Weekly News Digest, No. 7

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


Tomorrow, November 1st, Amanda Werner – best known as “The Monopoly Man” – will talk about balancing activism with one’s identity and career at an event hosted by the Project on Civil Discourse. Werner will speak at 6:00PM in Kerwin Hall Room 2 on American University’s campus. Their talk will be followed by small-group discussions about the topics raised; pizza will be provided. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

Flyer for Amanda Werner event


Do we need civility to fix our democracy? Michael Brenes argues that we don’t. In fact, incivility is necessary for revealing larger problems that must be addressed by politics, not civility. He writes: “Calls for civility historically are efforts to stifle struggles for improvement, to impede the progress of history.” Citing examples from the Civil War to the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement, Brenes lays out an argument against civility, the status quo, and the absence of politics. He closes: “The root cause of our incivility is the inadequacies of our politics . . . political participation, not politeness, is the only way to fix our democracy.”


David Fairman, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute and associate director of the M.I.T.-Harvard Public Disputes Program, recently spoke to David Bornstein about bringing different groups of people into conversation with each other. Fairman believes that our struggle to talk with those whom we disagree with is rooted in a fear that we give in by doing so, which is exacerbated by our combative political system.

Fairman emphasizes the importance of active listening and truly understanding where another person’s views come from. He says: “A much more challenging move is to have serious, difficult conversations with people you know who think differently.” Fairman has seen success when three elements are present in a conversation: relevant issues, legitimate public spaces, and good process and facilitation.

Free Speech on Campus

When controversial figures come to speak on campus, their engagements come with high, unavoidable security costs that universities are obligated to pay. A recent article by Jillian Berman highlights the costs of hosting controversial speakers and the strategies that universities use, from coordinating with local police departments to hiring private security firms.

Hidden Tribes

Recently, More in Common released the results of their year-long Hidden Tribes project, which examined the polarization and divisions in our society and identified seven groups of Americans with distinctive views and beliefs. These groups – the Hidden Tribes of America – are defined as the Progressive Activists, Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged, Moderates, Traditional Conservatives, and Devoted Conservatives.

Overall, the project found that American society is more complex than the common narrative of polarization would lead us to believe – a narrative that is dominated by the politically extreme ‘Wings.’ In fact, most Americans (the ‘Exhausted Majority’) are frustrated these disagreements, which are rooted in our core beliefs – from our group identity to our moral foundations to our understanding of personal agency and responsibility.

For a more detailed breakdown of each tribe, their views on current issues, and the core beliefs that impact political behavior, see their report or website.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 6

Welcome to the sixth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Earlier this week, Liam Carbutt wrote about the Project’s second event, “A Conversation with Garrett Epps.”


Tomorrow, October 25th, the Center for American Progress is hosting “Change the Terms: Reducing Hate Online” at 11:00AM. Panelists from Free Press, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Color of Change will discuss their recent findings on how hate operates online and how it can be stopped. For more details, click here.

On Thursday, November 1st, Amanda Werner – best known as “The Monopoly Man” – will talk about balancing activism with one’s identity and career at an event hosted by the Project on Civil Discourse. Werner will speak at 6:00PM in Kerwin Hall Room 2 on American University’s campus. Their talk will be followed by small-group discussions about the topics raised; pizza will be provided. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

Free Speech on Campus

Will Tomer, digital opinion editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes that the campus speech ‘crisis’ may be overblown. Tomer cites several recent polls or studies that contradict the widespread narrative that colleges are restricting conservative speech, noting that anecdotal stories aren’t enough to build this case.

As Australian universities face controversies over speech on campus, scholar Adrienne Stone lays out four fundamental principles for upholding free speech. First, unorthodox and offensive ideas should be welcomed and tolerated. Second, protest is crucial and should be permitted and facilitated. Third, universities must protect the pursuit of knowledge by drawing the line in front of unsupported, nonsensical ideas. Fourth, a university’s intellectual climate must be inclusive and recognize the consequences of free speech.

Fact and Opinion

A recent Pew Research Center study found that younger Americans are significantly better at identifying facts from opinions than older Americans are. Of those who classified all five factual and all five opinion statements correctly, those aged 18-29 performed twice as well as those aged 65+. As Alexis Madrigal reports in The Atlantic, these findings contradict the narrative that younger people who spend significant amounts of time online are more susceptible to misinformation. Rather, the findings correlate with television news exposure, which remains high among older people. Madrigal argues that talk radio – which tends to mix fact with opinion – has bled into television news, leading to an “erosion of the line between fact and opinion.”

Civil Discourse

Nevada voters are “mad as hell” about the country’s current state of affairs, according to a Vice News panel conducted by Republican strategist Frank Lutz. At one point, the conversation touched on political discourse, with one voter saying: “We have to be civil whenever we have a discourse. I want my president to be civil. I want him to have more than a third grade vocabulary. I don’t want him to go to the U.N. floor and be laughed at.”

Thanks for reading!

A Reflection on “A Conversation with Garrett Epps”

Garrett Epps speaking in front of students at Kay
By Liam Carbutt, AU CAS

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps led a conversation about the complexities and burdens of free speech in the diverse and largely unequal society that we live in. Epps is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. He has written and taught about constitutional law and the structure of the Supreme Court for many years. Epps spoke at the Kay Spiritual Center, which was packed with students and faculty.

From the start, Professor Epps made it clear that he wanted the event to be a dialogue, not a lecture. Although he sat on stage throughout the event, he made a point to make time for questions from the audience at all times, even leaving the stage to approach students in the back whom he could not hear. Professor Epps facilitated the conversation in a way that allowed for a diversity of voices to rise up and challenge his ideas, which was the central focus of the conversation itself. Professor Epps made it clear that any discussion about free speech must take place on equal footing and he put this into practice in the way he was intentional about sharing the mic and listening to others throughout the event.

One of the central points that Professor Epps explored throughout the dialogue was the power that speech has to affect relationships within society. According to Epps, speech can be used for anything from inciting violence at rallies to systematically dehumanizing or marginalizing groups of people through mass media and propaganda. Alternatively, speech can also be used to create equity and build a more just society. Professor Epps emphasized that speech is a powerful instrument to change the attitudes and outlooks of listeners.

Additionally, Professor Epps asserted that both the context of the speech and the social position of the speaker are highly relevant to the power that speech ultimately holds. It is undeniable that some speakers are able to appeal to a larger audience with greater influence based on arbitrary characteristics like race, wealth, or high economic status.

Professor Epps cited several contemporary examples of the impact of social position and context on the power that speech holds, the most notable being Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations and testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. In this case, he pointed out that Kavanaugh made an ethical appeal to his audience in the face of an incriminating testimony from a reliable source and he was able to use his speech to discredit Dr. Ford using nothing other than his social position.

Instances like Kavanaugh’s confirmation are unfortunately highly prevalent in our society and it is for this reason that analyses of speech must integrate context and the position of the speakers involved if they are to be effective, according to Professor Epps. Too often, the highly abstract nature of the law surrounding free speech allows discussions about the legality of speech to ignore context and social position. These discussions are removed from reality and they are often unethically manipulated by people in positions of power.

Without question, there are massive power imbalances in this country along lines of race, gender, sex, economic position, and ability, among many other factors. Power dynamics between these groups matter and they have a significant impact on the freedom of speech for citizens in this country. Professor Epps made it clear that people in positions of power have greater freedom in their speech than marginalized people, which must be considered when discussing the concept of freedom of speech in this country.

Professor Epps critiqued what he calls the “Triumphant” view of free speech, which claims that since speech is so free in the American political climate, it is constantly progressing and eliminating hateful and degrading speech. As a critique of this view, he presented his own “Tragic” view of free speech. The Tragic view suggests that we protect free speech in this country because the alternative, which is to give the racist institutions that this country is built on the power to limit speech, is far worse.

Professor Epps claimed that we let people use speech to do “civilized” battle with one another. We do so in the hope that this will allow us to resolve our differences before we take up arms against one another. We protect free speech because it does do harm, but a type of harm that we generally prefer to physical harm. In the Tragic view, we must protect free speech for all, even if it is hateful, because the costs of allowing institutional restrictions disproportionally harms marginalized people and arbitrarily benefits privileged people.

Thus, Professor Epps argued that all conversations about freedom of speech must also be conversations about equity. We cannot make progress and create a society where speech is truly free for all unless we talk about how to raise some voices up and curtail some of the power that people in positions of power hold over others. Ultimately, large power disparities do not lend to democratic discourse in a free society. If speech is to be free for all, equity must be established in this country. It is pointless to discuss free speech without integrating equity into the conversation.

Professor Epps seems very aware of the relevance of equity in dialogues about free speech and it is evident that he is conscious of his own power and privilege based on the way he stepped back and shared the floor during the discussion that he led. He provided tremendous insight about the relationship between conversations of freedom of speech and institutional inequality that I hope can shape the discourse about free speech at AU going forward.

Liam Carbutt is a first-year graduate student at American University studying philosophy and social policy in the Department of Philosophy & Religion’s BA/MA program. Liam works for the department as a coordinator for the Ethics Bowl, a competition hosted by American University for local high schools.

Weekly News Digest, No. 5

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

Earlier this week, the Project on Civil Discourse was featured in an INSIGHT Into Diversity article titled “Bridging the Partisan Divide: Higher Education Demonstrates the Value of Civility and Open Discussion.”


On Thursday, October 25th, the Center for American Progress is hosting “Change the Terms: Reducing Hate Online” at 11:00AM. Panelists from Free Press, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Color of Change will discuss their recent findings on how hate operates online and how it can be stopped. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

On Thursday, November 1st, Amanda Werner will speak about balancing activism with one’s identity and career at an event hosted by the Project on Civil Discourse. Stay tuned for more details in next week’s News Digest!

Civil Discourse

Last week, former Attorney General Eric Holder defended comments made at a campaign event where he said: “Michelle [Obama] always says, you know, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. When they go low, we kick them.” This reenergized a debate over civility that was prompted by Maxine Waters’ comments about harassing Trump administration officials.

For more on the debate over confrontation and civility, I would recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s The Atlanticarticle, “More Devoted to Order Than to Justice.”

Free Speech

A recent poll by Ipsos found that 43% of Republicans believe the president should be able to close news outlets for “bad behavior” and 23% believe that President Trump should close down mainstream news outlets. Even though a strong majority of Americans believe a free press is essential to our democracy, almost a third agree that “the news media is the enemy of the people,” including almost half of all Republicans.

Speech on Campus

The American Council on Education published an interactive infographic outlining the results of their Pulse Point survey of college and university presidents and their views on campus inclusion and freedom of expression. Almost all presidents believed that it is important for students to be exposed to all speech, even that which is offensive or biased, but only half believed that it is always acceptable for students to engage in protests against speakers. When there is tension on campus between free speech and inclusion, presidents favor public statements and community forums.

Next week, Real Talk will feature a reflection by one of our new peer facilitators on our event with Professor Garrett Epps. Thanks for reading!

Dean Vicky Wilkins and Dr. Fanta Aw on the Project on Civil Discourse

In 2003, the Office of Campus Life launched the CIVITAS campaign to encourage civility and responsible citizenship in the American University community. Over a decade later, the Project on Civil Discourse sprang from this campaign. “The Project is very timely,” says Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. “It’s integral to student affairs.”

When the Project was formed, Dean Vicky Wilkins says, “[we thought about] the question of being responsible with our speech as a way to move our discussions and conversations along, because students felt shut down or minimized in conversations with other students . . . You and I can have a disagreement without having a conflict.”

“We need to think about speech as moving us toward an answer.”

Wilkins and Aw believe that it is necessary to bring discourse back to its proper place on campus and in the broader community and they agree that universities play an important role.

“We’re preparing students for lifelong experiences, for lifelong learning, and civil discourse is integral to that . . . to the notion of what it means to be in and to be of a community,” Aw says.

“[Discourse] is not intuitive. It’s something you learn. What better place to do this than at an institution of higher education?”

“We’re talking about the education of the whole student.”

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University

In her role as dean of the School of Public Affairs, Wilkins is excited to see how the Project fits into an environment focused on how conversations can move policy along and create community. “When students have powerful discussions and debates with people who generally agree with them, they’re disagreeing on the small details, they’re disagreeing at the margins. We need to have powerful conversations that cut across points of view. That’s where the movement will happen, with very substantive debate at the root of the issue, not the periphery.”

“I don’t want to be at a university where we all agree.”

Aw frequently sees the importance of engaging in productive, truthful discourse in her work for the Office of Campus Life. “Our students are very diverse in their lived experiences and viewpoints. They need spaces to express themselves in a way that is empathetic, but critical in an intellectual way. The Project on Civil creates the space for that to happen.”

These spaces include peer-led facilitated discussions about identity, community, and discourse itself and community-wide events that grapple with similar themes. The Project also provides teaching resources and training for faculty. “Even the most civil of debates require moderation,” Wilkins says. “For professors, it’s a hard position to be in if the debate is seen as a conflict. [This] empowers them to feel more comfortable in that role.”

While Aw and Wilkins are focused on the Project’s role on campus and in the American University community, they’re equally excited about its impact on students after they graduate. As Aw says, “I’m in full support for where we can go with this lifelong learning.”