Presidential election sets tone for discussion on civility


Homecoming “Big Conversation” explores solutions to incivility in public discourse

KENNESAW, Ga. (Oct 17, 2016)Big Conversation

Big Conversation panel, from left, N. Akinyemi, L. Johnston, H. Winkler, T. Kaplan, and M. Sanseviro

From his vantage point of covering the 2016 presidential campaign, New York Times reporter Thomas Kaplan has seen how uncivil conversations in the public sphere can become. 

 “I’ve had a front row seat to the most remarkable display of the mudwrestling in this campaign from the very beginning,” Kaplan said during the “Big Conversation” on Civility and Engagement, one of the events featured during Kennesaw State’s Homecoming Week celebration.  ”This is a very important and timely discussion to be having right now.”

 Kaplan said Times’ researchers documented that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has insulted 273 people, places and things on Twitter since June. 

 “Most people who support Mr. Trump say he talks like you do when you’re sitting around the kitchen table,” Kaplan said, citing a recent national poll indicating that 71 percent of respondents said they liked the candidate because “he tells it like it is.” Georgia had the highest percentage of people who felt that way, Kaplan noted.

 Joining Kaplan in a panel discussion that probed how democracy endures in an era of conflict and incivility were:

·      Howard Winkler, chair, Better Business Bureau Institute, Southern Company Office of the General Counsel (retired);

·      Linda Johnston, executive director, Siegel Institute for Leadership, Ethics & Character and professor of conflict management;

·      Nurudeen Akinyemi, director, Center for African and African Diaspora Studies and associate professor of political science and international affairs; and

·      Michael Sanseviro, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who served as moderator.

Winkler reminded the audience that although people are questioning why the nation appears to be seeing a rise in incivility, it is indicative of what has happened throughout history. 

 “We have seen that when trust in national institutions like the government, business and media wane, the level of civility decreases,” Winkler said.  He noted the tone of the times during the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion; the Civil War; the rise in anarchy in the late 1800s that precipitated the assassination of President William McKinley; and the civil unrest during the 1960s that erupted in demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention.

 “There is an increase in incivility today, but we will survive it,” Winkler said.  “We’re much better off when we can disagree reasonably.”

 Panelist Johnston noted three things that endanger democracy: a lack of trust that occurs when people do things that may be legal but are not the right thing to do; the inability to differentiate between dialogue and debate; and a lack of civility.

“The goal of debate is to win while the goal of dialogue is to find common ground,” she said.  “We need to have more dialogue.  What’s really missing is an understanding that an important part of dialogue is the art of listening. We have to learn to listen more to one another.”  

It is the nature of democracy itself that must be understood in order for civility to thrive, said Akinyemi, who brought an international perspective to the discussion. 

“We generally think of democracy in terms of elections,” he said.  “But there is a second part, and that is ensuring the civil liberties and individual rights of all citizens. When we embrace democracy in that way, we can begin to think of living in a shared community where civility and civic engagement become possible.”

Big conversation

The audience was invited into the discussion in real time through questions collected on cards and passed to the moderator during the discussion or submitted to a dedicated Twitter hash tag.  The conversation continues on Twitter at #bigconversation16.

Big ConversationThe Big Conversation was organized by the Kennesaw State Office of Student Affairs in conjunction with the American Democracy Project (ADP) and Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement initiative (CLDE). 


Sabbaye McGriff

Photos by David Caselli


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