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Civil Discourse: It's Time to Talk

UW-Stevens Point Initiative Attracts Huge Crowd to Discuss Presidential Politics

The 2016 presidential election was many things, but civil was most certainly not one of them. Online and in person, on paper and over the airways, the rancorous tenor of the campaign extended into all corners of the country. It was the nastiest presidential campaign in U.S. history.

Or was it? Has recency bias blinded us to the fact that presidential elections have been similarly bitter and divisive throughout history? And what are the odds things change in the future?

These and other topics were discussed during a special fall semester edition of the Civil Discourse Initiative, sponsored by the UW-Stevens Point College of Letters and Science. Titled “Civil Discourse and Presidential Politics,” the panel discussion attracted a standing room-only crowd of more than 200 people in the Noel Fine Arts Center.

“The capacity to engage in fruitful and respectful dialog with those who disagree with us is essential to any cooperative effort, from the workplace all the way up to the highest levels of government,” said COLS Dean Christopher Cirmo. “This is particularly important as we begin to address the political divide so clearly obvious in the most recent presidential election cycle.”

“These are exactly the sorts of skills and abilities that higher education should cultivate. The Civil Discourse Initiative will help UW-Stevens Point to more intentionally nurture these traits.”

The Initiative was launched in 2013 by a Bringing Theory to Practice grant. Endorsed by the UW-Stevens Point Faculty Senate, Academic Staff Council and Student Government Association, it was driven by the desire to hold the university responsible for modeling and defining civil discourse. The Initiative’s first event addressed public vaccination policy and the First Amendment.

Civil Discourse and Presidential Politics was moderated by Dean Cirmo and Associate COLS Dean Dona Warren and featured panelists representing the university’s humanities and social sciences: Shanny Luft, Department of Philosophy; John Blakeman, Department of Political Science; Rebecca Stephens, Department of English; and Rob Harper, Department of History and International Studies.

Blakeman addressed the First Amendment and freedom of the press. Luft (top) reviewed how different religious groups voted and how unsurprising it was. Harper noted that choosing to be civil – or not – is a tactic candidates for public office use depending on circumstance, and referenced the 1800 Thomas Jefferson-John Adams campaign as historical evidence of uncivil election discourse. Stephens raised the importance of identity and decline of places where people with differing ideologies can gather and find commonalities and build empathy.


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