Public interest advocate Sandra Fluke drew upon her past year in the public eye to talk about the importance of civil discourse before a capacity audience in Hollins University’s Babcock Auditorium on Thursday, November 1.
Fluke, whose February 2012 testimony before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on the need to provide access to contraception gained national attention, took part in a conversation moderated by Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber and sponsored by the Darci Ellis Godhard Fund for Social Justice.
Weber started the discussion by asking Fluke to define civil discourse, and the recent graduate of Georgetown University Law Center responded by referring to one of her favorite law school classes, which dealt with the criteria for evidence. “The rules to get something admitted [in court] are that it must be relevant, material, and accurate,” she explained. “That’s what I think about when I’m determining whether to put forward information in an advocacy campaign or a political conversation,” noting that accuracy is the most important of the three.
While Fluke emphasized that dissent “is something we certainly should promote, it’s important to a healthy democracy,” she cautioned that discourse characterized by generalities, broad labels applied to candidates or entire groups of people, personal attacks, and a dominance of emotion is counter-productive.
“Uncivil discourse certainly doesn’t accomplish anything,” she said, adding that at the very least, “you end up with stagnation in the public policy process.
“The other, more dangerous consequence is it actually can lead to violence. I recently received a message from someone who said he hoped I would go home and put a gun in my mouth and blow my brains out. I wrote back to him and asked, ‘Would you take a moment and think about what you just said? I don’t think you really believe that. I don’t think you really want someone to do that even if you disagree with them.’ He wrote back and explained that he did mean it.”
Fluke said the tendency toward uncivil discourse is spreading from politics to other professions, including her own. “I’ve talked to a number of lawyers who are very concerned about the increasing incivility in the profession. Clients expect that their lawyers will act like lawyers on TV do and throw what can only be described as ‘hissy fits’ in the courtroom.”
Along with citing the impact of entertainment programming on civil discourse, Fluke singled out the heated rhetoric found on many highly rated radio and television talk shows. “The fact that you can make money from it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, many of the listeners to those type of shows, whether they are conservative or liberal, view it as ‘news,’ view it as legitimate conversation, and they’ll mimic and mirror it in their interactions with other people.”
What’s the best way to promote civil discourse? Fluke told the audience to simply, “Consider your mother. That was my personal goal that I used throughout a lot of the most heated exchanges, to consider what my mother would have wanted me to say or how she would have wanted me to conduct myself. I continue to try to remember that. So use mom or dad or whoever it is in your life who has that high standard you can try to live up to.”