HUDSON -- The topic could not have been more timely; Civil Discourse: Immigration, Refugees, and Population Change.

The Phipps Center for the Arts hosted a public forum to discuss the topic Tuesday evening, Sept. 24. Five panelists accepted the center’s invitation to facilitate the discussion:

• Dr. Elaine Baumann, the retired principal of River Falls High School.

• Jim Harsdorf, served in the Wisconsin Assembly and as floor leader in the Wisconsin Senate as well as in the governor’s cabinet as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

• Dr. Cyndi Kernahan, professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin River Falls, whose expertise is racism and prejudice.

• Dr. Ozcan Kilic, Muslim panelist of Different Voices: Shared Visions on River Channel television, and professor of management and marketing, UWRF.

• Rev. John Lestock, the senior pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Hudson.

Dr. Neil Kraus, professor of political science at UWRF moderated the discussion.

There was an understood consensus by both the panelists and the audience that there is in our communities today an alarming absence of civil discourse generally but a more disturbing proliferation by our political leaders to deliberately embrace narrow-minded, inflammatory, divisive, even untruthful rhetoric.

“Democracy depends on citizens being informed and part of the process of becoming informed involves listening to one another including to individuals who are different from ourselves while recognizing that we do share the same world even as our experiences in this world vary significantly. Hopefully our discussion tonight can be at least a step in the direction of creating more constructive dialogue,” began Kraus.

Each panelist opened the evening by addressing the need for civil discourse and attempting to define what behaviors, beliefs, concepts and conduct contribute to civil discourse in their experience.

Former state Sen. Harsdorf emphasized the benefits of bipartisanship sighting successful legislation including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and Criminal Justice Reforms enacted in 2019.

Harsdorf also warned against the dangers of identity politics.

“Identity politics is ripping the country apart and is a recipe for endless struggle and division,” he said.

Professor Kernahan proposed that our need for validation, for other people to share our view of the world, makes us uncomfortable when they do not and leads us, usually unfairly, to make assumptions about those who disagree with us. That can hamper our ability to listen and limit opportunities for civil discourse.

Having confidence in ourselves frees us from the need to be validated and allows us to see and listen to those with whom we disagree as individuals without the constraints that come with assumptions. Kernahan also cautioned that civility can be leveraged in negative ways.

Protest is an acknowledged tool in civil discourse. It can also make people who have something to lose, people who support the status quo, uncomfortable. Change can be uncomfortable.

“I think part of why civility gets a bad rap is because it is sometimes used in many ways as a way to keep people quiet (‘Your tone is wrong. You should be more civil about it’) particularly people who might have in the past traditionally and in the present have less power and less ability,” Kernahan said

Professor Ozcan spoke his personal experience about how it feels to be different. Ozcan was born in Turkey, raised in Germany and now lives and teaches as a naturalized citizen in the United States.

“You speak your identity, you claim your identity, you live your identity but you don’t degrade someone else’s identity. This is civility. Civility is about more than just politeness -- although politeness is a necessary first step. It is also about disagreeing without disrespecting, listening past one’s preconceptions and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted disagreements,” Ozcan said.

Pastor. Lestock suggested civil discourse requires humility, being willing to admit the possibility that we are wrong and that someone else is right. Lestock also proposed that people must find the courage to speak up in the face of injustice.

“We all want to get along. We all want to be reconcilers, but there are some times when we just can’t keep quiet. We need to stand up and make a statement. Not that everybody will agree with us. Jesus was one that stood with the weak, the vulnerable, the least, the lost, the lonely, those who were at risk. There are things that God stands for and there are things that God stands against,” Lestock said.

Questions from the audience touched on a number of subjects including the role social media plays in fueling our contentious atmosphere, the perceived friction between the contemporary hyphenated American identity and the most historic common American identity, the weaponizing of civility and the role of protest, and the confrontation between President Donald Trump’s blurring of the truth versus actual truth, character and the role of responsibility.

Two observations rang particularly true against the backdrop of the majority white, middle-aged audience in attendance.

A gentleman toward the end of the evening admitted he was scared and that many of the people he knows, if they are honest with themselves, are scared about what comes next. He expressed the idea that as he has aged, he feels like he has more to lose as demographics change. White people are afraid things are going to be taken away from them.

Kernahan responded that white privilege is the product of a long, systematic and pervasive segregation of opportunity (deserving of its own forum). In her experience, contact breaks down that fear. Integration, exposure, communication and face-to-face dialogue need to happen to dissipate that fear.

Maybe the most poignant observation was the last of the evening.

“With communities like Hudson and others in the St Croix Valley, how can we, basically a room full of white people, and with a primarily white panel, how do we include others? Having a discussion about civility doesn’t really work if nobody else is here.”