Dorothy Black Lecture 2021: Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age

On November 3, the department of English language and literature hosted the Dorothy Black Lecture 2021: Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age/Uncivil and Unwell in America.

The presentation delved into social media’s power to facilitate the production and spread of disinformation, which in turn affects the wellbeing of civilians and the political wellbeing of American democracy. It is part of the Dorothy Black lecture series, named after Dorothy Black, who earned an English degree at UBC in 1952. This lecture was delivered by PBS host and American author, journalist and historian Alexander Heffner.

As Heffner explained, there is a critical difference between misinformation and disinformation: misinformation is false information that was made false by error or mistake. It is unintentional. Disinformation is intentional; it is the deliberate spread of false information.

Heffner proposed that the inherent “truncation” of information in social media, combined with the desire to build social capital, is what drives people to purposefully share what some might call “fake news.”

For example, a single tweet must stay within a maximum of 280 characters. Instagram captions, though longer, are only able to convey mere snippets of information. As Heffner said, the inherent brevity required by social media content renders it unsuitable for capturing the nuance and complexity of important issues such as politics.

This shift has also affected how speeches and old forms of discourse are now being delivered. For example, the rhetoric of a typical presidential speech is now focused on those “quick punches.” This emphasis on hard-hitting one-liners, which may be translated into a ten-second instagram reel outside of its original context, could lead to an inaccurate or oversimplified portrayal of the topic at hand.

Heffner also spoke of the shift away from fact-based conversations and debates. In turn, journalists cannot easily trust that what they are listening to and reporting on is fact-based rhetoric.

However, Heffner underlined that just because socio-political rhetoric and discourse has “degenerated” does not mean that we should just tolerate it. He urged civilians to be tenacious and take action.

“If you don't like what these social platforms are doing ... you need to boycott them yourselves,” he said.

He acknowledged that amnesia — the phenomena in which people forget how harmful disinformation is and the tangible negative consequences it has created in the past — can impact the “staying power” and efficacy of boycotts. Nonetheless, his message to the audience did not waver: apply pressure.

Another way to combat disinformation is by creating a space in which politicians can engage in empathetic listening.

He recommended that the media and policymakers “generate a discourse in which Republicans and Democrats can talk openly about our problems … have a table and exchange ideas.”

Heffner posited that aspiring champions of democracy cannot fulfill their campaign promises and political goals if they cannot build bridges. There needs to be a willingness to listen and move toward a solution despite coming from different value systems because they still share the common goal of advancing the wellness of voters, he said.

Heffner attempted to create such a model himself. His team simulated specific public policy situations and invited politicians into a discussion about these issues. The politicians invited were expected to engage in empathetic listening and learning. This model was built to oppose the adversarial model of the typical political debates. The DNC told candidates that they would be barred from participating in primary dialogues if they participated in Heffner’s model.

Regardless, Heffner keeps looking forward. He said he continues to believe that “[Americans] can earn back [their] democracy.”