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On Words: Civil Discourse

U.C. Berkeley

Recently, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has come under fire for using the 50th anniversary of the campus free speech movement as a call for “civil discourse.” 

His position seems reasonable enough on the surface, but his critics point out that the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom say nothing about discourse having to be civil. Where else but a college campus, his critics argue, can people tackle difficult and controversial subjects, subjects that many might consider uncivil even to mention? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that it was uncivil to discuss racial discrimination or gay rights, and the current problem of sexual assault on college campuses must be addressed, even if some of the heartfelt realities of it don’t exactly meet accepted standards of civil discourse.

What Chancellor Dirks misses is that civil discourse isn’t mandated from above; it has to be created by those who engage in it. I stand firmly on the side of free speech, and believe it must both be protected and encouraged. So how do we engage uncivil topics without resorting to yelling and ad-hominem attacks?

Borrowing from some principles of trauma-informed care and Open Dialogue therapy, here are a few suggestions for how to create civil discourse:

  • First, everyone needs to feel supported and both physically and emotionally safe.
  • Second, everyone needs to feel heard. This can be achieved through reflective listening, honest questions, and transparency about personal perspectives.
  • Third, comments within the dialogue need to build on one another—which is difficult but rewarding.

I don’t expect this sort of conversation to happen often, but those willing to try just might move beyond civil discourse and toward genuine change.