Athens workshop to examine division and distrust in public discourse

SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins hosts its inaugural event as part of the Summer Nostos Festival in Greece

Video: Len Turner and Dave Schmelick

Democracy is only as strong as the discourse and decision-making of its citizens, yet the United States and other countries around the world have slipped into an era of escalating division and distrust.

Ideological divisions and partisanship are rampant. Trust in governmental and civic institutions, in science, and in the media are at record lows. These trends are surfacing at a moment of significant social and technological change that is altering the most basic forms of engagement and debate among citizens.

"Without robust, open dialogue, one cannot have a robust, effective, and durable democracy. The two go hand in hand."
Ronald J. Daniels
President, Johns Hopkins University

On Wednesday, June 20, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University will bring together an international group of scholars and practitioners grappling with these issues and searching for solutions for a daylong workshop in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of democracy.

"The SNF Agora Institute is devoted to exploring the challenges that are posed to contemporary liberal democracy," Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels says. "Without robust, open dialogue, one cannot have a robust, effective, and durable democracy. The two go hand in hand."

The workshop, part of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation's Summer Nostos Festival in Athens, will introduce the type of work the institute will undertake—from exploring the decline of modern dialogue and decision-making, to sharing lessons learned on promoting open discussion, to proposing innovative reforms to reverse the corrosive deterioration of norms.

The day will begin by probing the ancient past for parallels to our current crisis of democracy and will conclude with a conversation about innovative new venues for nurturing modern dialogue. In between, panels will examine the role education and educational institutions can and should play in bolstering civil discourse, as well as the extent to which disinformation—a widely discussed but often misunderstood phenomenon—is undermining democracy around the world.

"People everywhere are not engaging any more, and when they do, it is in an aggressive and highly opinionated/polarizing way," says Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president and director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. "Technology at large and social media do not help the situation. They even make it worse in certain occasions. It is time to go back to basics. We need more civic engagement and more civil discourse at all levels."

The SNF Agora Institute, launched last year with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, will consist of three parts—the academic anchor, a group of 11 full-time faculty members (including the director) along with a rotating group of visiting scholars and practitioners from diverse fields and ideologies who will focus on issues threatening democracy; the lab, where their work can be tested in practice; and the conversation, an ongoing effort to engage the broader public in exploring difficult issues.

The institute is currently conducting a search for its inaugural director and making plans for a permanent physical space on JHU's Homewood campus. Wednesday's Athens workshop, which will be streamed live online from 2 to 6 a.m. EST, is its inaugural event.

"We want the SNF Agora Institute to be a visible and dynamic focal point for debate and discussion around these issues both within the United States and internationally," Daniels said. "Our aim is to bring diverse scholars and citizens together to develop new insights and provide workable solutions that will sustain and enhance democracies around the world."