The Project on Civil Discourse offers facilitated discussions on topics relevant to free speech, inclusion, intellectual diversity, tolerance, political difference, and more. Learn more about what to expect in a peer discussion. See the topics and descriptions below.
To request a facilitated discussion for your course, club, program, or community event, contact PCD Director Lara Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fall 2022 Peer Discussion Sessions:
- Do Your Professor's Politics Matter? (9/27)
- The Paradox of Tolerance (10/11)
- Apology 101 (10/25)
- When the Marketplace of Ideas Sells Junk (11/08)
- Patriotism, Dissent, and Power (11/15)
All discussions will take place at 7pm in SIS Meeting Room 260.
I’m sorry if anyone might have offended by my choice of words . . . To the extent my actions caused pain to anyone, I regret it . . . What I did was wrong.
We see all kinds of apologies on social media, in the news, and in our lives. But what’s a real apology? Is the word “sorry” enough? Who decides?
This conversation will examine why people apologize, and what they hope to accomplish by doing so. It will also explore what constitutes a genuine apology and use several current examples from prominent figures in American culture to investigate the elements of authentic apologies.
- Explore the different parts of an apology in a discourse;
- Distinguish between examples of genuine and ingenuine apologies and the role that claiming responsibility plays; and
- Discuss whether there is an affirmative obligation to apologize, even if it risks relationships with a person or institution;
Campus Politics - Bias Incidents
Bias incidents on college campuses have been around for years. Some incidents- those involving true threats or harassment- are not protected speech under our First Amendment. But hateful, offensive speech- even the racism embodied by groups such as the KKK- might be protected speech, even when contrary to universities' values. Does the legal line between "true threat", and merely offensive speech adequately protect students pursuing an education? How can students, administrators, and other community members respond to incidents of racism or other acts of bias on campus? In this discussion students will explore their rights and responsibilities and propose solutions.
- Examine true and hypothetical examples of campus bias incidents and apply legal rules to determine whether there is a "true threat"; which examines whether an act of violence or harm was intended and if evidence for an attempt to intimidate was found;
- Identify the strengths and limitations of these rules;
- Explore the impact of bias incidents on the learning community; and
- Generate ideas for individual, community, and institutional responses to bias
Monuments and Iconography
In this discussion, students explore how representations of historical figures or events can express a community’s values, and examine the value of monuments and iconography in teaching about history.
- Consider why we name buildings after people, build monuments, and construct public representations of people and events;
- Explore methods of teaching history to the public;
- Engage with the question whether a monument is itself history;
- Explore principles of expression such as harm and threat;
- Attempt to draw a line between imperfect people worthy of commemorating and those whom you believe should not be publicly praised;
- Consider private/public praise, and personal stake and interests of two parties;
- Compare two fact patterns to draw out the differences in how we view new proposals and efforts to change established practices or institutions; and
- Consider who writes history, and reconciliation with multiple facets of historical figures.
Where Do I Fit In?
We all have felt like we don’t fit in. Possibly when moving to a new city or school or even when meeting new people. However, what happens when we ask “Where do I fit in?” because of our identities.
This conversation will look deeply into our identities and how we navigate various dynamics. Specifically, examining different identities, power hierarchies, and how we personally interact with them in our day-to-day lives. What happens when there is a discussion in class about an identity we do not hold? What happens when a professor is teaching about your identity or your lived experiences contradict research? What space do you take in professional studies? What dynamics are created as a minority on campus?
- Explore how different identities come in to different spaces
- Navigate different factors that give you authority to speak on a subject
- Compare and contrast academia and lived experiences
- Explore how power dynamics within academic institutions and spaces mold the conversations we have in those spaces
Where Is AU?
Especially now as we have fully taken the plunge into remote learning, the idea of a campus “community”, and the questions attached to the topic have always been a source of nuance and discussion at American University. As an administration and a school culture, we embrace diversity, different perspectives, and individual identity, making it a point to emphasize the necessity of a mosaic of cultures and viewpoints to genuine, holistic education. Does this make it harder for a community to form?
And on the topic of a community: what do us Eagles have in common? What unites us? We don’t have a strong sports culture like many other campuses, a facet of the typical college experience that contributes to the gel holding a student body together. Knowing this, where do we find our unity? And are we really missing anything by forgoing a flamboyant sporting presence or any other form of a broad and popular social activity? And finally, what new challenges and realities do we face with online teaching? All this, and more, will be the focus of this topic.
- Identify what unites us as a community here at AU, if anything.
- Understand how we may share experiences as a student, despite ,or perhaps because, of our emphasis on diversity.
- Understand how virtual learning affects the development and the feeling of belonging to a community.
- Identify unique characteristics that may distinguish AU from other campuses, if any.
Incivility by Omission
Can omitting something obvious constitute an act of incivility in discourse? Students will investigate cases in which silence played a significant role in a discourse and use these cases as a vehicle to discuss questions about the incivility of omission in context. In particular, students will examine questions about the incivility of omission in the context of the “I don’t see color”, defense in discussions about race.
(It's not) Crazy Talk: How the Language of Mental Illness Affects Discourse
In the media, political sphere, and social conversation, speakers often describe hate, bigotry, violence, anger, and irrational behavior as mental illness. We sometimes also use mental health language and metaphors for emphasis. These choices are often unconscious, and very rarely accurate?
How does the choice to use mental health imagery affect the people and issues we care about? Can the choice to conflate violence and mental illness affect policy making, and how? Does “crazy talk”, affect community members with mental health disabilities, and how?
I have PTSD from that exam.
OMG I’m so OCD about...
Of course, the shooter was mentally ill.
She is completely schizophrenic.
- Identify and analyze mental illness imagery and metaphor in political and/or social discourse;
- Consider the types of things (from violence to chaos) we use mental health imagery to express;
- Explore the impact of “crazy talk”, on a public policy or social issue, or upon community members with mental health disabilities;
- Examine our own understanding of what mental illness means and its connection to or disconnection from its literal meaning;
- If desired, consider and share the impact of inaccurate / punitive mental health discourse on our own lives and experiences; and
- Generate strategies and solutions for education, self care, and effective communication.
Do Your Professor's Politics Matter?
In an age where political division is at an all-time high and where political debates among peers are increasingly hostile, the role of educators and academia is unique. Some have equated college campuses with the tools of leftist indoctrination. Others believe college should serve as the ultimate market-place of ideas, where ideas, including political ones, are put to the test without fear of reprisal.
So, what is the role of your professors? Should they be apolitical vessels of knowledge? Should some professors be able to discuss politics more than others? In this module we will discuss the nature of higher education, considerations around diversity and inclusion, the differences between public vs. private universities, and students’ and professors’ role as members in a learning community.
- To explore the consumer education model and what that means for professors and politics
- To understand what conflicting interests exist within education (absolute free speech and inclusion)
- To be able to analyze different educational contexts and understand how the role of educators changes depending on those contexts
Patriotism, Dissent, and Power
What is patriotism? How do you express it? How do others express it? Should you be proud of your country? What if your country doesn’t represent you or your community? Politicians, sports leagues, and the media have all attempted to define what constitutes patriotism (and whether criticizing one’s country is patriotic).
In this discussion, students will explore the meaning of patriotism and how it differs from nationalism. We will examine the practice of “taking a knee” during the National Anthem as a launching point for this conversation. We will consider who has the power to define patriotism (and label some forms of dissent unpatriotic) and why that matters.
- Consider the varying meanings of patriotism in US society;
- Examine multicultural patriotism and assimilation;
- Using the example of Colin Kaepernick, explore whether and when criticism and dissent can be patriotic;
- Examine students’ own understanding of patriotism and dissent;
- Consider how power and identity shape public perceptions of individuals’ and groups’ expressions of dissent.
You Can't Say That! - Taboo, Anger, Profanity, and Forbidden Words
Slurs, taboo words, things you say to people when you’re mad, upset, or distressed- what do all these have in common? They often draw surprised reactions; they’re not the typical language we use in everyday interactions. But what defines slurs or taboos? What defines typical? Can we form objective rules/patterns governing the use of each?
Our use of language as humans unites us in a universal way, but conventions based on culture and even lingual gaps can change the way we perceive communication between people. In this discussion, we will discuss broad ideas surrounding social norms, collective thinking, and moral coercion, as well as delving into narrower areas such as cancel-culture and safe spaces.
- To investigate social norms around words and phrases and how they affect our discourse
- To explore why certain words carry more meaning than others
- To consider cultural differences in language and how to navigate them
- To explore how we should react upon hearing inflammatory, taboo, or otherwise non-normative language
The Paradox of Tolerance
The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. Is condemning, e.g., white supremacy an act of intolerance equivalent to espousing that view? If not, why not, and if so, does this argue in favor of some kinds of intolerance?
How should a society determine how to respond to the presence of intolerance among its citizenry? Does a society remain tolerant if it takes an intolerant stance against intolerance? How does a society -- including a learning community such as a university -- preserve tolerance?
These questions require nuanced thinking about the concept of tolerance, and they challenge our understanding of what it means to live in a free society.
In this facilitated discussion, students will contemplate the concept of tolerance and confront complex questions about personal as well as institutional responses to intolerance.
- Understand the complexity of the paradox of tolerance and its implications on discussions of free speech;
- Engage in line-drawing about the concept of tolerance, and how it applies to various ideologies, identities, and actions;
- Distinguish between the implications of legislative responses (for example, suppressing speech) and social responses (for example, expressing condemnation) to intolerance in a free society.
Point-Counterpoint: Revoking College Admissions
Over the past few years, there have been a number of instances in which universities have revoked their admissions offers to students after racist speech made by those students came to the attention of the administration. What do students owe their colleges and campus communities and what do colleges owe their students? What is the role of an institution of higher education when it comes to its admitted students: to create a community that reflects its espoused values and protect members of its community? To educate students who have said or done racist things to bring them closer to the ideals of the institution? Not to interfere in the thoughts or speech of students even if they are racist in the name of values of broad “freedom of expression”, and a “marketplace of ideas,”, no matter how heinous it may be seen to be? Something else?
- Identify what students and admitted students owe universities and what universities owe their students in terms of establishing codes of conduct even before matriculation.
- Consider the role and responsibilities of universities when it comes to making decisions on potentially problematic admitted students?
- Explore the use of admission revocations as a means of holding racist students accountable and/or deterring future racist actions by other students.
- Grapple with the fairness of revoking a college admission based on prior speech and put that in context with the “fairness” of broader societal racism.
- Understand the potential consequences of revoking a college admission for the student involved and for the students already on campus.
When the Marketplace of Ideas Sells Junk: Debunked Science and Shoddy Scholarship on Campus
The marketplace of ideas was first referenced in 1919 by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. during the Supreme Court case Abrams v. United States. The majority ruling sought to prosecute an anarchist for his anti-war views under the Espionage Act of 1917. Justice Holmes Jr. dissented to this by appealing to the marketplace of ideas as an analogy for freedom of expression and speech. This powerful concept has underpinned much of First Amendment jurisprudence.
Since Freedom of speech includes the right to spread falsehoods, such as debunked scientific theories (vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat), conspiracy theories, or misleading historical analysis, how do institutions dedicated to expanding knowledge deal with the junk in our marketplace of ideas?
- Attempt to find the line between objective truth and subjective opinion, considering real examples of debunked or disfavored theories;
- Develop principles for considering whether and when to be open to outrageous claims;
- Consider the impact of junk on the marketplace of ideas, including in the university context; and
- Generate solutions and approaches individuals and communities can use to combat the junk in the context of free speech and expression.