Uncivil Corporate Discourse

Solving social problems democratically requires well-informed citizens who can reason together despite differences in outlook. It requires, in short, rational public discourse. Making this happen has never been easy, and today it seems to be getting harder. Architects of the new Program for Public Discourse at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill believe they know why. The problems, they say, are poor training for debate, weak commitment to a “spirit of polite dialogue,” and a lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education. They are dangerously wrong.

UNC’s Program for Public Discourse was political in origin. A Republican-dominated board of governors pressed university administrators to look at programs at Arizona State University and Princeton University and to launch a similar program at UNC. The conservative narrative driving the creation of these programs depicts the modern university as run by doctrinaire liberal faculty who expound only their own views and don’t teach students how to engage in respectful dialogue about contentious issues. Students simply aren’t being taught, the story goes, to appreciate a wide range of views (meaning conservative views), nor are they learning to be well-mannered debaters. Hence the need for remedial programming and curricula devoted to public or “civil” discourse.

As a matter of principle, it’s hard to object to the idea of trying to help students become more confident and constructive participants in public discourse. Pursuing this classic liberal arts mission might well include renewed efforts to nurture the skills of listening, analyzing, and debating. This is what many faculty members in the humanities and social sciences—the disciplines that are the usual targets of conservative ire—have been striving to do for a long time. Some faculty and administrators are readily co-opted into supporting politically initiated programs in civil discourse and civic virtue because their mission seems familiar and noble.

The problem is that these programs obscure a bigger threat to rational public discourse in the United States today: corporate power. Instead of trying to understand how concentrated wealth undermines rational discourse and discourages civic engagement, we are urged to focus on the manners and debating skills of college students. It’s no surprise that the politicians who rely upon and serve great concentrations of wealth are eager to kick the ball in this direction. We are urged to see liberal or leftist intolerance as the problem, rather than domination and duplicity by profit-driven corporations.

Tobacco is the paradigmatic example. For decades, long after industry scientists and executives knew that nicotine was addictive and smoking caused lung cancer, tobacco companies engaged in a criminal conspiracy to sow doubt about the harms of smoking. The purpose was clear: to stall regulation and keep racking up profits in the meantime. Industry efforts, orchestrated by major PR firms such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, distorted public discourse about smoking and related policies. Representatives of the industry were unfailingly polite, even while their efforts, funded by the addicted masses whose health was being ruined, meant that millions more people died prematurely from tobacco-related disease. So much for civility.

The fossil fuel industry’s behavior has been equally egregious. After its own scientists documented global warming in the early 1980s, the industry poured millions of dollars into free-market think tanks whose pseudo-scholars pumped out reports and op-eds calling climate change a hoax or arguing, speciously, that the science behind climate change was either “junk” or unsettled. It was the tobacco industry’s strategy redux: manufacture doubt as a way to stall regulation that would cut into profits. The strategy worked and is still working. At a time when we desperately need rational public discourse about climate policy, denying the reality of human contributions to climate change has become nearly an article of faith among leaders and followers in one of America’s two major political parties.

No less desperate is the need, doubly underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, for rational public discourse about health care policy. In the United States, part of the conversation, brought to the fore by the Democratic presidential primary election, revolves around proposals to create a national health-insurance system—often called “Medicare for All”—or a public insurance option.

How has the health-insurance industry contributed to this conversation? By mounting and lavishly funding a propaganda effort under the auspices of a front group called Partnership for America’s Health Care Future. This outfit has crafted a set of lab-tested talking points—Medicare for All will take away your choices! It will mean higher taxes! It will mean government control of health care!—and fed those talking points to candidates, legislators, journalists, and pundits. The strategy in this case is to stoke public fear of change that could put the private health-insurance industry out of business. But it’s all done civilly, by well-spoken people in nice suits, people who someday might want to employ university graduates.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 Merchants of Doubt and David Michaels’s 2020 The Triumph of Doubt document a host of similar examples, including denial of chlorofluorocarbon damage to the ozone layer and denial of links between sugar consumption and disease. It seems that whenever experience and independent science begin to show that profitable products and practices cause harm, the public conversation about intelligent regulatory action is derailed by institutional greed. How civil is that?

Over and again, we see large corporations using their resources to suborn science, misinform lawmakers and the public, muddle policy debate, and stall regulation, and thereby protect profits for as long as possible. This is the behavior that undermines rational public discourse and democratic policy making in the US today. Focusing on the manners and debating skills of undergraduates makes the real problem disappear and serves the interests of those who would like to ally research universities all the more tightly to “corporate partners.”

Although we should of course acquaint students with diverse views and teach them to critically examine and debate those views in a civil manner, we should not mistake these efforts for a solution to the problem of distorted public discourse in US society. That problem stems not from the liberal sensibilities of students or professors but from vast inequalities in wealth and power, and it is these inequalities that we should help students analyze, critique, and change. If we want to promote rational public discourse, and we should, we can contribute by showing how a mask of civility often conceals deception that is anything but civil.

This essay originally appeared on Academe Blog.

More articles by:

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town