No time to lose: Historic examples of civility may help today's civil discourse, according to new book

23-Apr-2019 8:05 AM EDT, by Kansas State University

MANHATTAN, KANSAS — A look at the past may help ordinary people improve civility, according to Kansas State University’s Timothy J. Shaffer, co-editor/author of the book, "A Crisis of Civility?: Political Discourse and Its Discontents" from Routledge.

Receiving praise from former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, former senator and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former news anchor Katie Couric, the book discusses the status of the nation's civility. Shaffer, assistant professor of communication studies and assistant director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, wrote the chapter, "Enabling Civil Discourse: Creating Civic Space and Resources for Democratic Discussion." The chapter includes historical examples from the New Deal era in the 1930s and 1940s of how people were able to have difficult discussions about shared problems.

"When the rest of the world was falling to authoritarian leaders like Mussolini, the U.S. was wrestling with how to stay a democratic country," Shaffer said. "It was during this same time that institutions like Kansas State University became involved in a national project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cultivate civil discourse through citizen-centered discussion groups."

Shaffer said that many of the discussion topics were around contentious issues similar to today such as soil erosion, taxes and imports/exports, and differences in tensions between urban and rural communities. The group discussions provided space and resources for democratic conversations that helped shaped agriculture policy, encouraged civic adult education and increased public discussion. The discussions even covered problems like how to adjust to new societal advancements, such as the expansion of electricity into rural areas and the impact of mechanized farm equipment on the identity of the farmer.

"I think it's really important for us to remember that we've figured out how to navigate and deal with shifts before," Shaffer said. "One of the discussion guides talked about how some people in rural communities were upset after gravel roads were built because now people were flying by on their way to town and were no longer talking to others as they did when they traveled by horse and buggy."

The project used those discussions to create guides and training materials for civil discourse. The guides emphasized the importance of being able to get beyond the superficial understanding of issues. One of the historical guides discussed "how to create opportunities for people to learn to listen to and think through divergent views and cooperate in finding common ground" — a theme discussed throughout the whole book called intellectual humility.

"The way that we talk and think about civility is much more fundamentally rooted in this idea of how do we — in a practical way — live with one another," Shaffer said. "How do we engage each other in shared life, recognizing that we are going to have competing views, values and claims, yet at the end of the day, still co-exist?"

Shaffer said that while a civil society may be thought of as something that happens in government, it should be shaped by ordinary people who have perspectives and positions that merit public consideration. Looking at the historical examples like the USDA programs during the New Deal era sheds light on the possibility for cultivating democratic discussion, offers the resources for making it possible and explores the challenges that need to be overcome.

"We need to be able to engage with others while keeping in mind that we each have our own biases and assumptions literally walking in the door," Shaffer said. "I'd like to think about myself as being an informed citizen but I also need to listen deeply enough that I am receptive to having my mind changed no matter how deeply I feel about a position."

Shaffer has written numerous other articles and chapters on this topic and period, with a forthcoming book exploring the topic more extensively.

In addition to Shaffer, editors include Robert Boatright, professor of political science at Clark University and director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona; Sarah Sobieraj, associate professor of sociology at Tufts University; and Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

Additional authors include Steven Bullock at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Kevin Coe at the University of Utah; Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona; Lindsay Hoffman at the University of Delaware; Kate Kenski and Stephen Rains at the University of Arizona; Anthony Simon Laden at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Carolyn Lukensmeyer at the National Institute for Civil Discourse; Deborah Mower at the University of Mississippi; Ashley Muddiman at the University of Kansas; Deana Rohlinger at Florida State University; and Michael Wolf at Purdue University, Fort Wayne.

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A Crisis of Civility?: Political Discourse and Its Discontents

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