Interdisciplinary Talk on Civic Discord Raises Hard Questions

by student writer, Soo-Young Lee

November 16, 2017

Interdisciplinary Talk on Civic Discord Raises Hard Questions

Click HERE to learn more about the speakers and listen to the audio recording of our recent Global Challenges discussion about civic discord.

By Soo Young Lee

On the evening of November 15, 2017, the HUB North Ballroom held more than 400 people seeking to explore the issue of civic discord. This was the topic of the Honors Program’s annual Global Challenges event, bringing together three speakers from very different backgrounds to share their perspectives and learn from one another. Though a majority of the crowd consisted of Interdisciplinary Honors Program participants, there were other UW students, faculty, staff and guests from the broader community.

Past discussions have included complex social challenges climate change as well as intersections of health and poverty. This year’s topic, determined by first-year Interdisciplinary Honors students from the year prior, was civic discord: responding to student concerns around growing political polarization, “fake news,” and the rise of nationalism across the world.

As the lights dimmed and the crowd quieted, Honors Program Director Vicky Lawson approached the stage to set the scene for the discussion. In light of recent global movements and national tensions that seem to be deliberately exacerbated by parties with unfriendly agendas, it is especially important “to listen more [and] think together,” Director Lawson opened.

As the host for the discussion, Dr. Ed Taylor, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at UW, invited the three speakers onto stage to discuss civic discord in the modern context, as well as its implications for our current society. As the speakers moved onto the stage, Dean Taylor shared his hopes for the crowd, that the dialogue would “inspire you to make a difference that you care about through your own education and action.”

Each speaker took a turn summarizing how their work touches on the problem of civic discord and informing the audience of connected issues they may never have considered. In his opening remarks, Director of the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Randy Engstrom reminded the audience that the purpose of the night was not to solve the issue of civic discord, but rather to understand it in a different way. With that in mind, Dean Taylor introduced the first part of the night, in which three questions, drawn from program participants, were presented to the speakers.

The first question posed was an investigation of the concept of truth: what is truth, and how do we know what is true? Kate Starbird, Assistant Professor of Human Centered Design of Engineering at the UW and former WNBA and ABL player, responded with a question of her own: Is truth relative?

The conversation quickly turned to the idea of “fake news” and how the truth can easily be muddied. Starbird had shown two slides at the start of the program that gave visual representations of data collected by her team, proving the existence of social media echo chambers and the heavy activity of Russian-based personas in the creation and re-Tweeting of contentious, polarizing content. The slides focused on messaging around the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and presented evidence of deliberate foreign manipulation of the conversations on “both sides” of the issue. As questions were raised — by Dean Taylor and the speakers themselves — there was a continuous focus on the importance of open communication, even between people from drastically disconnected backgrounds.

Towards the end of the night, the floor was opened up to audience members in a Q&A. One UW first-year named Rachel asked: “At what point does international interference with other countries… cross into cultural sacrifice and loss of cultural identity? Is that point worth crossing in favor of cultural unanimity?”

A question directly falling into his niche, Dr. Resat Kasaba, Director of Jackson School of International Studies and President of Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs at the University of Washington responded from a United States-specific perspective. He explained how the US often seeks to change situations with which we are unfamiliar, but this attitude is misguided. Dr. Kasaba pointed out the importance of focusing on the “extraordinarily valuable and useful ways of really interacting, engaging with other cultures and other peoples” instead of insisting on conformity within diverse populations.

Director Engstrom referred to the unique culture of regions, he said that “culture is an inoculation against the cancer of polarization.” He brought the issue back into an urban perspective, reminding the audience that civic discord affects every single one of us on a personal level. Especially in a city like Seattle that has a history of pushing on issues like livable minimum wage, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization whilst also maintaining a police force convicted by the Department of Justice of discrimination and use of excessive force, a criminally underfunded public school system, and a crises of unhoused people in the midst of unprecedented population growth.

There was one question posed in different words by multiple audience members: How can we productively communicate with someone whose beliefs and values differ so much from ours?

Dr. Starbird concluded the night by acknowledging that the question itself could not easily be resolved, an answer that seemed to leave many students unsatisfied. Starbird emphasized that, from her standpoint, the best thing to do was to “keep the channels open” with people, not expecting them to agree with you in order to be worth knowing and hearing, and spend time exploring subjects with them starting from something you have in common. The speakers encouraged students to use their time at UW to find their own best answers to these hard questions, to engage in the work of understanding and addressing complex problems with others who are doing the same.

Hearing the perspectives from different disciplines illuminated the issue, circling back to the need for more candid public discourse. Starbird closed amidst the applause: “in order to re-configure some of our conversations…we really do have to come in, at this other level, and start thinking about these transformative ways of thinking and conceiving these problems.”

An audio recording of the conversation is publicly available HERE, and it is worthy of a listen. An engineer, a civil servant, and an international historian are rarely recorded in dialogue like this. Students can check HERE for a few suggestions on how to stay in dialogue about the issues that matter most to them.

You can also hear last year’s talk on Climate Change, featuring anthropologist and citizen of the Osage Nation Jeanne Dennison; communications visionary Hanson Hossein; and atmospheric scientist David Batisti.