Thinking Out Loud: What ever happened to civil discourse?

To the Case Western Reserve University Community:

For better or worse, I am known as someone who speaks his mind. However, in recent years I have frequently found myself avoiding politics or other topics deemed controversial. Besides being a straight shooter, I’m a people person and cherish my relationships. I was trying to keep things cordial by holding my tongue. I suspect many of you can relate to my experience.

As our world got more divided and polarized and everyone started talking less to people “on the other side,” I noticed how increasingly saddened I was by the consequences. What ever happened to civil discourse? Why is hateful rhetoric more prevalent in our country? If we purposefully avoid challenging conversations out of fear that they may turn into an uncivil debate, or worse, permanently undermine the respect we hold for one another and damage a relationship, something is deeply amiss.

If we cannot speak with each other, fail to listen and seek understanding, and won’t give divergent viewpoints the time of day, we miss out on crucial opportunities for learning and strengthening our democratic society.

This is why the first reading for the undergraduate course on leadership that I started teaching at Tulane University a few years ago is “The Dying Art of Disagreement” by Bret Stephens. He writes: 

Yes, we disagree constantly. But what makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground. Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves.

In order to master the art of disagreement, we have to engage with opinions and ideas that diverge from our own and allow others to challenge our thinking. We need to listen intently and respectfully—and with an open mind—and make our arguments from a place of empathy. Just as important, arguments for or against something, not someone, need to be grounded in facts and comprehension.

None of this is easy in a world that surrounds us with echo chambers and in which facts sometimes seem to be in the eye of the beholder, but there is no better place to practice civil discourse than a university campus. 

Higher education should be the model of civil discourse, and we are doing our part at CWRU. A great example is the North Star Seminar Series, which features diverse people with diverse opinions, but always with the goal of engaging in a dialogue that is civil and respectful. 

I do believe civil discourse is alive and well at CWRU, but it’s important that we constantly recommit ourselves to the principles of civil discourse at every opportunity both on and off campus. We may not be able to change people’s minds—a showdown victory should never be the goal—but by disagreeing intellectually, respectfully, and empathically, we are certainly going to learn something, sharpen our minds, and keep our relationships intact.

Keep thinking (and disagreeing!), take care, and enjoy your weekend,

Cursive signature that reads "Scott" for Case Western Reserve Interim President Scott Cowen

Scott Cowen
Interim President