That is very different than allowing oneself to be open to unnecessary, uncalled for personal attacks, ad hominems, attempts at de-legitimization, or outright assaults on one's personhood and character. I wrote that those who enter dialogue should expect to be offended and to cause offense -- I did not mean that people with a genuine interest in positive discourse should intentionally cause offense or assume malice on the part of other participants, but that in the course of open expression, offense is bound to occur.
Many of you who read this blog probably know that I am also a student at Georgetown University. This week, a fellow Hoya, Sandra Fluke, who has engaged respectfully and eloquently in public discourse on the important issue of healthcare coverage was faced with a vitriolic assault on her character and identity in the public sphere as a response to expressing her opinions. Conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh decried Sandra as a "slut" and a "prostitute" for arguing that healthcare coverage should include contraception. His public remarks joined an assault of online attacks against a woman for no reason but for expressing an opinion and defending it publicly.
Yet I have never been prouder of my university than I am today.
I read a status update from a fellow student at Georgetown who happens to be a conservative Republican. He writes, "Dear Mr. Rush Limbaugh, I find myself sometimes saddened that you are a fellow conservative. You bring shame and disgrace to not only my proud establishment, Georgetown University, but also to the entire Republican Party. You have insulted a fellow Hoya, and that will take precedence over anything and everything. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
And then I received an email that was broadcast campus-wide from the Georgetown University President, John DeGioia. Although he disagrees with Sandra over her opinion, he has stated unequivocally that neither our university community nor the nation should ever stand for personal attacks of any kind on another person. Both President DeGioia and my fellow students have proven that it is possible to stand on completely opposite sides of an issue and even be deeply emotionally invested or personally affected, and still maintain honesty and openness while engaging in respectful public discourse.
President DeGioia's email says it all. It's been quoted in part by a number of news media articles, but I've included it here in full.
A message from President DeGioia on Civility and Public Discourse
Office of the President
March 2, 2012
Dear Members of the Georgetown Community:
There is a legitimate question of public policy before our nation today. In the effort to address the problem of the nearly fifty million Americans who lack health insurance, our lawmakers enacted legislation that seeks to increase access to health care. In recent weeks, a question regarding the breadth of services that will be covered has focused significant public attention on the issue of contraceptive coverage. Many, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have offered important perspectives on this issue.
In recent days, a law student of Georgetown, Sandra Fluke, offered her testimony regarding the proposed regulations by the Department of Health and Human Services before a group of members of Congress. She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression. And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position – including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels – responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.
In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives. We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.
In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.”
If we, instead, allow coarseness, anger – even hatred – to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.
John J. DeGioia