How do we talk about issues that matter? A guide to civil discourse
Facing History and Ourselves has gathered resources for educators to use in fostering civil discourse and engagement with key issues among their students.
How do we talk about issues that matter? The exchange of ideas, perspectives and arguments is essential to democracy and humane societies. As philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in Men in Dark Times:
However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. . . .We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.
At Facing History and Ourselves, we often talk about the importance of seeking out and leaning into such conversations, but we know it isn’t always easy. The issues that most demand democratic discourse today— questions of race, belonging, justice, and the common good—can provoke strong emotions, trigger old wounds, and spark controversy. In 2016, just before the last U.S. presidential election, we created a resource for educators called Fostering Civil Discourse, designed to help teachers create classrooms where students can speak openly, listen empathically, reflect, and learn from each other.
We recently undertook a revision of this resource. Many of the challenges to democratic discourse are the same today, including political and cultural polarization and a media environment where positive models are scarce. But in the four years since Fostering Civil Discourse was first published, we’ve also gained new insights that have shaped our update of the guide.
Without equity, “civility” can be repressive. In 2019, the NPR series “Civility Wars” explored the ways that calls for civility “can feel like an effort to stifle people’s outrage over injustice or hate.” Reporters pointed out that particularly for people of color and others who have struggled to be heard by those in power, civility “isn’t so much a social lubricant as it is a vehicle for containing them, preventing social mobility and preserving the status quo.” At a time when we are facing so many issues of urgent public concern, meaningful and constructive discourse isn’t possible if voices are silenced – and we shouldn’t be surprised if some voices, unheard for so long, express necessary moral outrage in strong terms.
We see “civil discourse” as a tool for deep engagement, a framework that allows us to show up with our mind, heart and conscience to be in dialogue and extend our understanding in connection with others. “Civil discourse” does not mean prioritizing politeness or comfort over getting to the heart of an issue. If we’re going to ask students to listen and engage civilly, we have to ensure that the classroom is an equitable space. Our revised guide offers approaches to educator self-reflection on issues of power and privilege, and strategies to intentionally shape classroom environments with equity in mind.
Civil discourse requires responsibility, accountability and grace. As James Baldwin wrote, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” It’s advisable to draw some boundaries around free exchange in the classroom – banning, for example, racial epithets or dehumanizing language like “illegals” used to refer to undocumented immigrants. We should also recognize that even well-intended remarks can be hurtful, and have a plan for responding that encourages young people to take responsibility not just for their intent but also for the impact of their words without shaming them. Human rights activist and educator Loretta Ross has written that “Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes… Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love. Some corrections can be made privately. Others will necessarily be public, but done with respect.” She describes this generous response as a kind of “grace.” Learning to call in – and to be called in – is a powerful civic skill for life in a diverse democracy that is struggling to become more inclusive and just.
We can learn and practice civil discourse online. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed teaching and learning online in schools around the world, but we don’t have to set aside teaching civil discourse and having brave conversations because we’re in virtual learning spaces. We can’t afford to.This past spring, for example, when most schools in the United States were working remotely, many educators found creative and sensitive ways to have necessary conversations about the murder of George Floyd and police violence with their students in online spaces. Our revised guide includes approaches to contracting for remote learning, modifications of effective teaching strategies like Big Paper, Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn and Barometer for synchronous and asynchronous online learning, and suggestions for using tech tools like Padlet and Voicethread in support of these activities. These strategies bring structure to discussions, promote engaged and equitable participation, and have the added benefit of making students’ thinking visible so they can reflect back on it when the discussion ends.
While much has changed in our world, and in schools, since we published the first version of Fostering Civil Discourse in 2016, the need to engage in democratic discussions is as important as ever. When educators teach—and practice—these skills, we’re helping to build more inclusive, equitable and just democracies. We encourage you to use the resources in the revised version of our guide and let us know about your successes and challenges in the comments section here.
Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our newly updated Fostering Civil Discourse guide to support conversations that evoke our emotional responses.