University of Miami: Panel calls to restore civility in defense of democracy

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The current polarization of contemporary social and political discourse formed the backdrop of a spirited panel discussion presented by the University of Miami School of Communication and alumnus Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., at Lakeside Village Auditorium on Thursday.

Titled Journalism and Civility as Cornerstones of Democracy, the conversation was moderated by Karin Wilkins, dean of the School of Communication. Panelists shared their perspectives on why civility matters in both personal and professional spheres and strategies for addressing what Wilkins cited as widespread concerns with credibility of the media and lack of trust in institutions.

The panel comprised five prominent University of Miami alumni, leaders in the fields of law, the news media, and workplace culture.

Joining Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and vice chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, were Hilarie Bass, past president of the American Bar Association (ABA), founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, and member and immediate past chair of the Board of Trustees; Deborah Enix-Ross, president of the ABA; Javi Morgado, executive producer of “At This Hour” on CNN; and Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of Gannett Media and member of the Board of Trustees.

“We know from research and experience that it is very difficult for people to cross social and economic boundaries,” Wilkins noted. And from that polarization comes incivility or worse, she added.

Enix-Ross pointed to the decline in civics education as a root cause of the breakdown in civility. “It’s clear to me that there is a lack of understanding of what the three branches of the federal government are meant to do and what they cannot do,” she said. “[There is a] lack of comprehensive education in civics that covers federal, state, and local government structures. If there was a standard that we were using to teach civics, that would go a long way.”

Bass picked up on the notion of accountability for uncivil behavior, particularly in personal attacks on public figures. “There was a time that when a politician acted in an uncivil way, there was a consequence. They would most likely get voted out of office,” she remarked. “Agree or disagree on policy, but [these kinds of attacks] are so reflective of . . . how we’ve degenerated. The problem is, they are applauded, rather than people saying, ‘[this person] has crossed a line and this is somebody who needs to be voted out of office.’

“Many of our conversations about politics aren’t about policy,” Bass continued. “They are starting from a framework where we can’t even agree on basic facts.” She cited an initiative from her tenure as ABA president, ABA Legal Fact Check, an effort to create a common foundation of what certain legal concepts mean in the law, using case and statutory law and other legal precedents to separate legal fact from fiction.

Bass also touched on the fragmentation of the media environment and the way sources of information are proliferating while individual perspectives are narrowing. Wadsworth and Morgado continued the theme, sharing their challenges as journalists in the current environment.

“At the moment, we have a real crisis of basic information literacy,” Wadsworth said. “We can’t agree on what the facts are—think about how dangerous that concept is. Not being able to agree on a basic set of facts is how democracy unravels.”

Wadsworth said that she believes curiosity is among the most important traits an aspiring journalist can have. “What’s curiosity? An open mind, a willingness to challenge convention, to do research, and understand issues. There’s a fundamental lack of curiosity and overcoming that starts with education. And there is a real need to build fluency and information literacy at very young ages,” she remarked.

Morgado’s biggest fear is that “people are so entrenched in the extremes that they don’t care anymore, they don’t want to read what we do every day—[which is] to hold leaders accountable and inform the electorate.”

Controversy and civility in the workplace were the focus of Taylor’s remarks. He highlighted the fact that while there are legal protections in place against harassment based on race, gender, age, and other characteristics, there are no such laws against harassment based on political affiliation.

Taylor cited a 2019 SHRM survey on toxicity in the workplace that revealed a large majority of workers have experienced a hostile work environment based on politics. Forty-two percent of respondents have had a political disagreement at work that left them feeling “small.” Another 44 percent have witnessed such interactions, and 12 percent have experienced termination because of political affiliation.

“From a legal perspective, we need to figure out if we need to protect the rights of individuals in the workplace if we are concerned with people bringing their true [political] colors to work,” he remarked. “This toxicity is a real issue, and the workplace is ground zero. And the answer isn’t to attack your fellow American because you don’t agree with them.”

Wadsworth summed up the challenges and perils of working to preserve democracy. “I think about how imperative it is that we get this right and that we change the trajectory we are on,” she said. “It is not a given that our democracy is sustainable. It’s a choice. It has to start with each one of us, with the conviction that democracy is sustainable. Then strengthening that democracy starting with agreeing on the facts, and then have the vigorous debate about the best way to move forward. But we have to start there.”

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