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Thursday May 26th

Democracy and Public Discourse: UNC professors speak on panel to students and faculty

Marc Hetherington, Raymond H. Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science, discusses conflicts in public discourse between political parties at the Public Discourse event on September 14.
Buy Photos Marc Hetherington, Raymond H. Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science, discusses conflicts in public discourse between political parties at the Public Discourse event on September 14.

Students, faculty and members of the UNC community gathered Tuesday in anticipation of the UNC Program for Public Discourse's (PPD) event: Democracy and Public Discourse.

The event, co-sponsored by the General Alumni Association and Carolina Public Humanities, was hosted in-person and via livestream. It consisted of a panel of UNC faculty members from four departments that addressed the state of public discourse from their respective academic fields. 

Panelists included:

  • Claude Clegg, chair of the UNC Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies
  • Kurt Gray, associate professor in psychology and neuroscience, director of the Deepest Beliefs Lab and director of the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding
  • Marc Hetherington, professor of political science
  • Shannon McGregor, assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and senior faculty researcher for Center for Information, Technology and Public Life

“PPD is another way Carolina is preparing leaders of tomorrow right now," Sarah Treul, faculty director, said in a statement. "Providing them opportunities to hone and practice communications skills that make them better leaders and citizens."

Nora Hanagan, teaching assistant professor and the events coordinator for PPD, said the Democracy and Public Discourse panel was a continuation of programming that was implemented after the 2020 election. Hanagan said PPD leadership decided that this year’s focus would be democracy and public discourse. 

The Democracy and Public Discourse panel served as a broad, interdisciplinary introduction to highlight some of the University’s leading experts in the various departments, and the research that is happening on-campus, Hanagan said. 

Molly Worthen, a history professor and the event's moderator, opened up the conversation by posing the question: “Is public discourse broken?” and, “if so, what is the number one reason it’s broken?"

It's unusual for faculty from different disciplines to get to talk in a sustained way about a subject of mutual interest, Worthen said.

The panelists’ responses to her opening question fueled discussion on topics ranging from the cultural commitment to free speech to the role of elites in public discourse. 

“I think (public discourse) has, you know, a pretty severe sprain," McGregor said. "It needs to be reset."

Hetherington said the content of political conversations has shifted.

“Things that we can compromise about, those issues have parted — in many ways — the political agenda, and they've been replaced by issues that are all about identities of various different sorts,” Hetherington said. “These are things that are much more difficult to find common ground on.”

Gray said the interpersonal nature of public discourse has shifted. He said that, broadly, people have leaned into dehumanizing one another. 

“We tend to see others on the other side as lacking of essential human qualities,” Gray said. “We see them as not rational, voting against their own self-interest. How can we take someone seriously if they're not rational and lacking in, in a motion to capacitive right we don't recognize.”

Clegg said he does not think the current state of public discourse differs that greatly from other historical periods, but is rather representative of change in platforms for speech.

“It feels more onerous and burdensome because there's so much speech and so many ways to access speech,” Clegg said.

Worthen said she hopes future events will foster more debate. 

“There is more disagreement than comes to the surface in a panel like this,” Worthen said. “It is partly the setting and mode, it has become hard to get academics to disagree.” 

What's next?

The event was organized as a kickstarter for PPD’s signature Abbey Speaker Series, which will return on Oct. 6.

The Abbey Speaker Series, created from an $8 million donation by Nancy and Doug Abbey, will host speakers outside of the UNC community to discuss topics such as democracy and social media and the rural urban divide.

PPD is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences and serves faculty and students within and outside of the University.

For a history of the Program for Public Discourse, click here.

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