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Civil Society The "Civil" Society? On the Future Prospects of Meaningful Dialogue series is one of the collections within the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere Collection.

In 2013-2014, the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere presented"Civil" Society? On the Future Prospects of Meaningful Dialogue, a six-part public speaker series at the University of Florida.

This nine-month speaker series draws upon the expertise of six humanities and social science scholars from across the United States to understand the dialogues (or lack thereof) about major issues that have gained political traction in the United States. Dialogue occurs when two or more people engaged in a conversation clarify their positions on an issue and results in a constructive exchange of ideas and opinions. With this concept in mind, each speaker explores from a different perspective why individuals, groups, and nations have such difficulty engaging in productive dialogue about life-and-death issues like climate change, racial prejudice, and the politics of wealth and health disparities. Since when has the polarization of opinions become so pronounced, and what is the impact of this state of affairs on civil discourse? And, why, in the digital age, do we rely upon the thirty-second sound bite instead of taking the time to reflect on the universal issues and interests that could unite us across our ideological differences? Speaker topics include examinations of scientific communication and indigenous knowledge systems, organized racism, education, and the historical legacy of the Tea Party. The ultimate goal in the series is to consider what it will take to create safe spaces where we can share opinions and ideas to engage in genuine deliberation that emerges from individual experiences and not mere talking points. In creating such spaces, this series underscores the importance of multicultural, interdisciplinary approaches to finding truly meaningful dialogue.

This series of six lectures is co-sponsored by the Rothman Endowment at the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with co-sponsorship from the Smathers Libraries, Honors Program, Department of History, Department of English, Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, and the Office of Sustainability.

Further information follows:

Selected videos of presentations from this series.>


Democracy and the Science Communication Environment
Dan Kahan (Yale University)
11 September 2013, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library (East), 1A University of Florida
(Online Video)

Promoting public comprehension of science is only one aim of the emerging "science of science communication" and is likely not the most important one for the well-being of a democratic society. Ordinary citizens form quadrillions of correct beliefs on matters that turn on complicated scientific principles they cannot even identify much less understand. The reason they fail to converge on beliefs consistent with scientific evidence on certain other consequential matters—from climate change to genetically modified foods to compulsory adolescent HPV vaccination—is not the failure of scientists or science communicators to speak clearly or the inability of ordinary citizens to understand what they are saying. Rather, the source of such conflict is the proliferation of antagonistic cultural meanings. When such associations become attached to particular facts that admit of scientific investigation, these meanings are a kind of pollution of the science communication environment that disables the faculties ordinary citizens use to reliably absorb collective knowledge from their everyday interactions. The quality of the science communication environment is thus just as critical for enlightened self-government as the quality of the natural environment is for the physical health and well-being of a society’s members. Understanding how this science communication environment works, fashioning procedures to prevent it from becoming contaminated with antagonistic meanings, and formulating effective interventions to detoxify it when protective strategies fail—those are the most critical functions science communication can perform in a democratic society.

Dan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. He is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, an interdisciplinary team of scholars who use empirical methods to examine the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and science communication. In studies funded by the National Science Foundation, Professor Kahan and his collaborators have investigated public disagreement over climate change, public reactions to emerging technologies, and conflicting public impressions of scientific consensus. Articles featuring the Project’s studies have appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including the Journal of Risk Research, Judgment and Decision Making, the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Nature Climate Change, and Nature.


The Perennial Racial Divide: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Stephen Steinberg (Queens College, CUNY)
15 October 2013, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library (East), 1A University of Florida
(Online Video)

The election of the first black President of the United States was a watershed event, and Barack Obama was widely hailed as “a transcendental figure” who mended the racial divide and augured a post-racial future. However, a close examination of voting patterns in the 2008 and 2012 elections indicates that the electorate was highly polarized racially. Indeed, the half-century since the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 has been an era of racial backlash that amounts to a counter-revolution on race. It has succeeded in driving one nail after another into the coffin of the civil rights revolution in such areas as affirmative action, employment discrimination, schooling, housing, welfare, food security, voting, and the evisceration of civil rights. This cold reckoning with history compels us to rethink the current state of race in America, as reflected in recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting rights, as well as the acrimonious debates over the Trayvon Martin case.

Stephen Steinberg, a sociologist, is Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Beginning with The Ethnic Myth (1981, 1989, 2001), his intellectual project has been to challenge prevailing orthodoxies on race and ethnicity, both in academic and popular discourses. His next book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (1995, 2001) received the Oliver Cromwell Cox award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship. His most recent book, Race Relations: A Critique (2007) was described by one reviewer as “a devastating exposé of a century of the discipline's theoretical bad faith, sociological mystification, and conceptual obfuscation of what should have been the central and obvious socio-historical fact of the white oppression of people of color in the United States." In addition to his academic publications, Steinberg has published articles in The Nation, New Politics, and other popular venues.


The Fractured Teapot: Debating the Legacy of the Boston Tea Party
Benjamin Carp (Tufts University)
12 November 2013, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library (East), 1A University of Florida
(Online Video)

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 is known to every schoolchild, yet it recently found a new place in public debates after the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009. This presentation explores the fractured nature of eighteenth-century politics, particularly in Revolutionary Boston. American reactions to the Boston Tea Party were mixed, and even Benjamin Franklin and George Washington expressed doubts about it. Some destroyers of the tea felt ashamed of their actions, and the phrase "Boston Tea Party" only became famous in the 1820s, fifty years after the event. Since then, generations of Americans have debated the meaning of the Tea Party and used it for their own purposes, from abolitionists to the Ku Klux Klan, from temperance advocates to tax protesters. Drawing connections between past and present, this presentation discusses how the appropriation of historical events can shape public debate.

Benjamin L. Carp is an Associate Professor of early American history at Tufts University. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, which won the Society of the Cincinnati Cox Book Prize in 2013; and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. He has a B.A. from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and he previously taught at the University of Edinburgh. He has written for BBC History, Colonial Williamsburg, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, and he has appeared on BBC1, C-SPAN2, C-SPAN3, and the Discovery Channel.


Bridging Indigenous and Scientific Knowledges: Multicultural Solutions for Climate Change Research
Kyle Whyte (Michigan State University)
29 January 2014, 5:30 pm, Smathers Library (East), 1A University of Florida
14 April 2014, Weil Hall 270, University of Florida
(Online Video)

Indigenous peoples living in North America have been affected by climate change in many ways, ranging from the losses of “first foods” to the permanent relocation of entire communities. As they develop ways to respond to the effects of climate change, however, Indigenous communities often face obstacles in creating dialogues with scientists, who do not necessarily understand their immediate and long term needs. Some of the key challenges concern bridging gaps in trust, power and expectations as to how to share and integrate empirical knowledge and information about climate change arising from sources as diverse as elders of Indigenous communities and senior climate scientists. This presentation outlines the recent history of dialogues and policies that attempt to foster collaboration across different cultural traditions of knowledge production, from “traditional ecological knowledge” to “climate science.” The presentation then discusses some of the ethical solutions being developed for interdisciplinary and multicultural approaches to climate change that can be used by Indigenous communities for adaptation and mitigation. These solutions represent substantial steps forward toward finding common ground among diverse parties in the U.S. like federally-recognized Indigenous nations, state and federal agencies, universities and research centers, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations.

Kyle Whyte is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University and affiliated faculty for Environmental Science and Policy, the Center for Regional Food Systems, Peace and Justice Studies, Animal Studies and American Indian Studies. Whyte’s most recent research addresses moral and political issues concerning climate change impacts on Indigenous peoples. His research has been published in journals such as Hypatia, Climatic Change, Ecological Processes, Synthese, Human Ecology, Journal of Global Ethics, American Journal of Bioethics, Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics, and Environmental Justice, and has been funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Science Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Michigan State’s Creating Inclusive Excellence Grants, and the Sustainable Michigan Endowed Fund. He is a member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and a steering committee member of the Public Philosophy Network and Conference and the Western Cluster of the Networking the Global Humanities Initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation. He was a member of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy and a 2009 winner of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


The Slow Murmur of Learning: Honoring Substance and Solitude in Education
Diana Senechal (Columbia Secondary School, NYC)
19 February 2014, 5:30 pm, Hippodrome Theatre (cinema), Gainesville, FL

(Online Video)

Over the past few decades, our schools’ emphasis on quick results and feedback has left students with little room for absorbing complex material or taking risks with their own work. Several trends, not confined to education, have contributed to the problem: an insistence on concrete, measurable goals; a narrow view of student “engagement”; an emphasis on talk over quiet thought; and a push for teacher evaluation systems that focus on test score results and quick classroom observations. These tendencies, although based on good intentions, have contributed to an environment that discourages (and sometimes even penalizes) challenging study and independent thought. To address this problem, schools should honor those aspects of education that require solitude (as well as community) and grow in meaning over time.

Diana Senechal teaches philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. She is the 2011 recipient of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture and the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of Tomas Venclova have been published in two books, Winter Dialogue and The Junction, as well as numerous literary journals. Her education writing has appeared in Education Week, The New Republic, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, The Core Knowledge Blog, Joanne Jacobs, GothamSchools, and The Washington Post’s blog The Answer Sheet. She lives in Brooklyn.


Studying Racist Activists: What Can Be Learned and What Cannot
Kathleen Blee (University of Pittsburgh)
27 March 2014, 5:30 pm, Ustler Hall Atrium (2nd floor), University of Florida

(Online Video)

Is there anything to be gained by talking to people in racist groups? This talk wrestles with the dilemma of how we can find accurate information about the racist movements in our midst. From the massive Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s to today’s small neo-Nazi groups, racist groups have fomented hatred and often violence against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Despite the danger that these movements pose to civil society, we know surprisingly little about how they work and how they recruit members. Based on decades of direct observation and interviews with those who populate America’s racist underground, this talk explores what we know, what we don’t know, and what we may never know about organized racism. It wrestles with moral and political dilemmas that occur when scholars work directly with violent political actors and raises questions about the advantages and perils of scholarship and dialogue with racist extremists.

Kathleen Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Pittsburgh. She has authored four award-winning books, most recently Making Democracy: How Activist Groups Form (2013 Charles Tilly Award for Best Book from the Collective Behavior & Social Movements Section, American Sociological Association and 2013 Best Book Award from the Association for Research on Nonprofits and Voluntary Associations). Her two books on racial hate groups, Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement (2002) and Women in the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (1991) were featured in many media sources, including The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Reporter, and The Los Angeles Times. A 2000 book co-authored with Dwight Billings, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia won the Weatherly Best Book Award from the Appalachian Studies Association.

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