Encouraging Civil Discourse at a Time of Partisan and Ideological Bitterness

The Liberty & Law Center a Scalia Law School is launching a program to encourage civil discourse among students of differing ideological commitments.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Liberty & Law Center at the Scalia Law School, George Mason University, is the law school's newest academic center. I'm the executive director. Among the programs we've launched in the last year are a free speech legal clinic, a public interest litigation and advocacy concentration, and a liberty and law reading group.

Our newest program launches Wednesday, and I thought many VC readers would find it of interest. The program, a response to the increasingly bitter partisan and ideological divide in the United States, is called "Discussion over Division."

Given the increasing vilification of and attempts to silence people with divergent viewpoints, Discussion Over Division aims to facilitate constructive dialogues between those with differing points of view and ideological perspectives. Discussion Over Division is open to all students at Scalia Law, and will facilitate conversations between students of differing political ideologies (as self-identified by participating students) by matching students up and providing a meal over which the students can converse about issues about which they might disagree. The hope is that participants will be more likely to see people across the political and ideological aisle as well-meaning fellow citizens, rather than as "the enemy."

Following our launch event on Wednesday, the Liberty & Law Center will host boxed-lunch and -dinner events where participating students will have a discussion with someone with a different political ideology. Students will alternatively be able to schedule their discussion on their own and receive reimbursement from the Liberty & Law Center.

The Liberty & Law Center believes that discussions such as these are an important to reducing the current divisiveness and animosity seen in the political and policy arenas. The Discussion Over Division Program will also host policy debates and conversations that highlight the value of civil discussion on important issues.

The Scalia Law School is a good place to launch this program because we have a student body that, according to informal surveys, is closely divided between left-leaning and right-leaning students, and the law school's environment is one in which students aren't afraid to reveal their viewpoint for fear of social ostracism by their colleagues. Conditions may not be quite as inviting elsewhere, but we nevertheless hope that the idea spreads to other law schools and beyond.

Anyone interested in started a similar program at their institution should feel free to contact me for details about logistics and so forth.

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  1. Comments section should be interesting on this one.

  2. “constructive dialogues between those with differing points of view and ideological perspectives”

    To late. Its a land of wolves now.

  3. Yeah, good luck with that.

  4. The only thing that’s different now than it was a hundred-fifty years ago is that the Internet lets you see what “the other guys” had to say right away, instead of having to wait until it was printed in “the other guys’ newspaper”.

    Oh, and people trying to re-argue the Confederacy’s side of the argument are 160 years too late instead of ten.

    1. Well, and 150 years ago, both sides had about the same number of newspapers. Now they’re almost all working for the same side while pretending to be objective.

      So, today it’s a lot easier for one particular side to deplatform the other particular side. Which is a big deal.

      My own perspective on the Confederacy, is that they were legally entitled to secede, even though their motives for doing so were horrible. And that the Union’s motives for dragging them back in were not as noble as has been made out. At any rate, letting them go would have left the remaining Union a better place.

  5. “The Liberty & Law Center believes that discussions such as these are an important to reducing the current divisiveness and animosity seen in the political and policy arenas.”

    Discussions between people who have already made up their minds are useful at a rate that very closely approximates 0. It is sometimes possible to find people who A) have not picked a “side” in the Great Cultural Divide, B) have a side but are not closely tied to it, C) are currently feeling alienated from the side they’ve chosen, or D) are willing to consider taking out a position that differs from their “side”, but that’s not the way to bet.

    1. Discussions between people who have already made up their minds are useful at a rate that very closely approximates 0.

      I disagree with that. First, it’s entertaining. But more importantly it humanizes the other side, even if neither side’s ideology is shifted.
      In the Cold War, the constant dialogue via back channels was pretty important in keeping things from getting too hot even as politicians postured and dehumanized the other side in public.

      1. I think you missed James’ point, which is that “people who have already made up their minds” has to do with particular people, and that factions will not consist entirely of such people.

        At any rate, it does help somewhat to make society more civil, if people actually understand the other side’s viewpoint, rather than just responding to internal parodies of those viewpoints.

        Well, maybe; It’s possible for viewpoints to be so opposed that understanding just clarifies that there can never be peace with them…

        1. My point is that there are other benefits beyond changing people’s minds.

          ‘There can never be peace between you and I’ is just Internet tough guy rhetoric and an excuse to pretend that the ends justify the means.
          Politics isn’t war, and Internet political forums is for sure not war. Though I am bemused by how many seem to wish it were.

          1. Politics isn’t always war. But politics is a fight over who gets to deploy the coercive instruments of the state against their foes, and so will always be more related to war than we might like.

            1. I assume you’re including carrots as well as sticks as instruments of coercion. That is an interesting way of contextualizing politics, but I fear it’s overbroad.

              By that definition, all interaction is war, since all interaction is about coercion of others via incentives positive and negative.

              1. “Is” vs “more related than we might like”. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’m perfectly capable of being un-nuanced when I want. So believe me when I say, “If I write something nuanced, it’s because I meant it to be nuanced.

                And, why are you assuming I’m including carrots as well as sticks? Though I will say that levying a general tax or prohibition, and then granting exceptions to people who do what you want, is functionally indistinguishable from a prohibition or penalty levied on people doing what you don’t want.

                But it’s still the tax or prohibition that’s the coercion, not the exemption from it. Positive incentives are not, as a general matter, coercive. That would make all interactions into coercion, and rob the word of its meaning.

                1. I’m confused because if you don’t include carrots, then not all politics is about who gets to deploy the coercive instruments of the state.

                  I do agree with you that taxation is a coercive instrument of the state, albeit not a perfect one given how lackadaisically taxes are enforced.

                  1. Technically, saying that politics is a fight over who gets to deploy the coercive powers of the state doesn’t mean that being in control of the state doesn’t also let you do things that aren’t coercive.

                    But, in general, if it isn’t coercive, you didn’t need to get control of the state to do it. Being President lets Trump give speeches, but I can give speeches, too. It’s just that I don’t draw a big audience. And, why? Because I don’t have access to those coercive powers.

                    So even his ability to give speeches to large audiences rests on that coercion.

                    In general, if you have no need of coercion to accomplish something, you can do it in the private sector, you don’t NEED to capture control of the government to do it. Coercion is the only thing the state brings to the table that the private sector doesn’t have.

                    You can’t really say the carrots you’re handing out are coercion free, if you paid for them with taxes, after all.

                    1. examples of non-coercive state actions: EnergyStar ratings, blue-sky basic research, entitlement programs.

                      The carrots are coercion free, since their effect is no coercive, and that’s what we’re talking about. Plus with how we treat debt these days, taxes and spending are no longer really linked.

  6. Ok. But they started it!

    1. Isn’t this literally what you think, though?

  7. So, I am expected to engage in civil discourse with those who falsely accuse millions of good people of racism, attempt a silent coup against a duly elected President, who engage in mob violence and political assasination, who believe that it is good and moral to kill a baby after birth and who reserve to themselves the right to take 90% of a person’s income and confiscate their property without compensation?
    How about defending freedom and enlightenment, liberal values and defeating the Socialist tyrannies which bring death, destruction and societal breakdown without fail.

    1. I disagree with you on every point.

      I do not believe in the dichotomy between “good” people and “bad” people. I think we should look at humans as what they are, animals with a variety of behaviors, some of which have socially desirable and socially undesirable consequences.

      Trump did not win a majority of the votes. The way that the Electoral College allocates outcomes makes no sense whatsoever. So, undermining the so-called “President” is fair game.

      Mob violence and political assassination is not something I would normally support. (Would I have supported the assassination of Stalin though? Sure. In that case, it is the lesser evil.) But you are delusional to think that most people who disagree with you on politics generally support mob violence.

      No matter how passionately you feel about abortion, you just have to accept that other people do not agree with you about when a fetus has the attributes that make it fully human. As far as killing a baby after birth, no one agrees with that, but this is the rhetoric you drink anyway.

      Property exists to serve humanity. If all or most of the wealth created by society is going to only some people, we have a right to do something to change that.

      Non-socialist tyrannies also bring death, destruction, and societal breakdown.

      1. “No matter how passionately you feel about abortion, you just have to accept that other people do not agree with you about when a fetus has the attributes that make it fully human.”

        No you don’t, you don’t have to accept that at all. Just like abolitionists didn’t have to accept that slaveholders just had a different view on the value of a black person’s life.

        “As far as killing a baby after birth, no one agrees with that, but this is the rhetoric you drink anyway.”

        Sure they do. Peter Singer and other ethicists have supported the concept. It’s legal in the Netherlands for severely ill and disabled infants, even if they are expected to live a long life (that actually factors in favor of infanticide). The governor of Virginia seems to support something similar.

        1. Actually, yes you do have to accept that other people have different views than you. Even about slavery.

          People have a right to be wrong. It is called freedom of thought. And without that, there is no freedom at all.

          That you accept that people have a right to be wrong about slavery doesn’t imply that you don’t abolish slavery.

          As far as Peter whomever goes, that a particular person takes a minority position that is extreme does not imply anything about those who take less extreme positions.

          1. “People have a right to be wrong. It is called freedom of thought. And without that, there is no freedom at all.”

            No shit. And when people are wrong about important things, it’s perfectly okay to think they are bad people (and to tell them too).

            “As far as Peter whomever goes, that a particular person takes a minority position that is extreme does not imply anything about those who take less extreme positions.”

            You said nobody takes that view, and I pointed out that a famous ethicist, who is also a university professor and published author, takes that view. And he’s not without his supporters. I also pointed out that it is actually legal in the Netherlands to do so, which you somehow seem to have overlooked.

      2. Property does not exist to serve humanity. It merely exists.
        There are only three methods of property allocation. 1) private ownership, 2) no ownership and, 3) government ownership.
        No ownership means the strong can take from the weak, at least until someone stronger comes along. That can’t be right.
        Government ownership is the same as feudalism, has been proven to lead to horrible economic and social outcomes. That can’t be right, either.
        So, private ownership is left. Which is the natural law state of existence which: protects personal autonomy, rewards those who use their property in productive ways and protects physical safety.
        Private property is the necessary precondition of freedom, security and prosperity.

        1. You are excluding a lot of middle-ground there. I think your choice here excludes a lot of options.

          Mixed systems of private property but also like public parks.

          Or regulated ownership, as in having laws about property.

          Heck, the Moon Treaty is a great example of government-declared common property of all mankind. Same (roughly) with the Antarctic. What about the high seas? None of these are private property, but neither are they rule of conquest or feudalistic nightmares.

          1. “What about the high seas? None of these are private property, but neither are they rule of conquest or feudalistic nightmares.”

            First England and then the US have guaranteed freedom of the seas for 200+ years because they were strong and wanted freedom of the seas for commercial purposes.

            Prior to these powerful seafaring nations being able to impose their will, the high seas were in fact subject to the rule of conquest and feudalistic practices.

            1. ? Privatizing the seas is nonsense. That’s the point – the high seas break the ‘governmental control = feudalism’ logic. Not a lot of vassal states out there!

          2. So, on the high seas, I can take your boat without penalty???

            In Antarctica, can I take your snowmobile??

            Anything on the moon is there for the taking.

            You make my point beautifully!

            1. My point is that your simplistic categorization is broken by those three examples.

              Do you think this means the seas, antarctic, or moon are private property?

      3. There are definitely good and bad people. Even though nobody’s really good.

        1. There is none righteous, no, not one.

    2. Sure, you should always engage in civil discourse, even with the worst people.

      If only so that they look worse when they scream at you in response.

  8. I think it is strange, maybe even bizarre, given Bernstein’s pattern of deeply ideological and one-sided behavior over a very long period of time, that he would be in charge of a program to encourage civil discourse.

    I would suggest that he should definitely participate himself.

    1. I think it is strange, maybe even bizarre, given Bernstein’s pattern of deeply ideological and one-sided behavior over a very long period of time, that he would be in charge of a program to encourage civil discourse.

      Talk about a lack of self-awareness on your part.

    2. Indeed. For a guy who regularly?to the point of predictability?conflates liberal with left or far left or extreme left or ultra left, presumably for rhetorical, demonizing effect, Bernstein doesn’t strike me as a capable person to promote civil discourse. (Well, maybe he genuinely doesn’t know the difference between liberal and the various strands of the left, but that kind of ignorance would make him ill-suited to be a law prof altogether.)

    3. David Welker, while I suspect you and I have the same opinion of Professor Bernstein, the fact that he is hosting is simply part of the greater strategy to continue America’s little plutocratic terrarium in which the federal government must be made small in order for the wealthy to accumulate more tax credits, toys and law school professors.

      I’m not the least bit angry, just analytical. That isn’t rainfall in my ear.

  9. “boxed-lunch and -dinner events where participating students will have a discussion with someone with a different political ideology”

    Food fight!

  10. This, in a culture that no longer differentiates eristic from rhetoric.

  11. “The Liberty & Law Center believes that discussions such as these are an important to reducing the current divisiveness and animosity seen in the political and policy arenas.”

    NO!

    Our divisiveness and animosity are a feature not a bug in our society.

    They keep ideas and issues fresh, and no one side can truly become dominant.

    Look at the failed societies throughout history; they became too monolithic, inflexible, and unresponsive.

    We need the back-n-forth and flexibility to bend with societal changes.

    We are a successful working democracy, and I like that.

    The only thing we have to reduce is violence–and neither side has figured that out yet.

    1. Our divisiveness and animosity are a feature not a bug in our society.

      Disagreement is not the same thing as divisiveness and animosity.

      1. Never said (or meant) is was!

        We are going to have divisiveness.

        And we are going to have animosity.

        And–for the long term survival of our society–that’s a good thing.

        Again, as long as we don’t have violence, then we’ll be good.

  12. http://americanvalues.org/cata…..-kahan.pdf on Motivted Numeracy suggests smart people make the biggest mistakes judging efficacy based on their biases. Hopefully the lunch-and-learn sessions will not require objective judgement or smart lunchgoers to succeed.

  13. Ancient Hebrew society was the original argument culture, even more so than the Greeks, who forced Socrates to drink hemlock. Arguing has its social/historical/Darwinian evolutionary benefit in that it eventually advances the knowledge and technical understanding level of humankind, but it sure can cause a lot of suffering and tragedy along the way. Still, a university that bans real tooth and nail argument isn’t worth taking out ruinous student loans to attend.

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