Public Affairs Conference Focuses on Bridging Political Differences
The first self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence is the inspiration for this year's public affairs conference at Missouri State University. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Reflections on Self Government (April 4-7, 2017).
I'm Nicki Donnelson and today my guest is Dr. Kevin Pybas. He is an associate professor of political science and this year's Provost Fellow for public affairs.
"Broadly it's about people's involvement with politics. What should politics look like? What should government do? Politics is about government policies government should pursue or should not pursue, so it's something that affects us all. Politics turns a lot of people off, but we should pay attention to politics. People are making decisions and making policies that we all have to live under."
As he and the committee were planning the plenaries and panels, Pybas considered thoughtfully presenting divergent viewpoints though it opened minds rather than alienate conference goers.
"I looked for plenary speakers who would speak to important issues, but could do so in a way that sought to build bridges. They were going to be talking about important issues within politics, but in a way that will be illuminating and would speak to people across the political spectrum."
Pybas shares about a few of the plenary speakers who will speak during the public affairs conference. One is J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir that came out in summer of 2016.
"A lot of academic work has been done in recent years on the white underclass, or the white working class and how economic shifts over the last three or four decades, how those have affected family life and social life among the poor, working class whites. He comes out of that environment in the rust belt of Ohio.
"He didn't have the chance to go college out of high school, but joined the marines and served in the marines, then used the GI Bill to go college and then onto law school. It's a reflection on where he came from.
"He went to Yale, the most elite law school, the most competitive to get into, and it suddenly dawns on him that there's no one else around like him that has the kind of experiences he's had. Even though he knew he had grown up around a lot of talented smart people, many of them were their own worst enemies and did not wind up with the kind of opportunities that he did."
Another hot topic will be addressed by Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU. She will talk about freedom of speech.
"Seems like the more partisan we are, the more calls there are to censor other people, and she's very concerned about this, and ACLU has always been a strong advocate for very broad protection of freedom of speech. Ironically, one of the battlegrounds of free speech is college campuses and universities today where, in some sense it's understandable, but a sentiment is growing that one shouldn't have to listen or tolerate to speech that one disagrees with. I think she will speak to that well."
Fear is often a motivation for wanting to suppress free speech, said Pybas, but he cautions his students that more speech is always better than less.
"History shows that worse things begin to happen if you give somebody the authority to pick and choose which speech is going to be allowed. Young people today have less of a commitment to free speech than in any time in history, at least in terms of what opinion polls tell us. I teach a First Amendment class, but even in the basic Intro to American Government is students complaining. I say it's better to live in a world like that, where you hear things that you disagree with, because it forces you to think about your own beliefs, right, and why do you disagree."
The founding fathers spoke of the pursuit of happiness, but it's largely been open to interpretation. In fact, most politicians don't even address it. Sonja Libomerski will talk about what is happiness; how do we get it?
"She is a social psychologist and she is one of the country's leading experts on the scientific study of happiness. She knows a great deal about it, she's a very great speaker, and I think she will really appeal to campus, but in the community too, who are interested in politics, but don't always stop and think about what happiness has to do with politics."
For a full listing of conference events, visit publicaffairs.missouristate.edu. That was Dr. Kevin Pybas, associate professor of political science and this year's Provost Fellow for Public Affairs.