Weekly News Digest, No. 10

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Last Tuesday, Project on Civil Discourse Director Lara Schwartz appeared on The Kojo Nnamdi Showfor the show: “Belonging, Civility, Ugh: What Happens When Commonly Held Ideals Backfire.” Schwartz talked with guests Howard Ross and Philippa Hughes and guest host Marc Fisher about the interplay between belonging and civility and their importance during the holidy season. Listen to the show.

Solomon Self wrote about his experiences with civility and discussion while studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece this semester. He writes: “None of these conversations and educational moments would have been possible if we had simply written each other off based on initial impressions, reacted angrily to hearing opinions counter to our own, or felt indignant about comments made from ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s home countries.”

Upcoming Events

On Thursday, December 6th, Robert George and Cornel West will speak at American University about “The Purpose of a Liberal Education.” George, a conservative legal scholar at Princeton University, and West, a liberal philosophy professor at Harvard University, will discuss free speech, liberal arts education, and truth. The School of Public Affairs’ Political Theory Institute is hosting the lecture, which will be held at 5:30PM in Constitution Hall, East Campus. To learn more or RSVP, visit the event page.

Civility During the Holidays

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Doug Friednash and Amy McCarthy wrote for The Denver Postand Eater, respectively, about civility at the dinner table. While Thanksgiving has passed, their broader messages remain relevant during the rest of the holiday season.

Friednash writes that “civility needs to be on the Thanksgiving menu” this year, highlighting national examples of where civility has both failed and succeeded. Rather than arguing at the dinner table, we should exercise our right to vote instead. Friednash closes: “People that disagree with how we see the world may be our opponents, but they need not be our enemies. They can be our frenemies.”

McCarthy disagrees, writing that “you’re morally obligated to call out your racist relatives at Thanksgiving.” McCarthy discusses the bystander effect, the balance between unity and our core values, and the influence that family has on one’s political views. It’s possible, she argues, to ‘call out’ your relatives or have conversations about charged topics while remaining civil.

Civility as a Buzzword

Earlier this year, Kate Knibbs wrote about the word ‘civility’ for The Wringer’s Lexicon series. In the wake of public protests against Trump administration officials, civility “became the week’s talking point.” Knibbs writes about the original concept of the word and its transition from justice to order. There is a tension between “the idea of civility as decorum and civility as a moral imperative” and it is currently being used to describe “how citizens are permitted to address their public servants.”

Civility and Protest

Peter Beinart writes about the standards of civil disobedience in The Atlantic after protestors assembled at FOX News host Tucker Carlson’s home in the wake of the midterm elections. He argues that some protests violate standards of civil disobedience, which is defined by John Rawls as a “public, non-violent, and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.” Beinart uses this test to analyze recent protests, from kneeling during the NFL anthem to chanting at DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson at a Mexican restaurant.

Thanks for reading!

A Lot of Things Don’t Translate Well. Civility Does.

Solomon Self headshot
By Solomon Self, AU SIS ’19

I’ve been studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece at the American College of Thessaloniki for the past two months. Thessaloniki is situated on the northern coast of the country, and is close to the borders with Turkey, (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Over the city’s more than two-thousand-year history, it has been Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and finally modern Greek. Thus, it quite diverse and attracts people from across the rest of Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Eastern Europe. In my classes, it is not uncommon to have people from a variety of backgrounds who speak a variety of languages. With that comes a variety of opinions.

Looking back at my Cross-Cultural Communications class at American, I remember how it seemed like the NatSec boy from the Midwest or the socialist girl from New England were speaking a totally different language when they raised their hand to comment during the discussion. That actually happens here. From inside jokes about some historical figure from their home country to casual asides made in their first language, communication can already be challenging – and we haven’t even gotten to their opinions yet. I knew going abroad to study – especially in a region with no shortage of problems – would require open ears and an open mind, but I didn’t expect it to be put to the test so soon and so constantly.

As an American abroad in classes that deal with politics, there is no avoiding the Trump Question. Aside from asking if I voted for him – for the record, I did not – it became my duty to enlighten the class on his policies and his allure, things I am not necessarily an expert on. It gets even more complicated when non-American students express their support for him. Initially, my gut reaction was to furiously debate them and tell them all the reasons he was the worst thing to happen to American democracy in years. However, I began to realize that for them, maybe he wasn’t. If you’re from a country that fears its much larger and more powerful neighbor, perhaps a more militarized America isn’t a bad thing. If you feel your country is being taken advantage of by Chinese trade, maybe Trump “standing up” to them is admirable. If you’re from a country that has benefitted from both Democrat and Republican administrations, perhaps it doesn’t truly matter who’s calling the shots – liking the US president is simply a given.

The perspectives of my classmates, while sometimes very different than my own, are products of our experiences and upbringings. I, an African-American man from California, will have very different interpretations of things than a woman from the former Soviet Union or a man from Serbia. Though I may passionately disagree with those opinions, fighting them or shouting them down won’t help anything. We can speak different languages, have different customs, and hold different beliefs, but regardless of where we come from, we respect each other and are willing to learn from one another. I have educated some classmates on how Trump has attacked and hurt people in America – particularly communities of color and the LGBT community. I have learned from my classmates that even in domestic policy, America’s actions are not contained to America and that the ripples of what we do are felt across the world, for better or for worse.

Of course, none of these conversations and educational moments would have been possible if we had simply written each other off based on initial impressions, reacted angrily to hearing opinions counter to our own, or felt indignant about comments made from ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s home countries. I came abroad to learn about other cultures and see a different part of the world. I’ve done that, and in the process I’ve also learned a bit about myself. I’m no less committed to my political positions and moral values, but I am more willing to debate, discuss, and hopefully educate people on those positions.

The concept of civility, though it takes different forms, is universal. Everyone, regardless of their national origin or political leanings, wants to be respected and wants to have their voice heard. No place is more important than a university like ACT. People come from across the country, the continent, and the globe to learn, grow, and work together, and although there is much that sets us apart, those ideals bind us together.

Solomon Self is a senior majoring in International Studies at American University and is currently studying abroad in Greece. He is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity and formerly served as Student Government Vice President and an AUx2 Peer Leader. 

AU YAF Response to Tom Lebert’s Post about Dinesh D’Souza Event

AU YAF Facebook profile photo
By Kate Minium, AU SPA ’20
Editor’s Note: Kate Minium represents the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and is writing in response to Tom Lebert’s post about YAF’s event with Dinesh D’Souza.

I will begin by addressing Tom Lebert’s accusation that a member of our board used expletives and names and demanded that Lebert leave the event. What Lebert failed to mention was that he accused the individual of being homophobic, to which the individual responded by saying that he “was raised by two gay dads” and asking Lebert to leave. These accusations become a he-said/she-said scenario which we addressed and labelled as largely untrue in our statement released last week. I am confident in saying that our board member is only being put under such scrutiny because he was involved in hosting the Dinesh D’Souza lecture. If anything unjust had occurred, I would not stand for it. However, I have no reason to believe that is the case. Lebert’s credibility in criticizing the event was tarnished when he made his criticisms personal, such as when he claimed that hosting D’Souza was “an insult to [my] intelligence” in a Facebook post the morning it was announced. There is no gain in giving this further attention, as this is not what the lecture was about.

I agree with Lebert that American society does place debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas to succeed. As conservatives, we love our free markets and debate is no exception. A problem arises when what are considered to be the “best” ideas are, in fact, not ideas based on truth.

While D’Souza is being put under the utmost scrutiny (which I take no issue with), I would argue that rather than D’Souza going out of his way to avoid the use of verifiable facts, the opposition is going out of their way to find faults in his arguments. Again, I take no issue with the latter– it is even encouraged. I am simply arguing that D’Souza did not go out of his way to avoid using evidentiary support.

This event was also not advertised as a debate, but as a lecture with a Q&A session. The event hosted the following night, which no one from the opposition attended, was intended to deepen the discussion. D’Souza has no lack of credibility and his speech was not of malicious intent. His perceived inflammation would not be enough to justify us rescinding our invitation for him to speak without sacrificing our principles.

I am not going to defend D’Souza’s Twitter feed or Dinesh D’Souza himself, as we are not a “Dinesh D’Souza” club. I am going to defend conservatism, because we are a conservative club and D’Souza is a conservative. Based on the content of Lebert’s article and the criticism vocalized at the event, I feel comfortable assuming that the disagreement here is on truth. Is what D’Souza said true? The answer is yes.

To support this, I’ll address one of D’Souza’s primary claims during his speech which seemed to receive the most criticism. D’Souza claimed that fascism is predominantly found on the left. This is not a game of “who is more fascist,” but a response to conservatives being called fascists on a regular basis (a popular one that we get is “Young Americans for Fascism”). D’Souza was saying that if one side of the political spectrum is going to be fascist, it is certainly not going to be the right. The claims of conservatives being fascists are painfully ironic, and I will explain why.

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Most importantly, the implementation of any of the ideas in that definition requires big government.

The essence of conservatism is it’s focus on the individual, with a very slight, but necessary, attention to their role in society. The individual is what matters. That is in direct contradiction to the definition of fascism. Being a conservative means believing in natural rights. If you ask a conservative where their rights come from, you will get a response along the lines of “a higher power” or “they are ever-existing.” YAF is not a religious organization, but for argument’s sake, government is not God and it doesn’t get to pretend to be. Government should be as small as is possible, safe, and feasible while still fulfilling its duty of protecting its citizens and ensuring their rights can be exercised freely.

In contrast, many individuals do not believe in natural rights. If questioned where their rights come from, they will likely respond along the lines of “they come from the state” or “they are given by the government.” These individuals would fall on the left side of the political spectrum. This is where one of the lines between right and left is actually drawn. If the state is believed to be the endower of rights, this gives them the authority to grant and take away rights as they please. This opens the door to big government.

These are two very different ideas: the state as the ensurer of rights versus the state as the endowed of rights. The concept of big government can only exist when the state has dominion over what is considered to be a right. As conservatives, not only do we believe it to simply be untrue, but we see a huge danger in that. D’Souza was correct when he said that if fascism is going to exist today then it would have to be on the left, as right-of-center ideologies are, by definition, mutually exclusive with the essence of fascism.

It’s time to consider that some mainstream ideas might be illogical, not the ‘best,’ or not based on truth. I used to be on the left and I got to where I am today through questioning myself. On the bright side, it seems evident today that fascism is a movement that nobody at American University wants to be a part of and I think we are all on the right page there.

There are many events on campus that right-of-center students don’t believe promote good conversation or discourse. The D’Souza event is being treated differently purely due to its political alignment. The bottom line is that first and foremost, we are a conservative organization whose primary purpose is to empower and encourage fellow conservatives. Any debate or discussion that arises out of that is a wonderful thing. However, our primary interests do not lie in appeasing or even appealing to the other side.

Kate Minium is a Justice and Law: Counterterrorism and Home major and Computer Science minor at American University. Kate is chair of the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.

Weekly News Digest, No. 9

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

The American University School of Public Affairs wrote stories on two of our events from earlier in the year. In September, Professor Josh Blackman spoke about free speech on campus. In October, Professor Garrett Epps spoke about the burdens of free speech. Two of our peer facilitators also wrote reflections on each event, which can be read here and here, respectively.

Discourse and Debate at American University

On Wednesday, November 7th, Young Americans for Freedom hosted Dinesh D’Souza at American University as part of their Freedom Week. The Eagle covered the event, writing that D’Souza drew both supporters and protestors as he talked about the midterm election results, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the differences between the two parties.

Tom Lebert (AU SPA ’20) responded to the event on our Real Talk blog, arguing that debate and discussion are imperfect platforms that can be manipulated. Tom writes: “Supporting debate and discussion should mean supporting even debate and discussion that requires participants to present actual truth and make reasoned arguments”

In other campus news, The Eagle wrote a profile on Students for Free Expression, a new student organization that promotes discourse and free speech on campus. Students for Free Expression is non-partisan and aims to “bring speakers from all corners of the political spectrum to engage with students.”

Free Speech on Campus

The Guardian reports that the Australian government has asked a former high court chief justice to review speech at Australian universities, including their commitment to protecting freedom of expression and inquiry, and offer policy options. Universities Australia is opposing this review, arguing that campuses should be free of political interference and that journalists have mischaracterized academic freedom.

Free Speech in the World

Last week, the White House suspended Jim Acosta’s press pass, leading CNN to file a lawsuit against President Trump and his aides. Poynter’s Al Tompkins writes that this lawsuit is about free speech, free press, and due process. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in N.Y. Times v. Sullivan that political speech should be protected for its “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

Lexology and CNN recently wrote articles addressing political expression and online hate speech, respectively. Lexology’s Ogletree Deakins answers employers’ frequently asked questions about political expression in the workplace, while Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media writes for CNN about discussing online hate speech with your children.

Political Discourse

Marie Tillman, wife of Pat Tillman, recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about her husband’s legacy in relationship to the NFL’s national anthem protests. “When I look around at the vitriol aimed at [football players] for expressing their beliefs … I want to kneel, too.” Tillman writes that she can’t say how she believes her husband would feel about kneeling during the national anthem, but that Pat “would have engaged in thoughtful and respective discourse.”

“I believe we are at our best as Americans when we engage in constructive dialogue around our differences with the goal of understanding one another.”

Thanks for reading!

Debate is Fragile. Dinesh D’Souza Took Advantage of It.

Tom Lebert headshot
By Tom Lebert, AU SPA ’20

American society places debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas based in truth to succeed. Dinesh D’Souza’s event on American University’s campus proved that debate and discussion are imperfect platforms and can easily be manipulated to serve one side’s ideas over another.

When the conservative commentator and filmmaker spoke this past Wednesday about what he called “fake history,” he challenged students who disagreed with his statements to discuss with him in the Q&A section rather than protesting and disrupting the event.

I attended Wednesday night’s event and considered protesting to oppose D’Souza’s invitation to campus by the student group Young Americans for Freedom and the ideas he spreads. I decided not to protest during the event as others did, but instead planned to ask a question during the Q&A section. The event ended before me and many other students in line could ask questions.

Following the event, I asked an executive board member from Young Americans for Freedom about his denial of members of the LGBTQ+ community being targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. Another executive board member approached me in an intimidating manner and demanded I leave the event, using expletives and names to make his point clear. I posed my question to him, which he dodged before telling me to ask him if he cared. I asked, and he responded “no” before turning around and walking away.

At an event where the featured speaker calls for attendees to debate him and the group who invited him claims to promote free speech, it is extremely hypocritical for an executive board member to run away from the questioning that they asked for.

D’Souza claimed that the students who protested and disrupted Wednesday’s event were too afraid to debate him and others with his views. After attempting to do so, I would argue that those who protested knew that D’Souza’s lack of credibility and unwillingness to offer an even field for discussion meant that debate would be worthless and ineffective.

D’Souza wasn’t looking to present his view alongside verifiable facts and have a discussion as he claimed at the event. He was looking to turn it into a podium to push falsehoods and ideas not based in reality knowing that he controlled the conversation through the structure of the event.

It’s important to understand that some speech has value and other speech is worthless. Students are often taught early in life that credibility is important when making an argument, whether it be in speech or in writing. Facts that can be verified must be presented to build credibility. D’Souza has presented the opposite, both in the past and in his speech on Wednesday.

From what is essentially partial Holocaust denial to a repeatedly-disproven description of the evolution of political parties in the United States, D’Souza has torn down his own credibility. He has no background in history, and his writings have been panned by numerous historians.

A man who has repeatedly presented falsehoods as fact has no business speaking to a group of students about what is and is not historical fact. Furthermore, D’Souza’s speech was focused on using his version of history to build a political argument. It’s clear that D’Souza took advantage of his ability to receive a platform he called a discussion to twist and even blatantly misrepresent facts to make an argument in bad faith.

This is the problem with the glorification of debate and discussion—such platforms are imperfect and can often be taken advantage of. Discussion and debate can quickly turn into a one-sided advertisement for one side’s view while another side is criticized for not engaging in this uneven playing field. This exact sequence of events unfolded at the D’Souza event.

It is critical to understand the limitations of debate and discussion in order to advocate for it. Heavily regulated debate—including equal speaking time for all parties and fact-checking by neutral arbiters, among numerous other checks—can be beneficial for sharing ideas and understanding another side’s views, but rarely plays out in the real world. D’Souza asked for a discussion, but even in the Q&A section of the event, follow-up questions were left to his discretion, D’Souza spoke for long periods of time with no ability to check his claims, and as a result, discussion was utterly neutered. No value could be derived from such an uneven and unequal exchange.

The Young Americans for Freedom event on Wednesday included no even-sided debate or discussion. Supporting debate and discussion should mean supporting even debate and discussion that requires participants to present actual truth and make reasoned arguments. Young Americans for Freedom, Dinesh D’Souza, and others cannot claim to support these platforms when they take advantage of them to push ideas that cannot be defended when they’re able to be checked.

Tom Lebert is a sophomore at American University majoring in CLEG and minoring in Economics. He currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Residence Hall Association and is the former Treasurer of the AU College Democrats. He also started his high school debate team and served as Vice Chairman of the club for over a year.