Panel on civil discourse explores philosophy, history in development of political norms

Griffin Lombardi, Contributing Writer

This past week, the University hosted a panel discussion titled “What is the Place of Civil Discourse in a Time of Polarization?” featuring professors from various departments. The panel was held via Zoom from 3-4:30 p.m. on Oct. 19 and was attended by both students and faculty alike. As implied by the title, the discussion revolved around issues concerning the role that civil discourse plays in today’s partisan society.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Brantley Gasaway began the discussion with an exclamation – “Polarized times call for all caps!” – thus kicking off an hour of lively and engrossing conversation. Gasaway noted that “in 2018, 80% of people believed that people were concerned about instability of politics and that it was worsening, and more than 70% put the blame on Trump and wealthy special interests.” The discussion then led to other related topics, such as an inability to agree on social reforms and the ways in which the underprivileged can seek restitution and assistance from their government.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Adam Burgos focused on this relationship between humans and the institutions that govern the public sphere — most notably, the federal government — and how that can influence the life and wellbeing of individuals. Burgos introduced the ideologies of many influential thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, with particular consideration to their thoughts on freedom of speech and the modern impact of their thinking. Burgos remarked sagely that “I think we can take all three questions together: who regulates civil discourse? Mainstream institutions and commentators regulate it in practice. In so doing they demarcate who has access to so-called ‘civil discourse’ by characterizing certain types of speech as existing outside of its parameters. Anger, for example, is often deemed outside of civil discourse. Unsurprisingly, that demarcation then benefits those who are able to influence and enforce it. We can see, then, that it disenfranchises further those who are already disenfranchised, by deeming their speech and actions uncivil,” he said.

This notion of discourse-bounding as social control was also touched upon by Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Jaye Austin Williams. Williams described how reactions to abolitionist thinking during the Antebellum Period, and the ways in which such responses rarely focused on the well-being or prosperity of slaves, but instead shifted the debate towards damage to the nation’s economic and social structure as a main line of defense. The inability to assist and respond correctly to certain groups during turmoil has allowed Black theory to be criticized and attacked in today’s society.

For the hope of a more cohesive and equal society, Burgos suggested that “those engaged in good faith attempts to promote civility should attend to the fact that the precondition for civil discourse is reciprocity among equals. If equal standing is not present, then civility ceases to be a good, and our focus should instead be on attempts to ensure equality. Only then can we retrieve civility as an ideal.”

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