College of Liberal Arts

The Chronicle

A Newsletter of Research & Creative Activity, Scholarship, Teaching, & Service  |  Spring 2011

Panelists seated at the academic forum
Panelists Alan Plattus (Yale), Witold Rybczynksi (University of Pennsylvania), Edward Feiner (former U.S. GSA chief architect), Joan Ockman (University of Pennsylvania), and Ayad Rahmani (WSU) / Photo by Richard Elgar

Civility & Democracy in America Discussed at National Conference

By Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts

Recent history is rife with examples of contentious political discourse that has stalled Congress and at times even erupted into violence. Civil democratic discourse focused on political arguments and intelligent debate has been replaced by negative personal attacks and outrageous character assignations.

Has reasoned communication abandoned the political arena? Does incivility serve a legitimate purpose in political discourse? These topics and others were the focus of the "National Dialogue on Civility in Democracy," sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities this March.

The Northwest conference, presented by the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service (with funding from Humanities Washington and the Idaho Humanities Council), was held on the WSU Spokane campus and at the Davenport Hotel March 3–5. Public events included a forum and five separate panels led by national scholars in the areas of history, religion, philosophy, art and architecture, and the media. Humanities practitioners and civic leaders took part in a workshop at the close of the conference to discuss future programs and events.

Conference keynote speakers

Stephen L. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Sam Reed, Washington's fourteenth secretary of state, presented the opening keynote addresses.

Photo: Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter

Carter, a prolific writer who has helped to shape the national debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in American politics and culture to the role of integrity and civility in our lives, defined democracy as a willingness to lose on issues or principles that one holds deeply or feels very strongly about, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute.

Carter believes a willingness to relinquish the sense of controlling public policy while remaining committed to the process of participatory self-governance, regardless of the outcome, is the hallmark of a true commitment to democracy, Clayton said.

"If one is not willing to 'lose,' in the sense of not controlling public policy, then one cannot be truly committed to democracy," he added.

Photo: Sam Reed

Sam Reed

Reed's address stressed the importance of treating people with respect and getting to know those who hold different political views on a personal level, Clayton said.

Reed was first elected in 2000 and reelected in 2004 and 2008. An outspoken champion for a return to more civility in politics, Secretary Reed is recognized for overhauling the voting process after the highly contested 2004 gubernatorial race, the closest in U.S. history. He also championed a new statewide voter registration system and electoral reforms that prevent opportunity for fraud.

Panels define civility

Keynote addresses were followed by the five panel discussions examining different definitions of democratic civility, including a willingness to authenticly listen to others without resorting to uncivil tactics such as shouting down an opponent or character defamation; the idea of limiting public debate to principles or values that all reasonable members of the political community can accept, rather than imposing private or contested moral beliefs that fundamentally lead to uncivil debate; and the idea that uncivil conduct is legitimized in cases where power structures impose unfair conditions on those lacking power, as in the modern civil rights movement or the democratic uprising in the Middle East today.

"The Civility and Democracy Conference was an enormous success," said Doug Epperson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "Speaker Foley's sage opening comments, read by his former staff member Todd Woodard, and Professor Stephen Carter's insightful and stimulating keynote address launched this dynamic and informative conference. That energy and quality of discourse continued through the panel presentations by renowned faculty from prestigious universities across the nation and in the workshops with public officials."

Next steps

The workshops wrapped up the conference on Saturday, March 5. Humanities practitioners and civic leaders discussed future programs and events focused on community outreach.

"These were brainstorming sessions about what types of public programs could be developed around the ideas discussed in the forums," Clayton said.

Common themes included the need for programs that engaged as many people as possible and the need to focus on the norms of behavior that make civil democracy possible. Venues considered to educate the public and showcase programs about civility included museum exhibits, traveling town-hall meetings, and radio and television programs.

"Participants were engaged in a deep and provocative dialogue about the role and functions of civility in democracy throughout the conference," said Epperson. "I thank the organizers for planning and providing such a valuable and visible event for WSU, the state of Washington, and Spokane communities."

Other NEH conferences presented in March were conducted by the American Bar Association in Chicago, the California Council for the Humanities in Los Angeles, and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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