Weekly News Digest, No. 14

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the fourteenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Speech on Campus

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, released their Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report, which examines the state of free speech on college campuses across the country. Using an internal rating system, FIRE reported a decrease in schools with a red-light rating and an increase in schools with a green-light rating as more schools adopt policies modeled around the University of Chicago’s report on freedom of expression.

Recently, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in Inside Higher Ed against endorsing the Chicago principles. Although the principles represent an important, necessary commitment to free speech and inquiry, the “legalistic and formal framework” falls short when it encounters unique situations and diverse concerns. Dr. Ben-Porath writes that an endorsement “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry — especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right.”

Creative Activism and Protest

In November, Ian Madrigal spoke at American University about activism, discourse, and identity. Madrigal – an attorney and consumer advocate better known for their activism as The Monopoly Man – appeared in the news recently after an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee hearing for Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The Washingon Post Magazine profiled Madrigal, writing that the costume “is really an elaborate act of protest: a combination of entertainment and trolling that Madrigal calls ‘cause-play.’”

Discourse in our Communities

The Michigan Public Policy Survey examined the state of civil discourse on local policy issues in Fall 2018, looking at relationships among local officials, among residents, and between the two. MPPS found that most leaders believe discourse is constructive at the local level, with little change compared to a 2012 survey. However, discourse between residents is viewed as considerably less constructive, especially in Michigan’s most diverse communities.

Better Angels is trying to reverse that trend by facilitating discussions across the political divide. Rather than seeking a centrist compromise, David Graham writes that Better Angels “presupposes polarity” and focuses on fostering conversations between those on opposite sides. Graham examines the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately asking: “Even if Better Angels can succeed in getting a large swath of the population to speak civilly, who knows if they’ll be able to convert that into productive conversation on real policies?”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 13

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the thirteenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog, which is back for the spring semester after a short holiday break. This semester the blog will continue to feature weekly posts that share students’ experiences with civil discourse, reflect on the Project’s events, and recap discourse-related news.

Before the holidays, Steph Black defined trauma-informed discourse, writing that it is about “believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field.”

Belief vs. Science

Ibram X. Kendi argues in The Atlantic that those who deny climate change and racism attack observable reality when they discredit and disbelieve scientific findings. Kendi writes that denialists “explain their disbelief using examples in their direct line of sight [and] do not trust the far-flung hindsight, foresight, and bird’s-eye view of the scientist.”

Using Profanity

Last week, newly sworn-in Congresswoman Rashida Talib (D-MI) made headlines after calling for President Trump’s impeachment and referring to him as a “motherfucker.” Talib’s comments sparked debate over the use of profanity by elected officials, with many – including President Trump and congressional Republicans – claiming her comments were disrespectful and inappropriate. In response to their reaction, columnist Michelle Goldberg argued that Talib said nothing wrong, citing President Trump’s past use of profanity and the double-standard that women face.

Earlier in 2018, Mona Eltahawy outlined her case for why profanity should be seen and used as a tool to call out and dismantle unfair and unequal power structures. She notes that she swears to make people uncomfortable, writing that “in the era of Trump – a man who has torpedoed the notion of civility – women are still expected to be polite.”

Civil Discourse Online

Kiley Bense writes for The Atlantic about the subreddit Change My View, a forum on Reddit that promotes discussion about issues that people commonly disagree on. Unlike other social platforms that struggle to moderate speech, such as Facebook and Twitter, Change My View successfully facilitates civil discourse by establishing strict, transparent, and constituent rules about how users may debate. However, the subreddit still offers a platform to problematic ideologies and its users are predisposed to open-mindedness.

College Speech

In December, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was asked to remove a sign saying “Fuck Nazis you are not welcome here” because its message was not inclusive nor respectful. Nicole Parsons hung the sign in her window after a swastika was drawn in her residence hall. While the sign didn’t violate school policy, Parsons received an email from a university employee asking her to remove it. UMass Amherst later responded, saying they “reject Nazis” but are “sensitive to the use of profanity.”

Thanks for reading!

Trauma-Informed Discourse in the Age of Incivility: Not Silencing Speech, But Enhancing It

Steph Black headshot
By Steph Black, AU CAS

Everybody has a reaction to trigger warnings. And I get it. The concept has been so wildly blown out of proportion that it is seemingly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on the use of them. Right-wing pundits thoroughly lambast them and left-wing activists preach them.

But when we take a step back and look at what trigger warnings are, we might be surprised by what we find. Let’s start from the beginning.

Trigger warnings didn’t stem from social media. They didn’t originate from liberals who didn’t want to see certain things online and they didn’t come from college students who didn’t want to be intellectually challenged.

The concept of trigger warning originated with psychologists who studied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those who suffer from PTSD (including survivors of sexual violence, people who experience accidents or freak weather, and combat veterans) can exhibit many symptoms, particularly intrusive memories and reliving the original traumatic events via flashback, recurrent thoughts, and nightmares. These can all be ‘triggered’ or brought on by internal and external stimuli.

Internal stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include anger, anxiety, certain memories, feelings of abandonment or frustration, racing heartbeats, pain, and even muscle tension. External stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include arguments, seeing news articles related to the traumatic event, witnessing similar traumatic events, certain smells, anniversaries of the incident, places, holidays, or seeing other people who also witnessed the traumatic event.

Constantly reliving these memories is extremely harmful as it creates a response called fear conditioning. Fear conditioning occurs when “these thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic.”

Early usages of trigger warnings stemmed from this understanding and were used to alert traumatized people (people who had experienced trauma such as rape, physical assault, or war) that information that was about to be presented included something that might trigger the memories of their trauma.

Having seen the trigger warning, the traumatized person could use coping strategies they had learned during therapy (grounding, breathing exercises, or other relaxation methods) and avoid experiencing a flashback or other unwanted side effect of PTSD.

Those who are ‘trauma-informed’ have applied this principle to other areas. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘trauma-informed care’ or ‘trauma-informed advocacy.’

More specifically, a trauma-informed approach:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

And while the connection might not be immediately obvious, the tenets of trauma-informed approached closely mirror the tenets of civil discourse. American University’s cutting-edge Project on Civil Discourse has outlined civil discourse as:

  • Truthful
  • Productive
  • Audience-based
  • About listening and talking
  • Each Speaker’s own responsibility

It is through these guidelines that discourse can be the most productive it can possibly be. When we consciously make the decision to hold conversations according to these tenets, our conversation can become less polarized, less hateful, and more productive.

When both civil discourse and trauma-informed practice come together, the implications of who can be engaged in conversation expands exponentially. Take, for example, the experiences of Amanda Nannarone, a law student at AU who worked for the Project on Civil Discourse. Nannarone, a trauma survivor, said she was caught off guard by a class discussion about a survivor of domestic violence.

“I got very upset during class, and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said in an interview. “Usually, if I can prepare for it, I know what I’m going into where I can make sure I have my stuff with me. For that class, I didn’t have it because I wasn’t expecting it.”

If Nannarone had known that this was going to be a part of the class discussion, perhaps she would have been better equipped to engage with the subject matter. There are countless others who have had similar experiences who would also benefit from classroom discussions, and discussions in general, that are framed with a trauma-informed, civil discourse lens.

Trauma-informed civil discourse is not about ideology. It is not about censoring or enforcing a singular kind of speech or debate. It is about believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field. Employing the tenets of both trauma-informed practice and civil discourse is our best way forward to achieve that.

Steph is a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at American University. Steph can be found reading next to her cat Goose, writing about feminism and Judaism, or protesting around the city for basic human rights. 

Weekly News Digest, No. 12

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twelfth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

On Monday, Marissa Klass reflected on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education,” a recent event hosted by the School of Public Affairs’ Political Theory Institute. Marissa writes: “Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values.”

The Project on Civil Discourse was recently featured in The Eagle, American University’s student newspaper. Isabella Goodman interviews Director Lara Schwartz and myself about the impetus behind the Project and the different components we offer.

Free Speech and Discourse in High School

Last week, the Knight Foundation reported findings from a national survey of high school students and their views on free speech. The Knight Foundation found that students express strong support for the First Amendment but support some limits on offensive speech. Students trust the news less, believe social media has a negative effect on free expression, and believe the internet is fueling hate speech, but do not think ‘fake news’ is a threat to democracy. Download the full report here.

In Overland High School in Aurora, CO and in high schools across the country, educators are introducing civil-discourse skills in the classroom and engaging students in challenging discussions. Students are taught to actively listen to their classmates, make evidence-based arguments, and respect others.

Speech on the Internet

On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee on a range of issues, from privacy practices to location tracking to search algorithms. Ali Breland writes for Mother Jones that Congress had an opportunity to question Google on hate speech, the spread of misinformation and their role in radicalizing users. Instead, Republicans chose to press Pichai on Google’s alleged anti-conservative bias.

The Atlantic recently hosted “Free Speech (Un)Limited,” an event covering free speech on campuses, in journalism and tech, and in our political life. Each session is about 20 minutes and can be seen on YouTube.

Speech on Campus

Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Dr. Jonathan Friedman write that colleges and universities “mistakenly position free speech against hate speech, assuming that protecting free speech means there are constraints on denouncing hate.” Deliberately neutral statements may reflect concerns for avoiding accusations of political bias, but instead make students feel unwelcome and vulnerable. They write that it is possible and essential that “campus leaders strongly condemn hateful incidents and simultaneously affirm the values of free speech and inclusion to their core research and teaching missions.”

Last Monday, UC Berkeley and several conservative campus groups reached a settlement agreement in a 2017 free-speech case. Young America’s Foundation led the lawsuit, which alleged that the university violated the First Amendment by placing prohibitive restrictions on conservative speakers. Berkeleyside reports that both parties consider the settlement a victory

Thanks for reading!

A Reflection on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education”

Marissa Klass headshot
By Marissa Klass, AU SPA

“Are you being challenged in your fundamental beliefs?” asked Dr. Robert George, a political philosopher and American legal scholar at Princeton University. Robert George was accompanied on stage by his ideological rival Dr. Cornel West, a political activist and American philosopher at Harvard University. If you were to see these two intellectuals speak on the news or simply glance at their social media accounts, you would never guess that George, a conservative, and West, a progressive, share the same core values, especially when it comes to the importance of a liberal education. During a discussion moderated by Dr. Tom Merrill, an associate professor within the School of Public Affairs, the men spoke about the importance of making yourself uncomfortable in the process of learning.

Before I walked through the doors of Constitution Hall, I had little idea of who Dr. Cornel West was, my only understanding being that he holds progressive values. As for Dr. Robert George, I knew nothing about him except that he supposedly held the exact opposite political beliefs of West. I found that my lack of background on the two scholars was essential in allowing me to see the two simply as individuals with opinions rooted in philosophical and political thought. This discussion challenged my beliefs in a way they had not been tested since I arrived at American University.

Cornel West and Robert George spoke of the value of challenging your own existential beliefs in search of truth. It is something that must be endlessly sought after and requires a constant state of learning, questioning, and challenging. George made the audience chuckle by suggesting that us students pay American University a great deal of money to be made uncomfortable. In that quip the law scholar conveyed the value of listening to the opinions of your peers and reflecting on some of the best historical philosophers in order to challenge and rethink your set of beliefs. Learning is a process which encourages the seeking of truth, rather than the gathering of information to compliment an existing perspective. This acquisition of information is not something to be handed over. To gain a true liberal education is to chase after the discomfort in which you feel like your most core beliefs are being constantly challenged.

It is clear to students at American University which political party stands dominant on campus. While this political homogeneity is not uncommon across many liberal arts college campuses, I feel that our university, which sits in the nation’s capital and is ranked the “most politically active,” holds the responsibility of stimulating more uncomfortable discussions in order to really get our money’s worth, as Robert George suggests. In order to be challenged, it is essential that students break out of their comfort zones by engaging with and even befriending peers whose views are different than their own.

In my own experience, I have found this practice to be a successful one. By forming close relationships with people who I disagree with politically, I have been able to gain a better understanding of their perspectives and where they are coming from. Sometimes, I have found the ideas of my peers to be so convincing that I have adopted them as beliefs of my own. We are a campus that preaches inclusion and community, and it only seems just that these values include political affiliation.

The two intellectual voices of West and George offered a call to action: to get uncomfortable, to understand the other, and to challenge yourself until you are shaken to your very core. It is crucial to maintain a level of discomfort in order to have the motivation to continue learning. This ongoing process of learning will spark new ideas and questions. The undertaking of constant truth-seeking allows individuals like you and me to take in new ideas and perspectives in order to understand the other. Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values. Cornel West and Robert George have challenged the way I learn and, through this event, have assisted me in grappling with my knowledge in a discovery for the truth.

Marissa Klass is a first-year Political Science and Justice & Law double major at American University. She is a member of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program and has a passion for civics, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.