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Welcome to the website supporting Making Our Point: A Civil Discourse Initiative! We hope that you will follow our progress as we strive to get clearer about the principles that guide fruitful conversations about controversial issues. Even more importantly, we hope that you will contribute to this progress by sharing your questions, ideas, and insights. We value your perspective. Welcome to the community of thinkers about this important subject!

The Concept of Civil Discourse (and Where We are So Far)

In the fall of 2012, we applied for and received a Bringing Theory to Practice Grant from the American Association of Colleges and Universities to launch a civil discourse initiative at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. It’s not that we found our campus to be especially uncivil. Quite the contrary. Sitting in the center of the state of Wisconsin, our colleagues and our students often personify what’s come to be known as “Midwestern Nice.” Instead, three factors converged to spark out interest. Wisconsin was experiencing some politically contentious times. (We won’t go there. There are blogs enough about it, we are sure.) We became intrigued by the Speak your Peace initiatives adopted by a number of community foundations. (See http://www.dsaspeakyourpeace.org/ if you’d like to learn more.) And we were mesmerized by the brouhaha sparked by Harvard’s Class of 2015 Freshmen Pledge, through which entering students would vow to sustain “a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” (If you’re unaware of this fascinating tempest that beset the higher education teapot, see Henry Lewis, “The Freshmen Pledge,” at http://harry-lewis.blogspot.com/2011/08/freshman-pledge.html, Greg Lukianoff, “Does Harvard Want Bold Thinkers or Good Little Boys and Girls?” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-lukianoff/does-harvard-want-bold-thinkers_b_952322.html,  and Virginia Postrel, “Harvard Pledge Values ‘Kindness’ Over Learning,” at  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-16/harvard-pledge-values-kindness-over-learning-virginia-postrel.html.)

Something curious was going on. Local communities were committing themselves to fairly specific principles of civility without apparent controversy. The need to enact such principles was painfully apparent in our own state capital. And a seemingly innocuous effort to explicitly embrace a culture of civility at a premier university was being pilloried as opposed to the mission of higher education. It might be interesting, we thought, to explore the nature of civil discourse, attempting to explicate the concept in a way that fits it for use in academic contexts (like Harvard) while still allowing it ground practical civility initiatives (like Speak Your Peace). With an adequate-if-evolving working definition in hand, we would be able to identify the behaviors that are characteristic of civil discourse, justify their importance both within and beyond the academy, and work toward implementing efforts that might solidly instill these behaviors in ourselves and in interested others.

It was with this intention that we applied for a Bringing Theory to Practice Grant, and with its support, and the support of the Office of Academic Affairs and the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, we will host an afternoon workshop this fall to introduce the campus community to our first working definition of civil discourse and to solicit feedback from our colleagues. The workshop will be followed by a public forum that will officially launch the initiative and illustrate the practice of civil discourse with a panel discussion on a controversial topic. Subsequent phases of this project may include the integration of civil discourse learning outcomes into our general education program, the institution of a campus seminar series in support of civil discourse, and the development of a network for the discussion of civil discourse throughout the University of Wisconsin System. After that, obviously, we will take over the world.

We welcome your input as we find our way through this challenging and thought-provoking terrain, and at this juncture we would particularly appreciate your ideas about the concept of civil discourse itself. At a conference earlier this summer, we cautiously introduced our first working definition of the topic, to wit: civil discourse is conversation governed by the virtues of intellectual confidence and intellectual humility, expressing proper respect for ourselves and for those who differ from us.

There is much to be said about this account of civil discourse. It is intentionally vague at a number of points that we might expect vary from context to context. How much respect is proper in a specific situation and how that respect should be expressed given particular cultural norms, for example, are matters that are arguably too case-specific to find a place within a generic understanding of civil discourse. Our understanding of civil discourse is also purposefully silent about the nature of intellectual confidence and humility, although those concepts clearly stand out as deserving much deeper exploration. At this point, our working definition of civil discourse is first and foremost a place to begin, and we expect it to evolve as a product of the very kind of conversation that it is intended to structure.

So, we ask you, what do you think of it?