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Road to the White House: The nature of civil discourse

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Curtains peeled back in the Vince Gill Room, revealing a banner hanging above Dr. Bob Fisher’s head. “Once again, the road to the White House runs through Belmont University.” The Belmont Vision plans to help guide students along that road as we look at every aspect of the debate, from the cost to the planning to the politics. Join us on our “Road to the White House.”

In anticipation of the upcoming debate, the term “civil discourse” has been used frequently in press releases and discussions — but nailing down the specifics can be difficult with such a broad term.

In an email President Dr. Robert Fisher sent out after Belmont announced it would be hosting the debate, he addressed how the university can set the example for what civil discourse looks like pre- and post-election.

“This campaign cycle—and Belmont’s high visibility within it—opens the door for us to provide a model of the civil discourse we would like to see in our country. By demonstrating our values of inquiry, humility and collaboration, we can take these next 12 months to listen to and learn from one another, regardless of where we land on the political spectrum,” stated Fisher’s email.

Fisher’s email addressed the idea civil discourse—by demonstrating inquiry, humility and collaboration—and a convocation event he later held spoke to how Belmont promoted civil discourse in the previous, 2008, presidential debate. He referenced 100 debate-related programs being created, and a block party on Belmont Boulevard being thrown to increase student awareness and participation.

But there are different understandings of how Belmont can promote civil discourse for the upcoming debate — and what the term implies.

While Dr. Vaughn May, department chair for political science at Belmont, believes civility is a goal the university can achieve, he doesn’t think it should prevent meaningful dialogue.

“I’m much more interested in robust conversations on a variety of issues. Sometimes I fear our concern with civility actually takes us out of that realm and we end up having these really, antiseptic, sanitized conversations that don’t lead to any kind of positive change,” he said.

“If students are never confronted with ideas that they find uncomfortable, or objectionable, or even hurtful they’re never going to grow. And that same thing is true with faculty as well.”

While May is concerned about inspiring conversations, Meghan Hickock is interested in dissolving the theoretical walls that have separated students into the ‘left,’ or ‘right.’

“I think that it is important to be able to share your beliefs and defend them but it is even more important to love people beyond your belief system,” said Hickok.

“I feel like right now, we’ve hit a point in politics where we have allowed our political beliefs to creep into our social lives. And I think that when you start to exclude people from your social life based on politics, you’ve really lost touch with what it’s all about.”

Chair of communication studies Dr. Nathan Webb said that regardless of its specific implications, civil discourse has some essential characteristics — chief among them respect and understanding.

“There are seemingly endless definitions of ‘civil discourse,’ so on one hand, it is up to interpretation,” said Webb. “On the other hand, however, I think most definitions would agree that mutual respect and understanding are musts.”

Webb said that civil political discussion is difficult to achieve in 2020, but ultimately, it’s a worthy goal.

“It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth the hard work.”

This article written by Henry Gregson.

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