Weekly News Digest, No. 1

Welcome to the first installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Each week, the Digest will gather recent articles and stories about civil discourse and campus speech. The Digest will highlight upcoming events as well, such as the Project’s first event of the fall semester: Conversation with Josh Blackman.

Next Thursday, September 27th, Professor Josh Blackman will be speaking at the Washington College of Law about diversity of opinion and campus speech. He will be joined by Professor Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civil Discourse. This event will be held at 12:00PM in Warren NT07 on the WCL Tenley campus, and will be cohosted by the Project on Civil Discourse and the WCL’s chapter of the Federalist Society.

Blackman teaches at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, where he specializes in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and the intersection of law and technology. Visit his website to learn more about him and to view past lectures and articles.

Campus Speech News

The University of Colorado Board of Regents unanimously voted last week to change their policies on academic freedom and freedom of expression. At the meeting, university counsel Patrick O’Rourke said, “We can establish a culture that both balances free speech rights but that expects civility and respect from those who are part of the community.” After the vote, the University of Colorado Boulder launched a webpage explaining their definition of and policies on free expression.

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University of Southern California Provost Michael Quick released a statement on Sunday condemning hate speech as “dehumanizing, degrading, toxic, and vile” after leaked screenshots revealed a USC graduate student participated in a chatroom that organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017. While the university cannot prevent the student from coming to campus, Dean Yannis Yortos said the student has volunteered not to come to campus while the university conducts an investigation.

Essays on Civil Discourse

Last week, The Economist hosted Steve Bannon at the Open Future festival, resisting public pressure that led The New Yorker to disinvite Bannon from their annual festival. After The Economist announced Bannon would attend, journalist, essayist, and activist Laurie Penny stated she would no longer participate in her panel. Penny explains her choice in an essay titled “No, I Will Not Debate You,” which touches on the far right’s focus on the ethics of disseminating speech rather than its content, the marketplace of ideas, and civility in speech.

“Moderate liberalism cherishes the idea of ‘civility’ because it allows it to believe in its own goodness and relevance.’

Penny’s discussion of civility calls to mind an essay written by Ibram X. Kendi titled “More Devoted to Order Than to Justice.” Writing after Rep. Maxine Waters called for supporters to harass Trump administration officials and the ensuring Democratic backlash, Kendi argues that meaningful change requires confrontation and harassment, not civility.

On its face, Kendi’s thesis seems to diametrically oppose civil discourse. But as future Real Talk posts will explore, not all ideas or viewpoints are created equal, nor do they always deserve civil debate.

Next week, Real Talk will feature a guest post by an American University student who helped create and shape the Project on Civil Discourse during its pilot year, as well as our second Weekly News Digest. Thanks for reading!

Introducing American University’s Project on Civil Discourse

After the presidential election, my relationship with many of my friends and classmates changed – especially those back home in Ohio. I couldn’t reconcile what I heard them say with the people I thought I knew. I couldn’t understand, let alone relate to, their thoughts and positions on the issues that were directly affecting my classmates at American University. I desperately wanted to learn about the roots of their beliefs, but I couldn’t see past words I saw as ignorant or hateful.

On the night of the election itself, I watched personal relationships dissolve as my dormmates reacted to the results in their own way. When I went to class the next morning, these dormmates turned into classmates and that tension remained. As students at American, we’re familiar with the ideological conflicts that play out in any politically-oriented class, but after the election it was different. Everything had become so much more serious and real.

These struggles – ones that have become familiar to many over the past months and years – led to my interest in the Project on Civil Discourse. The Project encourages productive, truthful discourse that contributes to our learning community and the world around us. It encourages students to understand speech not just as a matter of rights, but of responsibilities, values, and opportunities. Using the Building My Voice tool as a starting point, each of us must decide how and why we choose to use our voice in our community. And it’s not just what we say ourselves, but how we listen and engage in a dialogue with others.

By making deliberate choices about how we listen and use our voices, we realize our responsibility for the things we say and we begin to productively contribute to our community.

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College is an all-encompassing community, tying one’s personal, academic, and professional lives together with few boundaries. At the nation’s most politically active university, this creates a passionate, tension-filled environment. Looking back at the climate on campus after the election, I wish my peers and I had the tools and resources necessary to solve our problems in the classrooms and dorms. 

Through peer-led discussions and workshops, teaching resources for faculty, and distinguished guest speakers, the Project on Civil Discourse will help to make that wish a reality. Based in the School of Public Affairs, the Project will operate university-wide by the 2019-20 school year, where it will help students gain the skills and understanding they need to engage in productive, truthful discourse. This will further American University’s mission as an institution of higher education, while teaching students how to engage in their communities after graduation.

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University.

I spent much of my first year at American listening to those around me talk about their perspectives and approaches to issues that I only had one understanding of while growing up in the Midwest. I began to recognize how I used my voice in the classroom and around campus, both in what I said and how I said it. As I work for the Project on Civil Discourse this year, I know I will continue to take ownership of my voice and use it to improve our American University community.

When I graduate next May, I plan to use this voice to advocate for the changes my next community needs. It’s no surprise that the national political arena frequently lacks the civil discourse we wish it had – we see that in the news every day. But many don’t realize this lack of discourse has trickled down to their local communities.

This summer, I interned for the city manager’s office in my hometown. Over the three months I was home, I watched my city’s residents repeatedly attempt to block different projects that would benefit our city. They were so firm in their opposition that they were able to stop one construction project from even entering a community feedback and planning phase. Residents spoke without listening, finally reaching a point where they were unable to even agree to hold a discussion over the issue.

Local government plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and it’s essential that we contribute our voices to shape our communities. By training students in civil discourse principles and techniques, the Project will equip them to facilitate and contribute to the conversations that should and need to be taking place.

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I recognize that what I write is informed by my experiences alone, and that other students, faculty, and staff at American University experience our campus and political climate differently. Throughout the year, I’ll be working to give my fellow Eagles the space to share their own perspectives on civil discourse and their experiences with it, and I’ll be listening – a part of productive discourse.

To learn more about the Project on Civil Discourse, visit our website and continue to follow our blog. If you’re an undergraduate student at American and are interested in applying to become a peer facilitator, learn more here.

If you would like to share a unique perspective on civil discourse or an informative experience at American University or in your community, I encourage you to email me at dr8237a@student.american.edu.