Civil Discourse Forum Focuses on Moving Forward After COVID-19

Published: November 30, 2021 | Author: Abbie Cochrane | Read Time: 11 minutes

Held on November 3, 2021, Southern Utah University’s biannual Forum on Civil Discourse highlighted COVID-19 and ​​how to move forward from here. The forum included a panel of seven SUU faculty members and a mediator and discussed the importance of conducting civil conversations about topics that sometimes come across as controversial, like COVID-19. 

Panelists included Shauna Mendini, dean of the College of Performing and Visual Arts, Dr. Matthew Eddy, associate professor of sociology, Dr. Roger Gold, associate professor of biology, Katie Hill, lecturer of economics, Maren Hirschi, assistant professor of family life and human development, Mary Bennett, director of the Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service and Dr. Mark Siemon, assistant professor of nursing. The forum was moderated by Dr. William Heyborne, associate professor of biology.

Provost Jon Anderson opened the forum with several remarks regarding the importance of civil conversation about topics that people tend to disagree on. He emphasized the need to practice humility and empathy along with civility in conversation.

“We need more civil dialogue and respectful dialogue about so many issues which plague us today,” Provost Anderson said. “It is clear that our University has a significant role to play in creating time and space for civil dialogue. It has also become clear that this is one of the primary purposes of institutions of higher education.”

Provost Anderson also spoke about approaching others with a different belief system with an open mind and curiosity to learn about their point of view. He warned against judging others based on personal beliefs and values, but encouraged those faced with oppressive remarks or dismissal of their basic human rights to not tolerate them. Being open-minded is one thing, putting up with hateful comments meant to hurt someone is entirely different. Anderson wrapped up his introductory speech by stating the importance of having compassion for others who see the world from a different perspective. In the end, it is okay to have different views and still love each other. Every person is different, and that is what society must remember. That even though everyone is different, they are people first.

Dr. William Heyborne, associate professor of biology

Dr. William Heyborne began by presenting the panelists from all different areas of the university, as well as some recent COVID-19 statistics. According to the Johns Hopkins Resource Center for Coronavirus and the National Center for Health Statistics, there have been 248 million confirmed global cases of COVID-19 and 46 million confirmed cases in the U.S. alone. Compared to the 5 million deaths worldwide, the U.S. makes up 750,000 of those deaths.

Dr. Heyborne started the discussion with the primary question - how do we move forward with the pandemic in school and in personal life? After outlining the basics for holding a civil discussion, the panelists went down the line with their answers and viewpoints.

Dr. Mark Siemon, assistant professor of nursing

Beginning with Dr. Mark Siemon, he spoke his piece from his experience as a medical professional. He emphasized the validity and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and the effectiveness of wearing a mask to stop the spread. Dr. Siemon stated that the biggest reason why people stopped listening to healthcare professionals about nanopharmaceutical approaches and COVID-19 news altogether was because of misinformation and poor communication. He stressed that the general public must keep in mind that the pandemic isn’t solely centered around one person. The virus will not hesitate to mutate and continue to ravage through the population. People must take the necessary precautions to ensure that they don’t get others sick. Choosing “individual liberties” over being a courteous member of society can put countless lives at risk. Public health is designed for just that--the public. Siemon closed by reminding the public that preventing the spread is a team effort and to protect themselves they must protect each other.

Dr. Roger Gold, associate professor of biology and microbiology

The second speaker was Dr. Roger Gold. He spoke about civility in the midst of a pandemic in terms of respecting those who are slightly more cautious than others. He mentioned how on the first day of class, he asked his students to wear a mask because it made him feel more comfortable. One student spoke with him after, saying that even though they were against masks, they would wear one out of respect for him. This is a perfect example of civility in a controversial circumstance; choose respect for the other person over personal views.

Dr. Gold brought up the topic of past pandemics and how COVID-19 is a uniquely different case. In the past, people have done everything they could to stop the spread of whatever disease was going around without question or concern for their personal rights to choose. However, due to the unnecessary politicalization of the COVID-19 virus, people have been more inclined to side with their selected politicians’ views about the virus, rather than come together to eliminate the spread. Dr. Gold was curious as to why is science suddenly being dismissed as a hoax right now, even after the vaccine has been proven effective and masks have proven to stop the spread? How many more will die before everyone is on the same page that the virus is very real and very dangerous. Not believing that a virus is real won’t stop a person from getting it.

Dr. Gold concluded that it is important to educate people through valid sources about the reality of this virus and hold politicians accountable for their actions and intentions surrounding the virus. Education leads to reform, and that is what the country needs.

Maren Hirschi, associate professor of family life and human development

Maren Hirschi was the third panelist to speak. A licensed clinical social worker, Hirschi gave her piece surrounding the mental health aspect that the pandemic has had on the public. She then went on to discuss three ways that people can better understand each other and how that applies to the pandemic and the misconceptions that have fed into the civil unrest.

First, people must learn to exhibit empathy. Hirschi explained that empathy and sympathy were not the same thing because empathy doesn’t allow the listener's feelings to get involved. No one is ever experiencing the same thing as someone else. A person may have a similar experience, but it is never the same and most times, pointing out a “bright side” isn’t helpful. Everyone has their perspectives for a reason.

The second point was to develop a sense of personal honesty and demand honesty from political leaders. In terms of personal honesty, be open about what you want and why, and be willing to accept others’ truthful thoughts, unless they are meant to harm. Hirschi then went on to emphasize the importance of holding leaders accountable. She discussed how the mask ban in some states is a form of gaslighting or making someone doubt their own sense of reality. The main goal of science is that something is true until proven otherwise. Masks and the vaccine have been proven effective and it is harmful when state and federal governments try to convince people otherwise.

The third and final tactic was to learn to understand individual perception. A person’s perception is their reality and that is why the brain is programmed to react more to perception rather than reality. Perception is just as important as the confirmed facts, and it’s important to combine the two to create an educated plan for what to do in a moment of uncertainty.

Shauna Mendini, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts

The next person to speak was Shauna Mendini. She discussed how the Utah Shakespeare Festival was able to perform their full season this year by following strict COVID-19 protocol to the letter. Through the requirement of vaccines and frequent COVID-19 tests, they were able to move forward with masked rehearsals. Those who were unvaccinated were required to work remotely. Mendini stated that it took commitment, sacrifice, and knowledge from the actors, crew, directors, and all involved with each show in order to put on a virus-free season. Everyone had to put the safety of themselves and others before their personal beliefs if it meant they would get to perform again. According to Mendini, only three shows were canceled this year; two due to smoke from wildfires and one from rain. No performances were canceled due to the virus.

This led Mendini to speak about the power of protocol and respect not only for those around you, but for what you are doing. Respecting the opportunity to do something can make it more meaningful and empower those involved to make the most out of it and do everything they can to see it through to the end. Mendini finished her segment by stating that people can still do most of what they love, it will just be a little different.

Mary Bennett, director of the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service

Mary Bennett spoke on how it is important to remember that political leaders and public servants are just as new to this crisis as anyone else. Every political leader will handle a unique crisis differently than their predecessor. As public servants, it is their job to serve the public. They must do what the citizens elected them to do. However, Bennett also said that it’s been a stressful couple of years for leaders all across the U.S.--no leader has ever witnessed over 750,000 Americans die within the span of two years.

Echoing Dr. Gold’s remarks, Bennett said that this title held by leaders does not hold them exempt from accountability. If anything, being a leader in times of crisis makes a person more accountable because whatever results from the way they handle a situation, be it good or bad, will be their fault. Bennett went on to explain how overwhelming it got for people in all positions, citizen or leader, due to unique state, local, and even school rules. Bennett concluded that it is important to keep people safe over granting them what they want. This safety policy should encompass everyone.

Dr. Matthew Eddy, assistant professor of sociology

Dr. Matthew Eddy was the next to speak, and he emphasized how crucial it is to be scientifically literate in today’s world. Society is in what Dr. Eddy called “The Golden Age of Junk Science,” and how the megaphone effect that social media exhibits with every fact, whether it be true or false, is found quite often. He went on to mention that media literacy is an important skill too, because everyone knows that Facebook and Twitter are not reliable sources to find legitimate information.

Dr. Eddy rounded back to ask the question why does no one trust science anymore? Furthermore, why are we continuing to politicize a virus that has already robbed the world of so many lives? Well, according to Dr. Eddy, it all boils down to money. So many people have benefited from both legitimate and fake medical prescriptions. The race to create a vaccine for coronavirus was different from any other vaccine story because it involved the science community coming together and creating a vaccine in just a year--the fastest a vaccine has ever been formulated in U.S. history. However, there were many who also profited now and before the pandemic from scams and fake medicine, and that can be just as dangerous. Dr. Eddy stated that it’s important to trace back the trail of money; how much has gone into advertising? Has it been verified by sources like the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization?

Another trap that people often fall into, Dr. Eddy mentioned, is social norms and outside influence. Every day, people influence people. Social norms and attitudes are contagious. To conclude, he implored people to look at how other countries either did or didn’t handle the virus, and what the U.S. can learn and implement in the coming days.

Katie Hill, lecturer of economics

The final panelist was Katie Hill. She focused on how the pandemic specifically affected Utah and it’s economy. Utah did better than most states at the very start of the pandemic, specifically maintaining low unemployment rates and a high gross domestic product rate. However, as the pandemic continued, it took the biggest toll on the leisure and hospitality industry. Being home to four national parks and 44 state parks, Utah relies heavily on tourism, and in any normal year, it is one of the top industries in the state.

Hill mentioned that the pandemic also had a lasting negative impact on low income families, those who were homeless, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Those with high income were left relatively unaffected. The highest unemployment rate peaked during July 2020 at 4.5% in Utah. The big question remains, how do we continue to send people back to work? Hill said it was simple; in order to keep businesses open, health risks need to stay on a steady decline. One solution, something that the pandemic helped to develop, is working remotely. People have realized that they can be just as productive at home as they can in the office and this newfound flexibility can open up more opportunities to get people back to work.

The panelists ended by conversing with each other about their thoughts on how Utah and the country as a whole should move forward. The conversation was productive and most importantly, civil, further emphasizing the importance of polite and respectful communication in today’s world when it comes to topics of controversial origin. If more people could implement these ideas and perspectives, perhaps they could become a little more in tune and understanding of the view of their fellow human beings.

The biannual Forum on Civil Discourse was filmed and can be watched on SUU’s YouTube channel.

Tags: Coronavirus

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