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.