Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome you to the 2011 Forkenbrock Series on Public Policy Symposium. This series has quickly become a major University of Iowa event, and I thank the Public Policy Center and all of the other departments and offices who have made this important discussion possible. I also thank all of you here who are attending the symposium. Conflict and civility in political discourse—this year’s symposium theme—is an issue of major significance, and it is only becoming more so in our current society and political climate. The solutions to these problems—whether it’s determining where the line is to be drawn, as the symposium title says, or whether it’s directly altering our discourse—requires proactive, deliberate participation and action, and that’s what you’re doing here today and tomorrow.

The foundation of a free and open society is free speech. But I think we all know that sometimes—and seemingly more and more often—that is a freedom people have at best misunderstood and at worst abused. Here in the university, which is arguably the most free and open forum for the exploration of ideas in our society, we recognize civility as a responsibility that goes along with the right of free speech and inquiry. We all know that professors and students alike must adhere to principles of respect and civil discourse even when they disagree or discuss controversial issues. That seems to be a lesson more and more lost in American society. The news is too much filled with elected officials hurling obscenities, citizens calling each other vile names while discussing politics, and campaigns seeking to tear down individuals rather than build up ideas. And we also seem to see more and more the ultimate tragedy of uncivil discourse, armed violence. When political disagreement leads to a shooting, as we saw this past year with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, we know something is seriously wrong.

The eighteenth-century English poet, essayist, and critic Samuel Johnson once said, “When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.” I hope that’s not true. Even though this symposium is asking the question “where’s the line?,” I think there’s no doubt the line has often been crossed. Yet we absolutely must find the hope for a return to kindness and decency. We have little choice if civil society is to survive, let alone thrive.

In the political and public spheres, passions will always rise, disagreements will always spark, devotions will always become zealous, and tempers will always flare. But the mark of a good society, even civilization itself, will be the heat of discourse conducted in the light of understanding. That’s the essence of civility.

Perhaps the essence of civility is even simpler than that. In his biography of the great American author Henry James, literary critic Leon Edel said that James once told his nephew, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.” This is easy to say—and easy to understand—but for some reason, hard to do for many people. This symposium will no doubt explore why that is and, I hope, what we can do about it.

One aspect of this symposium that I am especially excited about is its interdisciplinary character. Again in reference to the culture of the university, the best, most enlightening, and most innovative discourse often occurs across the disciplines. The exchange of perspectives from different dimensions of thought and practice is what often leads to the most profound discovery of knowledge. So I am very pleased to see that this exploration of conflict and civility in political discourse involves voices from many sectors, both inside and outside the academy, as well as many disciplines, from history to communications to politics to art.

Having this discussion here at the University of Iowa, I think, is entirely appropriate. We have a great history of academic innovation, such as being the first university to give academic credit to creative work, and we are located in the state that is the first to declare whom we think should be the nominees for the president of the United States. Regarding the latter, it’s no surprise that the way we make our decision is by talking with the candidates as much as we can—face to face, and respectfully—and then discussing it amongst ourselves in our community school gyms, churches, firehouses, and public libraries on caucus day.

So welcome once again to our campus, our community, and our great state of Iowa—and welcome to this important conversation. I know it will be engaging, enlightening, inspiring, thought-provoking—and civil.