PBS host talks civil discourse at Iowa State


Katerine Kealey/ Iowa State Daily

Alex Heffner, host of “The Open Mind” on PBS, spoke about civility Nov. 4 at Iowa State.

Katherine Kealey

Alex Heffner, host of “The Open Mind on PBS,” spoke late Monday in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union.

Heffner previously visited the Des Moines, Iowa area during the 2016 election to speak at Simpson College and Drake University.

The Open Mind is described as a weekly excursion into the world of ideas according to the show’s website, but Heffner said he takes inspiration for the show from its founding mandate. He referenced a quote from one of his grandfather’s teachers during his time speaking at Iowa State. 

“Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out,” Heffner said. “That is really what I aspire to do on the program I host, because increasingly I think we find that our brains are splattered on the floor or at a minimum they are endangered to be, and we have to hold on to certain Democratic values that are dear to our nation.”

This is where Heffner said his discussion Monday originates. Heffner said he believes we all must start by defining what civility means.

“I don’t think of civility as the decorum, or how you comport yourself, I think that that is a really important element, but I think a significant feature [of] civility is civil discourse and civil society,” Heffner said.

Heffner said he believes components to civil discourse are civil dialogue, deliberation, disagreement and disobedience and these are all aspects people should try to achieve in a civil society. Heffner said during the 2020 election we should be able to “flesh out” a definition of civil society. 

“We go through primary season after primary season without having those goals […] chiefly in mind as we make up our minds about who to vote for, and I think that is problematic,” Heffner said.

Heffner said bigotry, obstructionism and disfunction are ways to frame the challenges to civility and civil discourse. Heffner added the media plays a role in adding to the lack of civility in discourse today.

Heffner said large media outlets such as Facebook are catering to “hate speech” and misinformation by framing it as “free speech.” He said companies need to incentivize good conduct, because when companies allow the “false news” to be published there is no way for quality information surface through.

Sarah Meisch, senior in political science, said she appreciated Heffner’s views on civil discourse. 

“I think he is brilliant, I think he takes a really measured and informed approach on politics and civil discourse,” Meisch said. “When he discussed misinformation campaigns that is a really important discussion to be had and can be very unifying.”