Peer Discussions

The Project on Civil Discourse offers facilitated discussions on topics relevant to free speech, inclusion, intellectual diversity, tolerance, political difference, and more. See the topics and descriptions below.

To request a facilitated discussion for your course, club, program, or community event, contact PCD Director Lara Schwartz at lschwart@american.edu.

Check back in August 2019 for a schedule and registration links for facilitated discussions and events.

I’m sorry if anyone might have offended by my choice of words . . . To the extent my actions caused pain to anyone, I regret it . . . What I did was wrong.

We see all kinds of apologies on social media, in the news, and in our lives. But what’s a real apology? Is the word “sorry” enough? Who decides? This conversation will examine why people apologize and what they hope to accomplish by doing so. It will explore what constitutes a genuine apology and use several current examples from prominent figures in American culture to investigate the elements of authentic apologies.

You have just arrived on AU’s campus, ready to take on the world. You walk into your dorm, only to find that your roommate has plastered the walls with political memorabilia of the opposite party. For many of us, this has been not a hypothetical situation, but a real-life encounter. How would you approach this situation/how did you approach the situation? Does this even matter? Where do you draw the line? You will probably be friendly to someone who disagrees with you about whether to raise the minimum wage. But are there limits and what are they?

In this conversation, participants will examine how their own opinions and politics influence their social relationships, classroom discourse, and engagement on campus. We will explore where each of us draws the line between friendly disagreement and hostility.

In very recent history, our society has seen a shift away from the traditional meaning of truth, based in objective fact, to an era where things like “fake news” and “alternative facts” are becoming the norm. How do we continue to have productive conversations when different participants have different definitions of what is true? Is the idea of truth truly evolving or is this just a temporary divergence? In this conversation, students will engage with the idea of truth as it exists in today’s political climate and what this means when trying to have effective conversations.

When we think of “incivility” in discourse we generally think of words and acts of disrespect. Using profanity. Defying a commonly-accepted norm. Engaging in ad hominem attacks. But what about inaction and silence? Can failure to speak or act constitute an act of incivility? In this conversation, participants will consider hypothetical situations – such as when a relative or friend makes racist statements toward a third party or group – as a launching point for an inquiry into whether and when there is an obligation to speak out.

Politics, money, and religion: three things we are told never to speak about. The topic of religion acts as the third rail of discussions within our learning community. But why is talking about religion taboo? And how should we be discussing religion in the context of today’s political and social climate? While many of us try to steer clear of religious conversations, understanding each other’s spirituality, or lack thereof, may be an important path to greater interpersonal and even political understanding. Yet, religion is a deeply personal topic and it almost always creates awkward discussions.

In this conversation, students will explore their own experiences with religious issues and work together to understand how the often untouched topic of how religion plays a world in the worldviews of their peers.

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. Is condemning, e.g., white supremacy as an act of intolerance equivalent to espousing that view? If not, why not, and if so, does this argue in favor of some kinds of intolerance? How should a society determine how to respond to the presence of intolerance among its citizenry? Does a society remain tolerant if it takes an intolerant stance against intolerance? How does a society -- including a learning community such as a university -- preserve tolerance?

These questions require nuanced thinking about the concept of tolerance, and they challenge our understanding of what it means to live in a free society. In this conversation, students will contemplate the concept of tolerance and confront complex questions about personal as well as institutional responses to intolerance.

What is patriotism? How do you express it? How do others express it? Should you be proud of your country? What if your country doesn’t represent you or your community? Politicians, sports leagues, and the media have all attempted to define what constitutes patriotism (and whether criticizing one’s country is patriotic).

In this conversation, students will explore the meaning of patriotism and how it differs from nationalism. We will examine the practice of “taking a knee” during the National Anthem as a launching point for this conversation. We will consider who has the power to define patriotism (and label some forms of dissent unpatriotic) and why that matters.

Bias Incidents
Bias incidents on college campuses have been increasing for years. Some incidents- those involving true threats or harassment- are not protected speech under our First Amendment. But hateful, offensive speech- even the racism embodied by groups such as the KKK- might be protected speech, even when contrary to universities’ values. Does the legal line between “true threat” and merely offensive speech adequately protect students pursuing an education? How can students, administrators, and other community members respond to incidents of racism or other acts of bias on campus?

Monday, March 25th from 5:30-6:30pm
Register

Controversial Speakers
Clashes over controversial campus speakers such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray have made national headlines and caused many First Amendment advocates to sound the alarm that US college students (particularly liberal ones) are hostile to free speech. American University embraces free expression and does not censor campus speakers. Nonetheless, questions remain. What value do controversial speakers add, and where do you draw the line between controversy and attack? What are the strengths and limits of students’ using their speech rights to protest a speaker? Must students choose between being allies to those targeted by hostile speakers and supporting freedom of expression?

Wednesday, March 20th from 2:30-3:30pm
Monday, April 8th from 5:30-6:30pm
Register

Debunked Scientists
Freedom of speech includes the right to spread falsehoods, such as debunked scientific theories (vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat), conspiracy theories, or misleading historical analysis. How do institutions dedicated to expanding knowledge deal with the junk in our marketplace of ideas?

When you hear the term Latinx/People of Color, what comes to your mind? What are the physical characteristics of the people you imagine when the terms are brought up? Where do these terms originate? How are they helpful in facilitating discourse about these groups of people? Are there limits/drawbacks to using these terms?

In this discussion, we explore the complexity that comes with naming groups of people, especially minorities. Focusing on the terms of Latinx and People of Color, we explore the ways that the terms can facilitate discussions about certain issues, whilst also perpetuating certain stereotypes, and homogenizing a group of people that is actually heterogenous.