I had no problem talking with Mr. Starnes,” Woods said after the discussion. “It’s entirely possible for two people with radically different views and backgrounds to have a civil conversation about the confederacy, racism, and history, and this conversation is proof of that.”

His advice to anyone involved in a similar conversation about any controversial topic: “Get very good at patience and active listening.”

Starnes agreed, and added his advice: “Do the appropriate research. And by that, I mean simply seek the truth. Do not limit yourself to simply looking for support for your particular viewpoint. Doing so will seriously hamstring you.”

No minds were changed during this Silent Sam conversation. But in the end, two people with exceptionally different backgrounds and perspectives found themselves face-to-face with someone who’d typically never appear in their social circles — not unlike a Silent Sam rally.

But here, there were no threats, no shouted expletives, no angry walk-out. Just a long talk, a handshake and plans to share a cold beer. Someday.

Jane Elizabeth is the managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.

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Jane Elizabeth is the managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. She has worked at five other U.S. news organizations including The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as the American Press Institute, a non-profit media research group. She holds a masters degree in mass communication and was awarded a journalism fellowship at Harvard University in 2017.


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