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CoastLine: Civil Discourse, Take Three

Wikimedia Commons / Chiltepinster
Northern Mockingbird juveniles at a bird bath in Austin, Texas in June, 2011

Many of us are confronted each morning with our personalized news feed – whether the source is social media, a news app trained to select articles reflecting our preferences, or a TV channel.  Pundits have blamed those sources for the societal divides we’re seeing today.  Whether it shows up as a rejection of negotiation on Capitol Hill or the uncomfortable moment Uncle Steve criticizes the President while carving the Thanksgiving turkey, it’s a well-documented fact that polarization is at an all-time high.    

The causes, however, are unclear.  According to U.S. News and World Report, a study out of Stanford and Brown Universities suggests older Americans – who tend to be less actively engaged online – have actually seen the biggest swings in ideological extremism.  Those at least 75 years old saw more dramatic growth in polarization between 1996 and 2012. People between the ages of 18 and 39, who are much more likely to engage online, saw only a minor increase over the same period.  That makes it tough to blame social media for America’s polarized environment. 

While we may not be able to clearly identify the causes, there are ways to bridge the divide.  In his 19th century book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, “Where there are persons to be found who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.” 

Really?  We’ll take that apart. 


Dana Stachowiak, Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the Education Leadership Department, Watson College of Education, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Don Habibi, Philosophy Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Carolina Wilmington