Jun 13, 2019

On Civil Discourse

During the 2016 presidential election season, Donald Trump stood on the B.J. Haan Auditorium stage, addressing supporters and famously saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

A picture of Donald Trump talking in the BJ Haan

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Dr. Ben Carson also held public events in Dordt’s Campus Center.

But Dr. Jeff Taylor, political science professor at Dordt, feels like he failed by not getting Hillary Clinton to come to campus.

“She’s not a candidate I liked, and I would not have voted for her,” says Taylor. “But I worked very hard to get her to come to Dordt. I failed. Or, I should say that it’s a tough sell to get a major Democrat to come to Sioux County, which is so Republican. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

Taylor thinks that mainstream presidential candidates—from both parties, of a range of ideologies—should be welcomed at Dordt. It’s not that he admires or agrees with every candidate; he simply thinks that students and the local community benefit from hearing candidates in person.

“I felt the same way about Trump and Bernie Sanders,” he says. “You have to let people have the freedom to like or not like, embrace or reject. You may object to certain candidates, and that’s fine—but don’t stand in the way of other people being able to go and listen.”

With the 2020 presidential election season looming, Dordt might once again be a stop for presidential candidates—both Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s good to take advantage of our unusual standing as an early voting state to allow students, alumni, and the broader community who wish to participate meaningfully and up-close in the political process,” says Dr. Erik Hoekstra, president of Dordt. “Sifting through and weighing how a candidate’s views and policies best measure up to our understandings of what it means to act as citizens is an important part of living lives of Christian obedience.”

Reiterating what he wrote in an open letter during the 2016 political season, Hoekstra says he hopes Dordt students will graduate with a commitment to be politically active and biblically obedient; he thinks having first-hand access on campus to presidential candidates contributes to this process.

But what happens when presidential candidates climb back into their busses and motorcades and leave campus? When it comes to something as polarizing as politics or faith, how do students, faculty, and the broader community practice civility with one another? It’s easy to assume that most students on a campus like Dordt University agree, but that isn’t always the case. How do Dordt faculty demonstrate what it means to be civil and to have civil conversations with others, in politics and beyond?

What is civility?

“I would say civility is the ability to communicate with one another in a way that treats your audience with respect but also treats your intellectual or political opponents with respect,” says Taylor.

In a free society, you can speak out and state your point of view, he says, but so can others.

“When we’re talking about something as important as government—and power is at the center of government—there’s a lot at stake when it comes to elections and new laws that become mandates for certain groups of people. Much is riding on decisions made in the political realm.”

That’s why Taylor thinks it’s a priority both as Christians and as fellow residents to treat people with respect, being as honest and as loving as possible when communicating with others about what we believe.

We often think civility is devoid of emotion, but that’s not the case, says Donald Roth, a criminal justice professor.

“If truth is powerful, it stirs the emotions. If it’s really worthwhile, then we get passionate, and when we get passionate, we can get angry. That’s why it’s important to have grace, love, and patience so that you can maintain relationships despite your differences.”

Getting emotional about a subject isn’t an excuse for name-calling and stereotyping. But it also does not simply mean being nice.

A picture of Richard Mouw
Richard Mouw

“Being civil is how we see people and how we engage with them in the broader patterns of public life,” says Dr. Richard Mouw, renowned theologian and author of Uncommon Decency. “It has to do with driving on freeways and how we deal with people at Walmart—how we vote, how we think about refugees. We are very likely to encounter people that are different from us in religion, sexual orientation, political ideology, ethnicity, and nationality. From a Christian point of view, civility gets at the very base of what God wants us to be.”

Aaron Baart, dean of chapel, says that Christians engaging in civil discourse should be careful to not always strive to be right over being a light for the Lord.

“When Jesus was in disagreement with his own disciples, he washed their feet. He washed Judas’s feet,” says Baart. “Why do we as Christians think that being right is the ultimate prize? Jesus gave up his life for the very people who attacked him because he wanted to give them what they didn’t even know how to ask for. Is being right more important than being good?”

What are characteristics of civil discourse?

Every Monday evening in April, Baart and Jessica Hulst, a campus counselor, met with engaged Dordt students for a pre-marital workshop. One activity Baart and Hulst used is called “Rules of Engagement,” where each couple writes down what it means for them to fight fair.

“You’re allowed to write down things that the other person isn’t allowed to bring up,” says Baart. “So, for example, someone might say, ‘I grew up in a home where my dad yelled. And as soon as you do that it’s going to shut me down, so please don’t yell.’ And their partner will say, ‘Okay, because I love you, I’ll agree to that.”

Baart thinks everyone on campus would benefit from the techniques and practices covered in the workshop, particularly those related to arguing.

“What I say to couples who are arguing is, ‘What if Jesus was in the room—would you be proud of this conversation? Because he is here right now,‘” says Baart.

Civil discourse may not always allow time or room for conscious rules of engagement, but such rules should still shape how we approach any conversation.

“In Uncommon Decency, Mouw talks about how we shouldn’t take our best argument against their worst,” says Baart.

“For a Christian, this means cultivating a kind of spirituality and practice that helps us to genuinely engage other human beings as sacred beings, as people created in God’s image,” adds Mouw.

What might those characteristics look like, practically speaking? One important practice is listening, says Taylor.

“We need to cultivate the ability and then have the willingness to listen,” he says. “Not just talk and dominate the discussion, but to be quiet and really listen to the other person.”

Dordt’s communication department offers students a chance to develop their listening ability through a semester-long listening course. Grounded in the understanding that effective communicators are also effective listeners, the course teaches students how to listen effectively through techniques in understanding, paraphrasing, memory retention, and nonverbal communication skills.

Another foundational characteristic for civility is intellectual humility. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have strong views—that you don’t have principles that you’re committed to,” says Taylor. “It doesn’t mean you’re mushy. It means that you realize you’re not perfect. You’re not all-knowing. You’re not God. As convinced as you are that you are right, you have to allow for the possibility that you might be wrong about something. And the only way to ever correct those errors or identify the blind spots is to listen to people who disagree with you.”

To Baart, civil discourse is the ability to have a conversation in an honoring and respectful way, doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. “You honor them and love them as yourself, because we’re equal,” he says.

That’s why physical proximity when having a debate or argument is key, says Baart. “Start by affirming their intent and the things you agree with. Engage in self-talk and ask questions like, ‘How would I want someone to treat me in the middle of this?’ Look them in the eyes, see their humanity, see how your words affect them, and then change and refine your words.”

Another key characteristic of civil discourse is to take the time to have a difficult conversation.

“We are living in such a polarized cultural context where people have a hard time sitting and talking to each other, learning from each other, and showing compassion and empathy,” says Mouw.

One place on campus where students have been able to wrestle with differing viewpoints is an event called Doubt Night. Keeping a pulse on what’s going on on campus, Baart has planned Doubt Nights around current events like the presidential election season, hot-topic issues like homosexuality, or spiritual questions like charismatic worship. Inviting a panel of faculty and students to participate, Baart moderated the discussions. Students in the audience wrote down their anonymous questions, and Baart read the questions for the panelists to answer.

“Our goal was to never filter out any questions, so students could ask whatever they wanted,” says Baart. “Through our answering, we tried to model civility in a way that most students might not have seen before, especially in a social media-dominated world.”

Doubt Night has been well-received by students, and Baart plans to hold more of them during the 2020 presidential election season.

What’s civil about social media?

Sometimes when she accesses her social media feeds or reads online articles, Dr. Luralyn Helming feels a little anxious. What angry debates, blanket statements, or overstated diatribes will she encounter today?

“I think a lot of what happens on social media is dehumanizing,” says Helming, a psychology professor, “because you’re interacting with something on a screen, and you’re not thinking about the actual person you’re responding to. Much of civility is wrapped up in realizing that we’re all humans, and we need to appreciate that about whoever we’re interacting with, no matter how much we dislike or disagree with what they’re saying.”

But, with social media, it’s easy to get swept up in earning “likes” instead of remembering someone’s humanity.

“We like ‘likes’—they set off our reward system in our brains,” says Helming. “Our motivation becomes writing content so people will like your post, not respecting other people or engaging in civil discourse.”

But because social media is so involved in reinforcements and punishments, it affects our ability to engage in civil discourse.

“Social media doesn’t encourage much thoughtfulness when you read something that’s inflammatory or that you disagree with,” says Taylor. “Instead of thinking first and then talking or writing, all it takes is a click of a button to deliver a quick burn you have in response to someone insulting you.”

Or, if our social media feeds echo voices similar to our own, we can become complacent or closed-off.

“When you like what you like and block out what you don’t, you reinforce the very things you know and believe,” says Baart. “That doesn’t help you to grow—you should confront something you already believe and hear something different in order to grow.”

Creating our own echo chambers on social media can feel good, but Taylor says it can be a fool’s paradise.

“It’s for your own sake that you should listen to opposing points of view. If what you believe is really true and accurate, it should be able to withstand scrutiny, right?”

Dr. Dave Mulder, an education professor, spends plenty of time online. He teaches online for Dordt’s master of education program, and he spends hours using social media to connect with groups of fellow educators via Twitter.

“Occasionally, I take part in Twitterchats where groups of educators meet virtually by tweeting responses. The discussions are moderated by someone tweeting out questions every few minutes during the chat,” he says.

Mulder says he has found these chats to be full of people looking to engage, to learn, to be challenged, to share, and to grow.

“I know some say these chats are echo chambers where likeminded individuals share things to be patted on the back by others who share the same viewpoints,” says Mulder. “This does happen, but in my experience, if people come willing to learn, to ask questions, and to wonder, these can be civil conversations, even when people don’t always agree. Assuming good intent goes a long way toward making it a positive interaction.”

Technology, says Mulder, brings people together while simultaneously pushing people apart. “Technology has a way of building in a psychological distance between people. Because of this, they will sometimes say things online they’d never say if they were talking to a person face-to-face.”

Mulder points to research literature in educational technology about online discourse. Social presence theory says that we all project a sense of ourselves when communicating through technology-mediated channels. Video chat affords a richer presence because you can see and hear a person. Text-only communication can be trickier because so many of the non-verbal cues—key elements for making meaning of a message—are stripped away. Emojis and emoticons can boost social presence in a text-only message, helping the reader to not misconstrue what’s trying to be communicated.

“If we’re going to engage with others online, we should check our motivations first. What are we intending to accomplish? Are we there to listen and learn, or are we going to bellow our message louder and longer? To me, civility is about communicating clearly and with humility. Kindness matters,” says Mulder.

When it comes to Christian civility and social media, Mulder still has questions.

“What kind of witness are Christians portraying when we blast away at others online? Maybe we as Christians should be held to a higher standard?”

Why does civility matter?

Taylor strives to model civil discourse in his courses. He recognizes the power differential between him and his students—he knows that, if he wanted to, he could monopolize the class period. Instead, he engages his students in conversation, seeking to be as objective and as fair as he can be while recognizing his own bias.

“When I make a controversial statement, I own it, but I also let them know that they don’t have to agree with me,” says Taylor. “Sometimes students say things I don’t agree with, and I don’t ever cut them down as a person. I have my own point of view, but I try to have an environment that recognizes different points of view.”

Taylor has questions about civility and civil discourse particularly when it comes to his area of expertise.

“While talking about politics, how can we be civil toward others when we have strong views on a topic?” asks Taylor. “If we’re ignorant or apathetic, it’s easy to be civil because we don’t care. But if we care deeply and passionately, it’s a hard thing to do.”

Still, Taylor sees immense value in civility and always comes back to the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“Treating people with respect and being as honest and loving as possible is what we are called to do,” he says. “I also think it’s good politics. If you want to change people’s minds, you have to understand where other people are coming from. Hear the other person, honestly engage and understand their arguments, and find common ground. When I’m talking with someone I don’t agree with, I want to move them in my direction. Destroying them isn’t usually the best way to do that.”

It has never been easy for the church to nurture a convicted civility, writes Mouw in Uncommon Decency.

“When the biblical writer first urged the followers of Christ to ‘pursue peace with everyone,’ the society was at least as multicultural and pluralistic as our is today,” he says. “The early Christians were surrounded by a variety of religious and moral systems. Their pagan neighbors worshiped many gods … and the representatives of the dominant culture were not inclined to live-and-let-live when it came to dealing with the early Christian community.”

“Our forebears in the faith paid dearly for their commitment to the gospel,” adds Mouw. “If they could work at treating people with gentleness and reverence in such an environment, what is our excuse for attempting less?”

A picture of Aaron Baart
Aaron Baart

Baart points to John 13:34, where Jesus says, “A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus’s love looked like washing Judas’s feet—being good rather than being right.

“Rightness isn’t a fruit of the spirit,” says Baart. “Our obsession with rightness is birthed out of an era of doctrine and an age of reason, not the Gospel. Jesus tells us to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and your neighbor as yourself’ and that ‘by their fruits you will know them.’ It’s the irresistibleness of the Word that is supposed to be compelling to the world, not our rightness.”

Baart is concerned with how Christians approach civility—and what the lack thereof might mean for the Christian witness.

“How do we make Christianity winsome, beautiful, and ‘good news’ again? When people watch us, Jesus should be so strong in us and the fruit of the spirit should be so evident that we look different from the world,” he says. “We keep trying to win all the world’s prizes by playing the games on the same lines. But maybe if we’re fighting for something different, we need to play the game differently.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers