Saturday, September 29, 2007

what is civil discourse?

I plan to write a longer post to this question early next week (my parents are here, I had to read a 350-page dissertation, and the CSUWP post-institute meeting is today, so I'm maxed out).

In short, though, I've been intrigued by the way that the term "civil discourse" and the concept of civility has been invoked repeatedly in the past couple of weeks in light of the University of Florida event with the taser and the Rocky Mountain Collegian editorial by J. David McSwane. Interestingly, though, neither concept is ever defined by the university presidents, editors, and letter writers who use it. I've taken this to mean that they assume their listeners and readers understand it as a shared value in our culture.

Uh, really?

So I've been doing a lot of digging for basic definitions of "civil discourse" as these appear in etymological roots, dictionary definitions, definitions posted in blogs, and so forth. My question for you, then, is how would you define the term "civil discourse"?


Natalie said...

Gosh, this is a HOT topic isn't it! We were at a gathering last night where it popped it's ugly head and planted itself between a conservative and a liberal. Both parties were pretty articulate and convincing - and I felt myself nodding to both arguments. However, in the end I had to agree with the liberal. Because it IS just this very idea that makes this a "free" country. His most striking comment was a heartfelt concern that people are "wrapping themselves in the flag in order to burn the constitution." How profound. What better way to honor living in a free country than to engauge in civil discourse.

Now, I can't pass this opportunity to put in another two cents on the importance of freedom of the arts. I think one of the best avenues of civil discourse and verification that the United States is strong enough to withstand our own freedoms is government support of the arts. Only a country founded on STRONG ideals would encourage and SUPPORT civil discourse - and for me that discourse is the visual format. Art is a direct reflection on a society (good AND bad) and when we begin relying on private support the idea of open communication is executed. The arts MUST be supported by the government to insure that society has an uncensored voice - THAT's what this country is about.

Julie said...

This is an interesting question. I googled civil discourse and was stunned by how many hits I received. The article about Gainesvlle, FL was at the bottom. There are conferences, books, guidelines at "noroomforhate" and articles all discussing this topic.

I find it ironic that the editor at CU was able to publish a paper with profanity, but in Florida a student was tazered for profanity. (That is a simple discription)

There are some basic rules, show respect, listen, and speak for yourself. Yet, I believe that in some instances, if something is said that people do not agree with, then it is thought to be uncivil.

I believe that establishing norms in a discussion is extremely important, so that everyone's ideas can be heard.

That's my two cents. :)

Cindy O-A said...

We've been working on establishing norms with the kids--in fact we just did that on Monday--and theirs sound very close to yours, Julie (show respect, listen, speak for yourself), but when I saw their lists, I realized that these are actually pretty abstract concepts. In other words, what does it mean to "show respect"? What does it sound like, look like, feel like on the inside? I want to see what Rebecca thinks about this and how we can get kids to think about these abstract concepts in more concrete terms.

Also, one of the students brought up a point I'd never thought about before, and that is the role of silence in civil discourse. If you watch the video of the taser incident on, you can hear that it didn't play much of a role at all, and I can't help but wonder how much that contributed to the eventual consequences. As Andrew Meyer holds forth debate-style, Kerry attempts to interject in the background, but no deal. Meyer barrages him with question after question, the mike goes off, and the campus police drag Meyer away, even as Kerry is saying, louder now, "I'll take that question. I said I'll take that question."

Even though Google turns up multiple hits on "civil discourse" (many of which, again, don't directly spell out a definition), I only found one on "civil silence," and it links to an old blog entry commenting on Hillary Clinton's mum's-the-word reaction to the Monica Lewinsky affair. The term never gets defined.

So now I'm wondering how not only to get kids to think about how to speak civilly but also how to refrain from speaking civilly in the name of thoughtful silence.