It’s a tall order: promoting productive discussion of political issues that can stir partisan passions.
Whether it’s Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton saying many of her opponent’s supporters are part of a “basket of deplorables” or Republican Donald Trump describing an Arab celebration of 9/11 in New Jersey that didn’t happen, the rhetoric in 2016 has been dialed up to 11.
On Friday, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse held its second teach-in of the semester tackling the thorny topic of free speech and keeping discourse civil during the last weeks before the election.
Fifty to 60 students and staff attended the teach-in in Centennial Hall’s Hall of Nations. Political science professor Tim Dale started the forum by asking students to think of a political conversation with a friend that left them angry, and then to think about why the friend held a different view.
“You went from anger to understanding,” Dale told participants. “Conversations are about finding common ground.”
Affirmative Action director and Title IX coordinator Nizam Arain gave a presentation on freedom of speech. As a lawyer and a teacher, it’s a topic dear to his heart, he said, and it can be frustrating that the topic is often misunderstood.
The First Amendment provides broad freedoms to speak, write, assemble or to even stay silent, he said, but it does not protect certain illegal activities such as direct threats or defamation and slander. Free speech is freedom from government restrictions — but not freedom from the criticism, condemnation or the counter-arguments or protests of those who disagree with you, he said.
“It is not a blanket freedom to say what you want to whoever you want,” Arain said.
He also addressed the issue of offensive speech, which is typically included under the umbrella of free speech protections. But that doesn’t mean hateful remarks don’t have an impact on people.
“Language has a real impact and harm on people,” he said. “It has a real effect.”
He also addressed the issue of political correctness during his remarks, saying marginalized groups also have the right to free speech, and those who have privilege are now being called out for their views. It’s a new experience for people who have traditionally held power, he said, and they are reacting poorly to the experience.
“It is evidence to me of a kind of fragility,” Arain said, “where people can only feel free to speak their mind if no one is going to contradict them.”
While people have a right to shout and argue, Dale said that kind of speech doesn’t add anything productive to the dialogue. Civil discourse, which enhances people’s understanding of ideas, issues or events, is essential to democracy.
“Incivility is not democratic,” Dale said. “When people are uncivil to each other, it shuts the conversation down.”
Civil discourse requires listening and mutual respect, as well reciprocity on the part of the speakers. Respect other means recognizing they have a place in the conversation. These thoughts were echoed by communication studies professor Dena Huisman, who said people need to be able to look at issues from another’s point of view in a disagreement.
“I want to ask you not to listen in order to just reply but to listen to understand,” she said. “That is how we will get past the stuff in the world today.”