To engage in civil discourse, Leah Daughtry ’84 told a crowd at Dartmouth on Friday, is “to get or enhance understanding—even or especially with those with whom we disagree”—and she challenged the audience to hold themselves, their institutions, and their elected officials to this high standard.
Her lecture, “Words and Their Consequences: Civil Discourse in the 21st Century,” co-sponsored by the Nelson Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the William Jewett Tucker Center, kicked off the College’s weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. with a call for more meaningful dialogue in all spheres of conversation—public, political, and personal. Daughtry tackled partisan responses to President Obama’s tears during a recent speech on gun control, the need for meaningful discourse on sexual violence in the wake of allegations against Bill Cosby, and how we as individuals speak to friends and loved ones every day.
Daughtry has been involved in presidential politics since she helped organize Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign in Hanover. She is CEO of the 2016 Democratic National Convention Committee—a role she also played in 2008. She serves as pastor of House of the Lord Church in Washington, D.C., and is the founding principal of the strategic planning and management consulting firm On These Things, which produced the closing ceremonies of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2013.
“She is, in brief, a world-class communicator,” Andrew Samwick, director of the Rockfeller Center and Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving ’72a P’10 Professor of Economics, said in his introduction of Daughtry, to an audience that included President Phil Hanlon ’77 as well as students, faculty, staff, and community members.
Beginning with discourse in the public sphere, Daughtry said that social media has made it too easy for individuals to speak past one another, rather than to engage in true dialogue. “But in the best exercise of free speech, what is shared in the public sphere must include the basic matched tenets of civil discourse: respect and humility,” she said.
By respect and humility, she does not mean so-called political correctness and tolerance. “In recent years it has become quite de rigueur for people of all races to say with pride, ‘I’m colorblind, I don’t see color. Everyone is the same to me,’ ” Daughtry said. “Now, while I understand the noble sentiment behind these statements, they are maddening and disrespectful all the same.”
No true civil discourse, she argued, can occur when one party begins the conversation with such an inauthentic and disrespectful premise about the other. Unless you have a visual impairment, “you absolutely see color just fine. This statement, however well intended, is dismissive and demeaning to the experience of the person whose color you do not see. The fact is I am a black woman, of African descent, and the peculiar challenges that our country has had and still has with race mean that my experience—my entire life experience—can only truly be seen and understood through the prism of my race and of my gender. To say that you don’t see my race is to say that you don’t see me.”
In the political sphere, she acknowledged her bias—“I’m a Democrat, did you know?”—while calling for those seeking public office to take responsibility for the consequences of their words.
“As we approach our next presidential election I am inclined to challenge each of us to vote for civility and to hold our elected officials accountable for civil discourse and demand civility in the public square,” Daughtry said.
Turning to the sphere of the personal, Daughtry said, “The practice of civil discourse begins with a personal commitment to civility in our most basic and our most intimate relationships.”
Framing her remarks around the Biblical proverb, “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” she challenged listeners to consider how they communicate daily with others.
“Will the next word out of your mouth in private pierce like a sword or bring healing? It is as simple as sincerely acknowledging and speaking kindly and respectfully to the person who serves your meal. Please and thank you. And it is as profound as speaking lovingly to your friends and in your love relationships and to your mailman and to your roommate.”
Following the lecture, Daughtry answered questions from students, staff, and faculty on the role of the two-party system in degrading civil discourse; how faith shapes her involvement in politics; and examples from her own life of the power of engaging with people different from herself.
One student, who identified himself as “a politically moderate white male,” described his discomfort with expressing his views to those with more extreme positions.
In response, Daughtry shared her experience of drawing criticism from the activist community in which she had grown up when she decided to come to Dartmouth and, later, to work in mainstream electoral politics.
“We all contribute—we have a way that we can each contribute and we need to find the way that we can do that,” Daughtry said. “So you choose the way that works for you, and don’t judge them. Let them choose the way that works for them, and they shouldn’t judge you.”
Afterward, Invo Chami ’16 said she found Daughtry’s words helpful.
“I thought it was very keyed to where Dartmouth is right now, to what our campus climate looks like right now,” Chami said. “I think that if this was something everyone got to hear it would make a difference in how we communicate with one another and how we actually make a deliberate effort to engage.”
Following the lecture, Daughtry had dinner with students from the Tucker Center, and over the weekend met with students who will be participating in an upcoming spring break immersion program, “Faith in Action,” in Washington, D.C. On Sunday, she led a multi-faith celebration at Rollins Chapel honoring the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nancy Vogele ’85, director of religious and spiritual life at the Tucker Center, described Daughtry as “an amazing gift to the community.”
“It’s nice to have someone who knows us and can speak to issues of justice in a way that I think will really resonate with our community,” Vogele said of Daughtry’s visit. “It deepens the level of discourse around these issues to have her here. And because she’s an alum, it helps students imagine themselves engaging that way, as well.”
Celebrations honoring Martin Luther King Jr. will continue throughout the rest of January. Tonight, playwright and civil rights activist Rohina Malik will deliver this year’s keynote address at 7 in Moore Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
Earlier today, Dia Draper, associate director for strategic initiatives in Tuck’s MBA Program, spoke at the annual employee breakfast, and this evening, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity presents the 24th-annual candlelight vigil, beginning at 5 p.m. on the first floor of Cutter-Shabazz Hall.
To see the complete schedule of events, visit the Martin Luther King Celebration website.