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Ep. 153 Towards More Civil Discourse


New series of related courses at Duke University explore civil discourse and democracy.

Today’s guests argue that the January 6th storming of the Capitol in the United States is a stark example of the violence that can come from the way in which people talk to each other across the political divide. To address the issue, Duke faculty members Stephen Buckley and Sue Wasiolek have developed a series of courses for students focused on civil discourse and democracy. Their goal is to “deepen understanding of how public debates shape–and are shaped by–policymakers, higher education, and the media.”

The series is part of Duke Immerse, and will take place in the fall of 2024 in Durham, NC and London/Oxford, England.

Conversation Highlights

Responses have been edited for clarity.

On the idea of civil discourse

Stephen Buckley: The phrase “civil discourse” in some corners has been sort of co-opted to mean its shorthand for a particular political group or particular political position. That’s not what we’re about. When we say civil discourse, we mean fully engaging other people even as you hold your own strong beliefs, but you’re open to genuinely hearing what other folks have to say and maybe even change your mind.

On how communication norms in the US are shifting

Sue Wasiolek: When I think about some of the issues that we try to tackle over email and some of the news that we try to deliver to someone, [that might be] difficult, challenging news. And the norm in the past used to be face-to-face [conversations]. It was difficult. We didn’t want to do it, [but] it had to be done. And we don’t do that necessarily anymore. This is a judgment label on my part but [I think e-mailing bad news is] taking the easy way out. It’s just an easier way to deal with things, and it provides some explanation of how we ended up where we are today with the shifting of the norms.

On what they hope students will take away from the class series

Stephen Buckley: We hope that they learn to listen, genuinely listen, actively listen deeply to one another. We hope that they form a community and I think ultimately, maybe this is too optimistic, but I hope they come out more hopeful. I hope that they realize that for all of our struggles as a democracy, for all the bitterness and strife and anger, one, they can be part of the solution, but two, they realize, you know what? All is not lost. We can do this as a country. And even if they just make a couple of steps toward that hope, then that would be a good result.

Sue Wasiolek: I hope they leave with a higher sense of self-awareness that is related to the use of their voice. When they do speak, what is their goal? What’s important to them? Are they just trying to force their opinion on somebody, or they truly trying to learn from someone else? So my hope, and I think our hope is that they really do think about this broader sense of, ‘Why am I communicating at all, like what is this all about?’ And that in itself will inform them moving forward as to how they speak and how they engage.