Professors working to remedy damaged civil discourse


By Adam Gentile 

Features Editor

Three County College of Morris professors are taking measures to enlighten students on the issues of civil discourse, and democratic self-governance to combat fake news and hyper-partisanship.

The interdisciplinary project is called Facilitating Civil Discourse in an age of Fake News and debates about the Truth, and is made up of Dr. Candace Halo of the history and political science department, Professor David Pallant of the communication department, and Dr. Mark Uffelman of the English and philosophy department. The program follows the outline made by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) that relates to civic learning and engagement. The three major components of the AACU outline are knowledge, skills, and values.

Halo, Pallant, and Uffelman started this project because they noticed a lack of civil discourse in our society, brought on by civic ignorance, hyper-partisanship, and an attack. However, they plan on combating this with the use of open discussion, breaking the filter bubbles, and teaching students about how to identify the truth.

The program is made up of three classes at CCM with each professor giving their own specialized lecture between their classes.

The first lecture was performed by Halo Monday, Sept. 17 and focused on the First Amendment as it pertains to free speech and civil discourse on college campuses.

“We talked the fundamental rights and got them to understand that the right belongs to the individual and it was to protect them from government,” Halo said.

Halo also said that the class was not just about the structure of the First Amendment but the current issues that are present on college campuses across America. She brought up how there is a disconnect in communications between students and how they just seem to be angry all the time with no real progress on the issues.

“What we are trying to do is in the academic environment have students able to discuss things in a very open manner,” Halo said.

Halo also felt that students are afraid to talk about their beliefs and choose to remain quiet out of fear.

Another concern from Halo is that students are unaware or have been given little information about many civic matters, for example, subjects like gerrymandering and congressional hearings.

“What I try to do in political science is teach them American government so they are aware of what’s going on around them because it does affect them,” Halo said.

In response to the lack of communication the classes will also act as a medium for students to hold conversations with one another.

“We are giving students the opportunity to talk and we want to help them understand what civil discourse means,” Halo said. “It means that you can totally disagree with a person but you can still walk away from the conversation not hating each other … Civil discourse is a robust, honest, frank, and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest. Critical aspect of dialogue is patience integrity, humility and mutual respect.”

Pallant, of the communication department, hosted a lecture Monday, Oct. 29 focused on media ethics, hyper-partisanship, and tribalism in the age of fake news.  

Pallant took time in the lecture to show how Twitter bots were used in the 2016 presidential election and gave advice on how to identify them. He noted how they tend to use inflammatory rhetoric in threads in an effort to create divisiveness.

For Pallant, the most important issue that they tackled in the lecture was the idea of filter bubbles.

“People are in these social media bubbles that they can’t get out of, and they keep clicking these articles that feeds them the same information over and over again,” Pallant said.

Pallant said that the partisanship in the news stations have done a major disservice to the people.

“They kind of tribalized people by regurgitating their version of facts and the country is way more divided,” Pallant said. “Rhetoric is ramped up on each side and violence will occur, sadly as we saw with the synagogue shooting.”

Pallant mentioned that the rhetoric of one person is not to blame but the culture made from harmful rhetoric should be examined. This concept echoes a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murderers.”

Pallant noted how unprecedented this era is in terms of people’s disdain and attack on the free and independent press, by calling them the enemy of the people. In his presentation, Pallant showed an image of a man wearing a shirt that had “Rope. Tree. Journalist. some assembly required” on it.

“The concern is that the attack on free speech is real,” Pallant said. “If you are saying that someone is an enemy of you and the country and then you’re wearing that there is correlation between that … Would you then morally justify actual violence?”

Pallant also said that by having face to face conversations people can overcome political differences and still respect each other.

Uffelman’s lecture is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov.14 and is titled “Truth in Democracy.” This lecture will bring up classical ideas of truth and whether or not we live in an era of post-truth. A post-truth can be defined as an era where truth doesn’t really matter, and that truth can be defined by who is speaking.

Uffelman said that we live in an age of truth relativism and truth emotivism.

“A lot of these individuals will say that truth is used as a label for positions that we like, if something appeals to us it’s true if it runs contrary to us it’s false,” Uffelman said.  

Uffelman believes that defending the idea of truth is imperative to defending our democracy.

“To an extent that we are responsible citizens we have an obligation to not only seek to participate in the democratic process and support those representatives that are most aligned with general well-being and individual rights, but what is entailed by that is questing for the truth,” Uffelman said. “We need to seek for what truth is and then we have to know how to recognize it when we see it.”

A priority for Uffelman in terms of the project is to emphasize the importance of seeking the truth in the age of information.

“The flux of information is so rapid but simultaneously filtered and bubbled in the way that we receive this information that we have an obligation to unsettle ourselves and make ourselves uncomfortable,” Uffelman said.



Originally published in the 11-7-2018 edition of the Youngtown Edition

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