GCU initiative aims to make campus discourse civil

This story is reprinted from the November 2019 issue of GCU Magazine. For a digital copy of the magazine, click here.

By Mike Kilen
GCU Magazine

Civil discourse doesn't mean you always agree, as demonstrated in this sequence ... (Photos by David Kadlubowski)

Hot-button issues emerge in classrooms or around kitchen tables.

Comment strings on social media are littered with flaming words.

TV talk shows devolve into shouting matches.

Congressional hearings become forums where hostility and personal attacks override any sense of decorum.

It’s a growing lack of civility in America that might worsen in the next year leading up to the U.S. presidential election.

“These topics are so emotionally charged, it’s hard for us to even verbalize appropriately,” Grand Canyon University sophomore GiDeanLeigh Helck said. “But we need to be able to have these conversations.”

That’s where GCU leaders decided to step in and lead a yearlong initiative on civil discourse designed to trickle down from faculty to students and the wider community. Discussions, research and public programs already have begun across campus.

“As a Christian community, we have been charged in the New Testament to not just love our neighbors but also to love our enemies,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “Out of that, it is incumbent upon us to listen respectfully to the ideas of others and to respond respectfully to those ideas in order to bring about greater understanding.

“That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with those positions and it doesn’t mean we have to change what we believe to be true. But it is important to treat others with dignity and compassion, even if we disagree with them, in order to carry on a civilized discussion.”

Alexis McCauley and Emma Buratti are part of a group of psychology students undertaking new research on civil discourse, led by GCU’s Director of Social Work, Dr. Kathleen Downey, and others.

“It’s OK to talk about this, and you have to have the feeling you are not going to be slammed. So we need that modeling from adults because we are still feeling our way as students,” McCauley said.

Buratti added there should be civil discourse awareness, just as we have awareness for diseases.

The academic year started at GCU with that thought in mind. The

first faculty meeting featured a session on civil discourse with a skit to incite discussion, produced by Michael Kary, acting instructor in the College of Fine Arts and Production.

It featured two students texting, misun­derstanding those texts and an argument that devolved into a difference in opinion on the necessity of voting. That led to political ideology name-calling and stomping out of the room.

“Everyone has great ideas on how to act civilly until you get in a situation where someone pushes a button,” Kary said. “Then it all goes out the door because someone hurts your feelings. Those are the things we need to explore — why the idea of something can be polarized.”

Kary said it was an important way to start the year, modeling discussions that are full of grace and truth, not bombast. He’s had to practice that as a Christian and an actor in the community outside GCU, where it can be hard to speak his truth.

“But I’m always allowed to love people. I’m always allowed to do that,” he said. “Then, the conversations do come. It’s a slow process.”

Two communications faculty, Assistant Professor Josh Danaher and instructor Matthew Nolen, also lead student research groups on civility and boiled down the basics for the faculty gathering: Mix social virtuosity and sound argumentation.

... But the goal at GCU is to have every conversation of this nature end like this. (Models: GCU students Vantaysha Coakley and Reuel Maddela)

“Americans are bad at thinking through argument now, and we don’t have the virtues to deal with differences anymore,” Nolen added. “We are trying to get faculty to consider how we inculcate that in our students.”

Being civil can be a challenge in these times. Some students say our political leaders have set bad examples; others say the mainstream media has. But who hasn’t sat across from a relative at Thanksgiving when a simple comment on a current topic led to snippy comments or outright verbal attacks?

Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said he is led by a quote from Thomas Aquinas: “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”

“He is writing this in the Middle Ages when no one agreed on anything,” Elliott said. “My concern is that in my lifetime I have seen that change.”

He blames a lack of membership in civil organizations, such as the Lions or Rotary clubs, where people of all demographic backgrounds come together in physical spaces in a societal melting pot. Now, when Elliott asks people how they are civilly engaged they often say, “I comment online.”

“Discourse is you are gathering in a common space and you respect the fact that the beautiful majesty of our country is we all come from different walks of life,” he said. “The democracy only works if we talk to each other.”

Another cause is “schools who are pressured not to talk about sensitive topics, and they include politics and religion. But it comes back to Aquinas. We have to love them both in the pursuit of truth. We can’t arrive at truth if we exclude people we disagree with.”

Assistant Professor Josh Danaher of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences leads student research groups in discussions on civility. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

Both traditional mainstream media and social media are blamed for our coarsening civic discussions, GCU instructors say.

The way the news is reported has changed, Danaher said. “It’s much more of an entertainment paradigm. When it’s entertainment, you have much less of a palette for opposition.”

Added Nolen: “As we shifted to entertainment we also actually stopped thinking about the ideas. We’ve lost the capacity to do that. … The internet has tribalized the world. We have algorithms to show you what you want to see, predicting what you want to see and manipulating what you want to see. To break a stereotype, you’ve got to get to know someone from the other group and humanize them. The internet makes it easy to never humanize anyone. You are just some guy posting on the internet.”

Social media, with its quick takes and lack of deep context, adds a layer of flaming and trolling.

The work has begun in GCU classrooms to counter all that incivility with knowledge and character.

“One thing I train students to do is to look for all the facts, not the headline on Twitter,” said Evelyn Racette, an instructor in Government and Public Administration.

“It’s important to go into depth.”

Claude Pensis, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production

She rejects a theory that incivility is the worst it’s ever been, despite what some Americans surmise. For example, a survey by Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that produces an annual report, “Civility in America,” shows that 68% of Americans believe there is a problem with civility today and the average number of uncivil actions per week among respondents was 10.2.

Racette, however, says one must go back to the fights between federalists and anti-federalists in the late 18th century and the fight over what the Constitution called for – a more limited government or a central government with more power. “If you read those disagreements, they are very biting remarks,” she said.

And don’t forget the Civil War and the election campaign of Abraham Lincoln.

“Those were some pretty rough times if you look at the cartoons of the time. I think the name-calling and the lack of tolerance of any view but our own was very similar,” said Claude Pensis, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production. “You can also go back to Nixon or back to the Vietnam War.”

Yet we face similar challenges to civility now, and GCU can lead students, many voting for the first time, to navigate through the coming election with grace, he said.

“You can engage in a discussion without thinking that (a) you are inferior or (b) you are superior or (c) that you are going to change anybody’s mind,” Pensis said. “If you speak coherently and kindly, then people will listen.”

The tenets of listening and understanding “that we are all made in the image of God and need to be respected for no other reason than that,” as Pensis put it, are important frames of civil discourse, in his view.

As a private Christian university, GCU is particularly positioned to lead discourse in this way. It starts with the biblical “loving your neighbor,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology.

“It doesn’t necessarily matter if you agree with your neighbor. Jesus also said love your enemy, so it goes beyond the neighbors we like.”

Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, had this observation: "Jesus also said love your enemy, so it goes beyond the neighbors we like."

He said GCU is getting ahead of the election in a way that allows faculty, staff and students to be proactive and be prepared “to speak in ways that are noble and decent. You can’t wait to get into a moment of passion and things start coming out of your mouth.”

Shouting at Uncle Larry because he likes or doesn’t like President Donald Trump doesn’t change his mind, Hiles continued. You can change the mindset and conversation by how you treat people. And they will reciprocate.

“The Book of James says we should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Those three things are game-changers.”

GCU has not had many issues with widespread incivility, even during times of social unrest, said Faith Weese, daughter of the University’s founder. Weese, who recently retired, said potential uprisings were quickly talked through with officials.

The University also has gone to great lengths to train student leaders, even before this year’s initiative.

“We have more than 1,000 student leaders who receive ongoing training each year in conflict resolution, spiritual formation and community building to help facilitate that type of environment,” Mueller said.

Nolen says talking it out and listening to views you may not agree with is OK. It’s what a university is supposed to be about.

“We get stuck in our echo chambers or silos,” Nolen said. “One thing we are trying to train our faculty to do is facilitate those discussions as you bring in opposing ideas. While discourse is as uncivil as it has always been, we also have a generation of people that don’t know how to deal with opposition in the same way. It’s ‘I hate your ideas and I hate YOU.’ ”

His student research group in communications may be a model for other students on the subject, but it also is looking to break new ground because prior research on civil discourse is limited.

The Speech and Debate team, including Lauren Geiser (left) and Monee Eaton, prepared speeches for a November event on civil discourse. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

“It would be really exciting to see if there are methods that promote civil discourse in a healthy way,” said Ciley Odell-Benson, a sophomore on the research team. “I feel like discourse is skills we really learn.”

It’s a first step to solving the issues that students will face in their lifetimes. At GCU, they will lead many of those discussions throughout the year.

Associated Students of GCU is planning a One Lope campaign to elevate campus unity, “basically just reminding them of the diversity here and the diversity of thoughts,” said Sam Yonan, the student body president.

He said in his government classes he has engaged deeply and disagreed deeply with a student who believes in Marxism, but they walked away with respect for each other. He says following fact and logic, adhering to “moral guidelines” and accountability will lead people away from calling others names and creating those uncivil moments.

The debate team also will highlight civil discourse in a series of student speeches on Nov. 13, including one by junior Nick Rilea. He says debate has taught him to look at the substance of what others are saying and not the “flaws of the individual.”

“If I stand up right now and communicate anything, it would be honestly to consider the fact that you are wrong,” he said. “That is the best advice that someone gave to me and I could give to someone else.

“You may be wrong, so at least consider it.”



Donald Glenn (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

Disagreement is not a bad thing. It can be an opportunity to grow if each party is mature enough to know “it’s not always about you winning the war,” said Donald Glenn, GCU’s Multicultural Office Manager, who offers civil discourse strategies to campus groups.

His advice:

Listening is the key to civil discourse, not thinking about how to win.

Both parties may claim to have “the facts.” He uses a Coke bottle as an example: One may confirm that it says Coke, but another may claim the bottle says it’s carbonated water, caramel color, etc. “Essentially, they are saying the same thing, but there are two different sides to it,” he said. “My grandmother always told me there are two sides to a pancake.”

You won’t always agree. “At least you walked away hearing the other person’s thoughts.”

Some issues might be too important to walk away from, in your opinion, even if people don’t see your point of view. Civil rights were one of those big issues in the 1960s. But it doesn’t help to scream or become violent. “Awareness needs to happen. So you just keep talking about the issues, not get angry, not get upset, and keep opening and reopening the discussion to tell how important it is,” he said.

Use OTFD to civilly discuss disputes. It stands for observe (what is going on without bias), think (what you noticed, based off your observations), feel (explore why particular feelings emerged) and desire (describe a prescription to solve it).

“Civil discourse,” Glenn said, “is simply helping people understand one another.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


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Bible Verse

(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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