By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer
Openness and understanding were two of the primary topics discussed at Monday’s Faculty Panel on Civil Discourse, where members of the Baylor professor panel pushed for humility and understanding over competition and persuasion when engaging in discourse.
The panel of professors, hosted by Baylor president Dr. Linda Livingstone, fielded questions during this Baylor Conversation Series event at the Mayborn Museum Theater.
Dr. Elesha Coffman, Assistant professor of American intellectual history, Dr. David Corey, professor of political science, Dr. Greg Garrett professor of English, and Dr. Leslie Hahner associate professor of communication discussed the importance of civil discourse.
Hahner said a “radical humility” was necessary when discussing conflicting ideas.
“The best communication practices aren’t to persuade someone to your side, but to open yourself to that engagement with the possibility that you could be radically changed by that encounter,” Hahner said, “If you can’t open yourself that way then it’s not going to be the best form of engagement.”
The panel said this “radical humility” and willingness to let opponents argue their views should be applied to all sides of a debate. Corey read a segment of a speech by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass in defense of free speech. Corey said Douglass did something surprising afterward.
“What’s most remarkable… is that Douglass then turns around and extends the principle of free speech to his opponents, the anti-abolitionists,” Corey said. “Why would he allow, when so much is at stake… the same principle of free speech to those he adamantly disagrees… The answer is he doesn’t ground free speech in political expediency, he grounds it in right.”
Members of the panel discussed the relationship between political polarization and civil discourse in modern society. Garrett said society has divided itself into “gated communities” based on identities related to politics, race and sexual orientation that restrict productive discourse.
“People who are part of our gated community are us and people on the outside of the walls are them… At their best they are ignorant and uninformed and at their worst they are stupid and evil,” Garrett said. “That itself is the absolute opposite of a diagnosis for what makes discourse possible. When you don’t believe you have to have discourse on the other side of the wall, there is no reason for you to do it. Why would you talk to people who are stupid, wrong, evil and actively pursuing ends that you oppose with all your might?”
Garrett also said that Baylor’s Christian values can hopefully lead the university in a direction more conducive to civil discourse.
“This always sounds so kind of cosmic and ridiculous, but love is the most powerful force in the universe… the kind of love where we love as God loves, seeing the good in people,” Garrett said. “It’s a love that puts us at risk because that love may not be returned, but it is the love that we are all called to… As scary as that is I think that is the transforming value and the only thing I can see transforming this really, really difficult culture.”
As cultural views and values evolve over time and historical figures come under new scrutiny, Coffman said it is important to remember that positions do not have to be “accepted or rejected wholesale.” Coffman said everyone is a “product of [their] own context,” and this context shapes one’s views and beliefs.
“Some part of what we believe now will eventually be judged… I hope it really induced some humility as well as some understanding that everyone is [affected] by circumstances. None of us [are] perfect,” Coffman said.
While all panelists agreed empathy and understanding are fundamental parts of a debate, Corey said he thought “civil discourse” was a misnomer. Corey said he preferred to call it “charitable disagreement” because there are select instances when civility should be abandoned in a debate but that charity should always remain.
“There are times when civility can and sometimes should be set aside. I think the threshold for setting [civility] aside should be very high… [but] there are times when civility is appropriate and times when civility is inappropriate; there are never times when charity is inappropriate,” Corey said “One of the things charitable discourse requires of us is that we look at our interlocutors and try to find what good is motivating them. I don’t feel I’ve ever met anybody motivated by evil.”
Waco seminary student Elijah Tanner said he appreciated the “insightful perspectives” the panel members brought during the event.
“The idea of offering charity in conversations is something I always seek to apply… that’s really valuable,” Tanner said. “If we want to believe we should offer charity in interactions, then we have to offer that in conversations too.”