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Panel encourages reform of civil society

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Partisan politics went under the microscope Monday evening as the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) hosted the first event in a series of seminars, titled “From Battleground to Common Ground,” featuring an interdisciplinary analysis of the state of American political discourse.

Rosie McDowell, director of International Community-Based Learning Outreach at the CSC and organizer of the discussion panel said the CSC wants to focus its efforts this year on encouraging civic engagement.

“The CSC theme for the year urges active participation in civil society according to individual talents, visions and vocations,” McDowell said.

English professor John Duffy said American civil society is in a state of crisis.

“We are at a time in our public discourse where there is no agreement on fact, no criteria for expression of language, how to govern or decide what is appropriate or how to use similes, metaphors and other figures of speech,” Duffy said.  “Nor do we save a place for deliberative discourse, where participants can acknowledge uncertainty and that they might be wrong … Instead what we see are assertions and counter-assertions hurled back and forth – that is what I consider the crisis of public argument.”

Duffy said the public discourse has created a charged atmosphere.

“Toxic public rhetoric is a fact of everyday life,” Duffy said.  “It is a form of entertainment, it is a corporate product that is bought and sold.”

Political science and peace studies professor David Philpott said this toxicity is emblematic of the increased polarization in American politics.

“Polarization technically does not mean nastiness, it means that opinions are distributed far to the left and to the right,” Philopott said.  “Whatever [explanation] one likes, it is clear that our political discourse has gotten nastier and far more mean spirited.”

Philpott said clearly drawing the line between religion and politics has become only more complicated in the modern civil discourse.

“Much liberal enlightenment is premised on the idea that good politics is secular politics … and making an appeal to religion is problematic,” Philpott said.  “But, secularism can be highly divisive as well; nastiness is hardly confined to the religious, it’s found among religious and secular alike.”

In this atmosphere, the challenge to maintain an open mind has only intensified, Philpott said.

“Another proposal is to maintain a healthy sense of doubt and skepticism… too often the virtue of doubt is made only to the position the recommender does not find persuasive, not to the recommender’s own position,” Philpott said.

Margaret Pfeil, professor of theology, said Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris suggests a framework capable of building a more balanced discourse. 

This document reflects the attitudes Pope John XXIII exhibited during his lifetime, she said.

“Pope John XXIII acted as an intermediary speaking with both [former leader of the Soviet Union Nikita] Khrushchev and the Kennedy administration during the height of the conflict,” Pfeil said.  “In this situation he gave primary importance to the dignity of each person involved rather than to the ideological issues at stake … this enabled him to win even Khrushchev’s trust because Khrushchev knew that he respected the dignity of all of the Soviet citizens, of all the citizens of the world.”

This universal respect allows for cross-factional discourse, she said.

“John XXIII’s appeal to peace through respect for human dignity offers room for common dialogue … it might be asked whose voices are heard [in the dialogue], and if there are elements of truth and participation in determining the common good,” Pfeil said.  “This is something to consider as we mark the anniversary of September 11th [Tuesday], what it would look like for love to reign instead of fear.”

Philpott said acknowledgement of universal dignity will be a necessary component to any solution.

“The broader restoration of the right relationship requires the struggle that respects the dignity of the opponent and seeks to find what is right to her own position, to perhaps amount to a fuller synthesis of justice,” Philpott said.

A less caustic political climate will develop when the rhetoric used to engage politically changes, Duffy said. 

“I think virtuous discourse has to start in other settings … our politics are so deeply compromised that this will not be possible until there is a popular movement for a better kind of language, and until we model that language we won’t get it from the people who inhabit our public spaces,” Duffy said.

Educators and students are responsible for modeling this type of ethical discourse, Duffy said.

“In a sense this is a very deep existential crisis that we have, that there is no agreement on fact … this is something we have to work at,” Duffy said. “I was once bemoaning to myself that I don’t know if this was possible or not, but my wife said you wouldn’t be in education if you really believed that.  I think education is where you begin, we need to look very hard at the way we understand our communicative practices.”

Duffy said the Notre Dame community is the perfect place to enact this change.

“Our task is to pursue knowledge, to ask deep questions,” Duffy said.  “We live a life not all that different from the students in Plato’s academy: incredibly privileged.  The change has to come from people like us who have these opportunities and the capacity to share and spread them.”

Contact Nicole Michels at