9/27/2019 Peter Durantine

Civil Discourse in Our Uncivil Age

The late scholar and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan – who served in the administration of two Republican presidents and later served as a Democratic U.S. senator from New York – liked to say during emotional points in debates, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”  

For his Sept. 26 Common Hour topic, “Millennials and the Future of Civil Discourse,” Alexander Heffner, the host of PBS’s “The Open Mind,” paraphrased Moynihan’s quote to illustrate a point about today’s often uncivil political discourse, its discordance amplified by social media. 

“Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” Heffner told a Franklin & Marshall College audience. “In this climate of disinformation, we need to establish the objective truths from a policy matter as well as adhere to the democratic and human values that are slipping away from us.” 

  • Heffner bemoaned studies that found young people in particular were turning for their facts to YouTube rather than searching Google, primary sources or libraries. “That is important because underpinning a civil society is an informed citizenry,” he says. Heffner bemoaned studies that found young people in particular were turning for their facts to YouTube rather than searching Google, primary sources or libraries. “That is important because underpinning a civil society is an informed citizenry,” he says. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Heffner, coauthor of the 2018 book, “A Documentary History of the United States,” has covered American politics, civic life and millennials since the 2008 presidential campaign. The national media has profiled his work. 

Heffner said social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, can be a scourge to civil discourse. He said these platforms allow for bigotry and hate speech to propagate, and thus contribute to disinformation. 

While holding out hope that social media eventually could become a blessing for civil discourse, the PBS host bemoaned studies that found young people in particular were turning for their facts to YouTube, which does not differentiate between fiction and nonfiction videos, rather than searching Google, primary sources or libraries. 

“That is important because underpinning a civil society is an informed citizenry,” he said. 

Heffner spoke at Common Hour, a community discussion held each Thursday classes are in session at Franklin & Marshall. This Common Hour was the latest “Gamechangers” event for the academic year; these events celebrate milestones from the past and challenges for the future. More information and a calendar of upcoming events can be found here.

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