How do you ‘Civil Discourse?’ Do We Really Need to Scream?

Do you hear that? That faint scream in the background? The screams of our neighbors – the hurt, the passion, the fear, and the hope for a happy and healthy future – the screams for someone to listen. We all want the same things; the majority of us want to live in a world where people don’t suffer day in and day out. We just all can’t agree on the same avenue to get there. 

In a country of undignified presidential debates, civil discourse appears to be not just an action, but a skill. And in a social media dominated era where nobody wants to have a conversation and rather only spew their opinions, we are left with a growing society who struggles to connect. 

Honing in on that skill of diplomacy is 501 New York based non-profit organization, Braver Angels, (previously known as Better Angels), seeking to spread an element of grace and patience while embracing the time honored tradition of listening. 

Beginning right after the Trump election in 2016, these organized civil debates have become more and more prevalent, sweeping through the nation. They are growing quickly among the community college and university settings. 

LBCC has hosted several debates with Braver Angels, many in which Doug Sprei has led the debates as chairman. 

Sprei is the Director of Campus Partnerships and Multimedia at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA. He is also the Director of the Braver Angels College Debates Program. The ACTA is a non-government funded organization, which relies solely on individual support. 

When first discovering Braver Angels, Sprei’s heart “began to dance” and he instantly knew he wanted to be a part of the organization. 

“I just thought, this is something I need personally because I was so concerned about the state of toxic conversation in the country and I was feeling very discouraged. And here’s a program that actually teaches people skills and encourages them to reach out to the other side and find each other’s humanity, find our common humanity, and find a way to engage that’s constructive, not destructive,” said Sprei. 

The ACTA started partnering with Braver Angels, and not long after that they began to work with BridgeUSA, “where students on campuses all over the country who believe in depolarization, discourse, and civil discussions can come together.” 

If you’ve never attended a Braver Angels debate, you’d find a room, be it in person or over Zoom, full of 50+ people, debating hot topics such as vaccine mandates, abortions and surrounding laws, BLM protests, government healthcare, transgender athletes, and much more. What’s unique about these debates however, are the grace to which they are executed without a single interruption. Speakers speak, and at the end of each speech, questions are welcomed and answered. 

How can a room full of over 50 people eloquently debate such messy topics? It’s with the direction and coordinations of chairmans like Doug Sprei, who conduct a peaceful and welcoming platform, keeping the process in check, respectfully managing the floor. 

Now peaceful doesn’t mean passionless; personal experiences are highly valued and welcomed within these debates. There is a formal process to speaking and asking questions, which then allows the speaker a chance to feel truly heard, and a chance to clarify any comments. 

“And then here’s what a debate looks like when it’s on a campus. We’re all together. The students are very, very involved. They ask lots of questions. They make statements. This was in Washington DC. It’s just a marvelous experience. The atmosphere is, sometimes when someone speaks, you could hear a pin drop because everybody’s listening so hard and so intently. And then they ask lots of questions and there’s just so much respect in the atmosphere for everyone who has the courage to say anything,” said Sprei.

This last November, a Zoom debate with Sul Ross State University was held on abortion – the first debate with college students on this topic. 

“It went really, really well. It was very, very civil. It was intense. It was emotional, but everyone respected the other side. There were many points of view. People realized that it’s a very complex topic. And yes, it was raw in spots, but the Braver Angels format that you’ve experienced held true. Because we run the debates in a kind of a parliamentary style, it makes the discourse kind of elevated because people are not talking one to one and arguing with each other. They’re framing their own speeches and saying what they believe and elevating the discourse so everyone is listening to each other. And it’s not a competition. No one’s trying to win the debate, right?”

These debates aren’t just full of folks leaning one way, either. They are carefully constructed to have speakers of both the positive and negative. It’s your fellow peers; friends and students, that select the debate topics.

“We give students a lot of ownership of planning their own debate. What do they want it to be about? What’s the headline and how will we publicize it? Who will be the opening speakers? 

We work with them.”

But Braver Angels isn’t just about swooping in and urging us to talk about hot topics. They’re here to teach, encourage, and guide us into a world of civil discourse among topics we already care so much about. And hopefully, with the skill of civility we may actually connect with the opposite side. If we can reach each other, side to side, maybe we can grow together rather than apart. 

“We are really focused on college leadership and influencing higher education to create an atmosphere and a culture of academic freedom and free expression on college campuses,” said Sprei. 

Once held solely on campus(s), but like many, the organization was affected by the pandemic. Though, not in the way they thought. Fearfully, it was expected that these Angels were in danger. 

However It was soon made clear that we, the students, recognized our unorganized and torn apart state of the country; the conversation toxicity that has been seemingly brewing since the 2016 election. 

“It turned out that there was a huge demand for them [Zoom debates]. We got requests from all over the country to launch these Zoom debates for students. It opened up so many opportunities that we never thought we would have.” 

Students bring their personal experiences to the floor; “there was a healthcare debate where a young woman at American University got up and spoke about how she wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for government sponsored healthcare. And you could have heard a pin drop in that atmosphere. Everyone became silent.”

Braver Angels asks that people say what they believe, and to tell personal stories and not just research facts and figures on Google, but to actually say why do you believe what you believe. Why do you believe in gun control? Why do you believe the police should be defunded? Why should the Southern Wall be built? 

“You can be as passionate as you want. I mean, last night in the abortion debate, we had a man just step up and point blank say “All abortion is murder.” He was that categorical about it from the moment of conception. This was a debate with a school in Texas where the harshest laws in the land have been passed, right?” Said Sprei. 

You may be getting hot and fueled just looking at these questions, but the Angels format allows for these feelings up to a point, but not to attack other people, not to interrupt them, and not to speak over someone or criticize what someone has said.

We may never agree, but being able to talk about intense and important issues will allow us to move forward.

At a Glance:

Who: Doug Sprei: The Director of Campus Partnerships and Multimedia at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA, and the Director of the Braver Angels College Debates Program.

What: Braver Angels, a Civil Discourse 501 New York Based Non Profit Organization

When: Find Upcoming Events, both within Oregon and nationally, as well as in person and over zoom. 

Why: Be a Part of a Civil Debate. 

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