Tim Shaffer
Tim Shaffer, UD’s inaugural Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Chair of Civil Discourse and director of the SNF Ithaca Initiative, teaches people how to communicate.
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A conversation with Tim Shaffer

What he does, in theory, is simple: Timothy Shaffer, a national leader in his field and UD’s inaugural Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Chair of Civil Discourse and director of the SNF Ithaca Initiative, teaches people how to talk. In practice, it’s a herculean task. During a time of uber-polarized politics and hostile social media, how do we disagree without hurting feelings or contributing to the—gulp—downfall of democracy?

Here, Shaffer shares some of what he’s learned as an acclaimed scholar, author and regular human just trying to get through Thanksgiving dinner like the rest of us.

What do people get wrong about civil discourse?

Many think it’s about being nice and mannerly—the Emily Post situation. But civil discourse means actively engaging with differing views to work toward a goal.


By listening to understand. It helps to focus on values versus positions. People who disagree on, say, abortion, might be motivated by the same value: family.

What’s at stake?

We can see the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., or in religious communities—for example, the United Methodist Church is not so united and is fracturing along ideological lines. We need to be able to disagree; society needs friction. I was an Eagle Scout, and I always say: You need friction to start a fire. But you have to be able to contain it, or you burn the whole thing down.

What’s your best advice for containing the fire?

You don’t know everything, and you have to accept that. Have some intellectual humility. I have four kids, and I’m reminded how much of our formal education is about right or wrong—you know it or you don’t. But so much of life exists in the gray area between, and we don’t do a good job acknowledging that.

Much of our formal education is about right or wrong—you know it or you don’t. But so much of life exists in the gray area between, and we don’t do a good job acknowledging that.

Shaffer speaks at the annual SNF Ithaca National Student Dialogue, which brings in students from across the country.

But racists! Conspiracy theorists! Isn’t there ever a time for UNcivil discourse?

Civil discourse is about dialogue and decorum, but it’s also about confrontation and civil disobedience. Black Lives Matter is a good recent example. Sometimes, civil discourse is disruptive and loud.

How do you know when to get loud?

There’s no list of boxes to check. But, for me, a distinguishing characteristic is: To what end? Once the dramatic confrontation is over, how are you going to realize, in a collective way, your goal? The movements that can’t answer that question are the ones that fizzle out.

In a digital age, how do we balance respectful dialogue with free speech?

This is what our our SNF Ithaca National Student Dialogue, for which we’re bringing university students from around the country to UD this spring, will focus on: We need to ensure people feel safe and included, and we need to ensure we hear differing viewpoints, so how do we balance those competing values? There’s no secret answer, but we have to figure it out collectively.

Do you ever feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle?

All the time.

What gives you hope?

I believe in the power of education—church basements, community spaces, classrooms—to make a difference. I had a powerful experience years ago.

At my previous institution, we were discussing a new policy that would make concealed handguns legal in the state. Most of the students were against. One, adamantly for the law, reached out after the course to say how much he appreciated that I didn’t demonize his minority position. He told me he’d had a brother who’d been a school shooter, and the reason he feels so strongly about his position is that if someone else in the school had had a gun that day, they may have stopped his brother. 

This is a person who needs to be able to show up and enter conversations, because he has a place from which to speak. We can’t mute opinions that run counter to the majority. Persuasion isn’t the goal. If we hope to accomplish anything, we need to understand.

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