Weekly News Digest, No. 23

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-third installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Last week, the regular digest was replaced with a special edition focused on President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech.

Last Monday, Kira Pyne wrote about her experiences studying abroad in Copenhagen and the importance of asking questions to understand, not to provoke or confront.

Student Discussions

Are you interested in the role of political, social, and racial identity in speech? Do you want to talk with your peers about campus speech, civility, or post-truth conversations?

The Project on Civil Discourse is holding twenty student discussions where a group of 8-10 students and two peer facilitators come together to talk about discourse from a variety of different angles. There are nine more discussions scheduled for this year. For a list of discussions, click here. To register, click here.

Family Discourse

Ashley Fetters writes in The Atlantic about how families can navigate tense, fraught political conversations. Fetters’ article features Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, who have published a podcast and a book about this issue. Holland and Silvers recommend having conversations to understand, rather than convince, and they recognize that there are boundaries – some issues don’t have ‘both sides.’

Political Discourse

As the two-year anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right Rally” approaches, the city of Charlottesville has been forced to redefine civility and public discourse. Former mayor Mike Signer enforced Robert’s Rules of Order, while community activist Nikuyah Walker and councilmember Wes Ballamy emphasized the difference between civility and politeness. Vice Mayor Heather Hill says that even the “very concept of civility has been polarizing here.”

Supportive Discourse

Brittany Packnett writes about her own experiences in social justice activism, arguing that “we can’t just show up for social justice issues when it impacts our own lives.” In her own words: “The cost of your silence is greater than the cost of your truth.”

Trump’s Executive Order

In the days and weeks since President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech, more analysis and commentary has been published. For an explanation of the order and the initial response, read through the special edition on the order.

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that while President Trump should not be the arbiter of free speech, there is still a problem on college campuses: students, faculty, and staff don’t feel comfortable speaking their minds.

Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Innovation in Education, writes that the order is a good first step in restoring the fundamental right to free speech on campus. Lindsay argues that free speech isn’t political because it’s the precursor to politics and debate.

Keith Whittington, professor at Princeton University and author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, writes that the order is a crude tool that is unlikely to do much good and likely to do some harm. Whittington writes that it is unclear “how much this changes the status quo,” but that it does politicize “federal intervention in campus free speech issues.”

Thanks for reading!

Asking to Understand: Having Productive Conversations Abroad

Kira Pyne headshot
By Kira Pyne, AU SPA ’20

I have spent the past two months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), focusing on terrorism and counterterrorism from a European perspective. Classes at DIS focus on learning outside of the classroom, and my terrorism course took a week-long study tour around Western Denmark learning about how Denmark works to prevent terrorism and radicalization.

Something that is important to understand about Denmark: It is a racially and culturally homogeneous society. I try not to stereotype, but it’s hard to not see that everyone whizzing by me on bicycles is blonde, tall, and dressed all in black. As a society that pays over half of its income in taxes to the government, Danes have to have similar values and beliefs about how their government should work and use their money. Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The Danes that I’ve met and talked with seem to be very satisfied with their quality of life and their government.

A topic that is frequently brought up in my classes is Denmark’s views on immigration. We read over a policy about immigration that essentially said Denmark was going to work as hard as it could to strictly limit immigration and keep refugees out of the country. Two of my professors explained that this was because many people want to keep Denmark as, well, Danishas possible. This article can provide more insight into the subject.

These views on immigration were certainly in the back of my mind when my terrorism class arrived at a mosque for our study tour. We were fortunate enough to be able to speak with the Imam, an official who will lead prayers, and two other male members of the mosque. My professor encouraged us to ask provocative questions and get as much of an understanding as possible on their views on religion, assimilation, and life in Denmark. To say that my classmates took this seriously was an understatement.

When my classmates asked questions to purposely provoke the men we were talking with, we didn’t end up learning much. For example, someone asked, “Are you actually trying to embrace living in Denmark?” The Imam was angry at the implication that he and the other members of the mosque were not working hard to assimilate into Danish culture, especially because many members of the mosque were born in Denmark.

But when someone asked a question with an open mind, we got so much more out of the conversation. For example, someone asked about their opinions on the new Danish law passed that has caused frustration in the Muslim community. The law requires new citizens to shake hands with Danish officials at the naturalization ceremony.

The reasoning by Danish officials for this law is that in Denmark, it is custom to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, and shaking hands at the ceremony symbolizes people’s integration into Danish culture. When members of the Muslim community did not want to abide by this, Danish citizens assumed that Muslim people were disrespecting Danes and their culture.

What was explained to us, from the perspective of this particular mosque, is that members of their community are not supposed to touch someone of the opposite gender unless they are married or family.

I certainly did not agree with everything we discussed at the mosque, but I did get a much better perspective on productive dialogue. We are never going to agree with everyone’s opinions or ways of life. We all live our lives differently, and there is a difference between trying to learn about and understand those differences versus confronting people about their core beliefs. Asking to understand allows us to see into someone else’s world and day to day life. When we ask questions that try to reaffirm our previous beliefs, our beliefs are reaffirmed. The dialogue is closed.

Unlike Denmark, America is not a homogeneous society. Many of us come from different countries, different religions, and we certainly don’t all look the same. We have to work every day to understand the differences between ourselves and those that surround us. Too often, we jump to defend our own opinions and react with frustration when someone questions those beliefs.

In a time where our country is extremely divided, asking questions to understand, rather than to change another’s opinion, is more important than ever. We don’t have to agree, but without understanding, we are not going to be productive. Understanding, embracing, and loving our differences is what is ultimately going to move us forward as a nation.

Kira Pyne is a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG) and minoring in Psychology. She is a member of the SPA Honors Program, part of the Standards Committee for the Rude Mechanicals, and a New Membership Assistant for Phi Alpha Delta. 

Weekly News Digest, No. 22

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Student Discussions

Are you interested in the role of political, social, and racial identity in speech? Do you want to talk with your peers about campus speech, civility, or post-truth conversations?

The Project on Civil Discourse is holding twenty student discussions where a group of 8-10 students and two peer facilitators come together to talk about discourse from a variety of different angles. For a list of discussions and to register, click here.

Upcoming Events

The Global Education Forum, “Hate Comes to Campus,” will be held on Thursday, March 28th. The Forum will feature a 2:30pm panel discussing free speech and the campus community and a 5:00pm panel discussing the radical right and global education. The Project on Civil Discourse is co-sponsoring the Forum and PCD Director Lara Schwartz will be a member of the first panel. For more information or to register, click here.

On Wednesday, April 3rd, Louis Michael Seidman will speak at American University about his work, “Can Free Speech be Progressive?” Seidman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law. Seidman’s talk will be held at 2:30pm in Hughes Hall Formal Lounge and is presented by the Project on Civil Discourse. To RSVP through Facebook, click here.

Debate and Civil Discourse

Several months ago, Facebook filed a patent for a system where people could “meaningfully engage in civil discourse” online. The Verge walks through their patent, highlighting how it could work and discussing how it fits with Facebook’s current identity. Their system focuses on “smaller-scale engagement with local politics” and is “designed to help people come up with political solutions, not formally propose them as laws.”

An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun describes the power of a debate between the UNLV debate team and members of the Brookings Institution over healthcare policy. “Who won and who lost wasn’t as important as the overall message of the event – that divisive issues can be argued aggressively but respectfully.” Richard Reeves, from Brookings, talked in an interview with the Sunabout the importance of listening, bring facts from both sides of the issue together, and divorcing issue positions from identity.

Campus Speech

After President Trump’s announcement at CPAC of an executive order denying federal funding to colleges and universities that do not support free speech, Inside Higher Ed wrote about what this may look like. While the White House’s budget release came and went without further details on this order, it is still possible that President Trump could introduce one in the coming weeks.

After a UC Davis professor refused to retract statements that police should be killed, students are rallying to fire him. The Davis College Republicans sponsored the rally, which featured the mother of a UC Davis graduate who was killed in the line of duty and Assemblyman James Gallagher. Gallagher “turned in 10,000 signed petitions asking administrators” that the professor be fired, but still tried to encourage civil debate and talking to black students who are frequently pulled over by the police.

Incivility and Contempt

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that our problem today is not incivility or intolerance, but contempt. This stems from motive attribution asymmetry, or the assumption that your side is driven by love and your opponent’s side is driven by hate. Brooks writes that we need to disagree better, not less, and commit to never treating others with contempt.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 15

Crowd standing in a public square

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

Upcoming Event

On Thursday, February 7th, Dr. Alice Dreger will speak at American University about cultivating the virtue of disloyalty. Dr. Dreger, a historian and researcher, will draw from real-life histories to explore ethically productive disloyalty. For more details or to RSVP, click here.


Over the past several years, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has built a multi-faceted approach to achieve its goal of restoring civility in public life. Katie Zezima writes about the Institute’s programming, which includes producing policy papers for citizens on hot-button issues, hosting “civility conversations,” and training people in civil discourse and positive campaigning.

Intellectual Humility

In a recent article for Vox, Brian Resnick writes about intellectual humility and the importance of knowing you might be wrong. Resnick’s argument is grounded in the scientific community and its increased emphasis on publishing retractions and corrections, but it applies to civil discourse too. There are several challenges to fostering intellectual humility, or the “recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.” These include realizing and acknowledging our cognitive blind spots and creating a culture that accepts the phrase “I was wrong,” rather than mocking or punishing those who say it.

Discourse and Propaganda

Jennifer Mercieca writes that we must communicate as citizens rather than propagandists in order to restore discourse in the public sphere. She notes an increasing distrust in institutions and 2016 Russian propaganda efforts as two parts of this problem. Mercieca writes that we need to “be educated to think, judge, and be critical about the news we post and consume.”

New Book on Free Speech

Two leading First Amendment scholars explore the evolution and future of First Amendment doctrine in America in The Free Speech Century, a collection of 16 essays by legal scholars. It covers a range of salient issues, from hate speech and free expression on college campuses to the boundaries of speech on social media platforms. Read more about the book here.

Thanks for reading!

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!