Deliberative Democracy Seminar: Practicing Civil Discourse

         One of the courses offered in the GLI program this fall was Deliberative Democracy, taught by Professor Cassandra Hemphill. Grace Dunnehoff and Canyon Hohenstein were two students enrolled in this course, which culminated in a deliberation session at DiverseU. Both Political Science majors, they found the class an applicable exercise in communication, political as well as personal. The deliberation skills learned in this seminar seemed particularly relevant in the current US political climate, where polarized opinions dominate the conversation and little middle ground is found. Canyon called polarization the result of “the avoidance of deliberation” as people ignore those with different perspectives and cling to people with the same viewpoints. Deliberation and dialogue, Grace explained, are values-based, and allow for “respecting someone else’s values without agreeing with them” but also not “seeing agreement as weakness”, as occurs when the goal is to win a debate. In deliberation, people don’t have to walk away with a consensus, but will have achieved a deeper understanding of each other. Whether everyone is happy with the result or not, understanding of different perspectives on issues facilitates future conscientious approaches to those issues.

         Canyon mentioned that the skill of interacting with people in order to gain understanding helps ameliorate the fact that many “people don’t feel their voices are being heard.” One concept students were asked to keep in mind was “listening to understand versus listening to reply.” Grace said that this concept has altered the manner in which she interprets others’ comments. Instead of immediately judging or reacting, she tries to understand where the person is coming from. She realized that regardless of whether all parties in a discussion are aware of which behaviors foster empathy or distance between people, simply by “show[ing] someone empathy and respect they’ll give it back to you.” Canyon explains that this is because people “can tell when someone is genuinely curious about what [they’re] saying.” Demonstrating an effort to listen for understanding encourages speakers to be forthcoming about their thoughts and the reasons or situations that led to their opinions, resulting in more constructive conversation.

         Behind all of this lies the simple practice of empathy, civility, and respect, which was also the subject of the deliberation held at DiverseU. Since DiverseU is open to the community, this event also engaged students and faculty from outside the Deliberative Democracy class, exposing the students to ideas from people they had not encountered in their class. The event took place in “World Café™” style, with several tables set up, each addressing a different question that students could weigh in on. Inherent to the event was the expectation that all participants would display and receive respect for differences of opinion, making students feel safe sharing perspectives that others did not share. Grace noted that many of the discussions at each table involved politics, largely because the event occurred so close to the election, but that all avoided heated argument in favor of exploring viewpoints of all sides. The success of the deliberation at DiverseU and maintenance of civility “gave me hope for civil discourse,” she said.

         While deliberation works best for in-person discussion, the students said they find themselves applying the experience gained from this course to all types of communication, from avoiding arguments with familiar people like roommates and family members to offering respect and empathy to strangers on the internet. Grace praised the leadership of Professor Hemphill, who stepped in to assist decision-making when consensus was needed and equipped them with skills that can be used “no matter what path you take in life,” in Canyon’s words. Both Grace and Canyon would recommend the course to all students. They commented that the skills taught would smooth the political discourse of our nation and government, and the class imbued them with the confidence that anyone could, with these skills, participate in that discourse to make a difference.