Two journalists with differing ideologies discuss four pillars to civil arguments

Over the span of their careers, Detroit journalists Noah Finley and Stephen Henderson haven’t agreed on almost anything politically.

Yet the Detroit News editorial page editor and the former Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, respectively, came to Saginaw Valley State University on April 18 to talk about how they have been able to maintain their close friendship.

This friendship is the root of their cause, the Civility Project, which started in 2019 and has an objective to help people engage in civil discourse.

“We’re just trying to get people to talk to each other,” Finley said to an audience of about 30 people at the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.

To Finley and Henderson, a constructive argument is built on four pillars: drop assumptions, set reasonable expectations, practice active listening, and have a commitment to one another and the space you’re sharing.

It’s key to not assume what someone’s belief is based on the label of an ideology, Finley said. All people come to their opinions through learning information and filtering it through their experiences.

Henderson said one way to drop those assumptions is by being interested in who the other person really is.

“This is not an effort to make people agree,” he said. “This is about how we talk to each other, about what we see in one another, and even if we disagree, finding value in the person who we disagree with and maintaining those differences.”

While civility does have some limits, like when someone in a marginalized group might be pushed to defend their humanity, Henderson also reiterated that people should not make assumptions.

“Nobody has the obligation to counter someone who doesn’t respect their rights or humanity,” Henderson said. “One of the problems now is that we are almost trained to assume that people who disagree with us fall into that category (of having animosity towards us).”

While trying to understand who the other person is, Finley said people should not expect to change the other person’s ideology in an argument. But both parties should learn from each other in an argument.

“We may never agree, but we can disagree with a lot more understanding and respect for one another,” he said.

Throughout the discussion, social media was often brought up as the epicenter of issues surrounding discourse.

Social media encourage “certainty over curiosity,” Henderson said.

But people need to talk about their differences, Finley added.

“Don’t ignore it,” he said. “That just breeds resentment. I think the key to salvaging (a relationship) is saying that we’re going to talk about our differences, and we’re going to talk about (them) in a respectful way.”

 The event was part of the university’s Velasquez Lecture on Liberty and Free Markets series.

Henderson won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and the 2014 National Association of Black Journalists Journalist of the Year Award while writing for the Free Press. Since 2015, he has been the host of “Detroit Today” on WDET

Finley has also been the Detroit News city editor, business editor, politics editor and deputy managing editor. In 2000, he was named Editorial Page Editor and his columns have appeared in the newspaper ever since. He is co-host of One Detroit on Detroit Public Television

By Ben Jodway, Midland Daily News

Look to points of light for solutions to divisions

Essay By William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

At times, it may seem like we are drowning in conflict and division. But what if interesting and innovative projects are occurring in our states that allow communities and thus our nation to function as “one out of many” – which is the essence of a pluralistic society? What if these thousand points of light are a major part of the solutions that our country needs?  

Here are a few examples of organizations and individuals that are “practicing pluralism,” often away from the national spotlight. Their work reflects a dedication to respectfully engage with others from different points of view and background. In doing so, these efforts are strengthening the ties that bind us. 

Disagree Better – A commitment to pluralism is evident in the work of Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas. The duo appeared in late January at an Engage at the Bush Center event presented by NexPoint to discuss the Disagree Better initiative that Cox launched with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado.  

Cox emphasized during the Bush Center event that “disagreeing better” is not the same as civility or arguing that we must all agree. As he said, our country needs to discuss different points of view. It’s just that “we have forgotten [how] to have conflict without tearing each other apart.” 

Cox planted the seeds for the Disagree Better initiative as he campaigned for reelection in 2020. Witnessing the friction in the country, the incumbent decided to do something bold. He reached out to his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, to create a television ad together.  

The goal was to explain to voters their shared values and why they would accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. Peterson agreed, the ad ran, and research from Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge showed the “One Nation” ad was highly effective in reducing partisan violence. 

When he became Chair of the National Governors Association in 2023, Cox partnered with Polis, the Vice-Chair, to launch the Disagree Better initiative. Strategies include hosting four bipartisan events around the country to highlight how people can discuss divisive issues without being venomous; encouraging debates on college campuses that allow students to engage in healthy conflict; and urging political opponents to write op-eds together or produce their own campaign ad together. 

As my Pluralism Challenge partner Chris Walsh, Director of Global Policy at the Bush Institute, wrote last summer, better disagreement makes our democracy better.  

State Future Caucus – The caucus engages millennial and Gen Z lawmakers in statehouses to work across party lines to resolve problems. Emphasizing “collaborative governance,” the effort is an initiative of the Future Caucus organization that grew out of a 2013 Millennial Action Project. State Future Caucus now has members in 33 states and boasts of having 156 state legislators in leadership positions. 

Participants are encouraged to listen to each other, think of “we,” build trust among themselves, emphasize with another’s viewpoint, work around barriers, and pursue innovative action. These are not feel-good platitudes, either.  

In Arkansas, for example, lawmakers in 2023 passed the CROWN Act that two State Future Caucus members – Republican State Sen. Breanne Davis and Democratic State Rep. Jamie Scott – sponsored. The legislation bars discrimination based upon hairstyle. Among other things, the measure prohibits a coach or administrator from kicking a student off an athletic team because of their hairstyle. Similarly, two Oklahoma State Future Caucus members, Democratic Rep. Ajay Pittman and Republican State Sen. John Michael Montgomery, joined together in their statehouse to craft a maternal health care bill. 

The Civility Project – Detroit journalists Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson see the world differently. They even worked at competing newspapers: Finley at the Detroit News, where he serves now as Editorial Page Editor, and Stephen Henderson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at the Detroit Free Press before founding the website BridgeDetroit. 

The pair launched the Civility Project in the Great Lakes region so they could have productive discussions. “Our differences forced us to engage,” Finley told PBS for its recent documentary, A Citizen’s Guide to Preserving Democracy

Now, the duo hold workshops where they emphasize the importance of listening to other points of view.

“A conversation is not a competition” Finley told me during a recent phone conversation. The workshops focus on these pillars: Drop assumptions about each other; don’t try to convert each other; ask informed questions; and stick with the conversation through its fits and starts. This is all part of searching for the humanity behind a point of view. 

These are just three examples of the many thousand points of light across the country, as President George H.W. Bush described initiatives that bind together communities through serving one another. While America faces a number of problems that national leaders can best resolve, a strength of the country is the power of association and practicality that often exists in our communities and states. 

The Pluralism Challenge series will continue to showcase these stories. For example, this essay highlights the difficult, but nonetheless collaborative, efforts pursued by mayors like David Holt of Oklahoma City and Mattie Parker of Fort Worth and former Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas.  

Solutions do exist. And they often originate from “we the people.” We just need to keep looking for them.

‘Civility Night’ event to explore the power of mutual respect

WDET

In today’s political climate, many Americans believe they can’t be friends with people with opposing political viewpoints, or fear that any attempt to dive into a political topic with someone who might disagree would have a negative outcome.

This is part of the reason why Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson co-founded The Civility Project with Nolan Finley, editorial page editor for the Detroit News and Henderson’s long-time friend. Henderson and Finley rarely agree when it comes to politics, but their mutual respect for one another allows them to rise above their differences and actually listen, learn from and engage with each other.

Civility Night

On today’s show, Henderson speaks with Nolan about the goal of the project, and the upcoming Civility Night planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27 at Henry Ford College.

The Power of Civility

Two of Metro Detroit’s biggest political voices join us today in Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson.

Stephen as founding editor of Bridge Detroit and host of Detroit Today on WDET – and Nolan as editorial page editor of the Detroit News – they have very different views, but they’re good friends and have teamed up to create the Great Lakes Civility Project.

As a person who likes a good discussion, civility and how to make it happen is an interesting concept to me – and I wanted to talk it out with two people who have found ways to make it work.

Henry Ford College Partners with the Civility Project for election preview

The Great Lakes Civility Project, which aims to build civility by teaching people to listen to and understand one another, invites community members, students, faculty and local businesses to come together for a Civility Night at Henry Ford College from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 27.

After a discussion on civility led by Civility Project founders and renowned journalists Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson, participants will have an opportunity to immerse in civility-building guided by strategies and techniques taught by the Civility Project.

The program is themed Norms & Values of a Democratic Society, driven by the premise that some people believe democracy means the right to fight to impose their will, while others believe democracy shouldn’t force one position on the rest of the community – unless an initiative is morally wrong.  And that’s where the gray area comes in.

This program will explore how, and whether, democracy can survive in a pluralistic society.

“The last decade has been one of the most politically and emotionally divisive in American history, and as we get closer to midterm elections, those tensions will continue to rise,” Henderson said. “Confrontation happens when civility breaks down, and it’s more important than ever for Americans to be able work through disagreements in a respectful, productive manner.”

“A huge part of civility requires seeing the other person as human and trying to understand where they are coming from,” Finley said. “Our goal is to teach people how to truly listen to one another to move past conflict and work together more effectively. You don’t have to agree – but listening to understand is key.”

Anthony Perry, professor in HFC’s political science department, teaches his students the power and importance of civility to maintain a democratic society. He’ll be offering credit to students who attend the program, along with other faculty members at HFC.

“There is no better time than now to have this conversation,” Perry said. “Raising these issues with college students is a way to protect our nation’s future.”

Registration is now open at: https://forms.office.com/r/Fv1YqSEFJc.