From 1966-1996, the weekly show Firing Line appeared on Public Television. Hosted by William F. Buckley, it was structured around an interview in which the conservative Buckley verbally sparred with a liberal guest on topics of the day. Author and founder of the National Review, Buckley was articulate, arcane, and the always-irascible spokesman for conservatives.
A favorite guest of Buckley’s was John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard Professor of Economics, author, and stalwart liberal who worked for 4 democratic presidents.
These two became fast friends after meeting at a Harvard symposium. Buckley had Galbraith on his show many times and these two fundamentally disagreed on many subjects and publicly debated or jousted with zest, curiosity, intellect and humor. And, perhaps most importantly, with respect.
These respectful debates occurred 40 years ago, in 1978, when the nation was facing issues just as big as in 2018. Diane Rehm, NPR host, put it simply, “Civil discourse is our ability to have dialogues on topics about which we disagree, and our ability to really take in one another’s perspectives.” It’s also about risk-taking – daring to learn something new and being strong enough to perhaps admit you may be wrong.
Andrea Leskes, senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, takes it a step further defining what she sees as core elements that foster civility in discourse:
- focus on the issues rather than on the individual
- defend interpretations using verified information
- thoughtfully listen to what others say
- avoid violent verbal attacks: conversation ender
- seek out points of common purpose and sources of disagreements
- embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change your mind
- treat the ideas of others with respect.
The idea of civility must be built upon standards of conduct towards others and a willingness to accept the consequences for your words.
Masha Gessen, staff writer for the New Yorker, said recently on NPR that “we no longer engage in political discussions but only talk politics – the former coming up with new ideas to advance a situation, the latter posturing and closing things down.”
When the intention is only to win, the conversation becomes contentious and limited. In his Five Myths of Civil Discourse (2012), H. Koegler clarifies that “civil” refers “not to mannered conduct but to membership in a civil society.” He further suggests that civil discourse has a process based on evidence and argument, coupled with the willingness to learn from the other about public matters of common concern.
This was purpose of a December, 2017 conference in Honolulu, Public Participation in a Polarized Era, sponsored by our Accord 3.0 Network and the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center. Looking at ways to improve Hawaii’s political climate, attendees from public and private groups grappled with what were seen as contributing factors: technology, the current administration, people in need feeling disconnected from the grid.
Two days of ‘civil’ and productive discussions identified actionable ways the political climate could be improved, including challenging officials to seek public input earlier in the decision-making process, and better educating public officials to respect the collective judgment of the public.
The good news? This Honolulu Forum was but one of literally hundreds of courses, events, and publications now underway nationally and globally across universities, school systems, government agencies, and non-profits. More than 20 universities have programs and curricula on improving discourse and communication.
In the third (and, yes, final!) segment of this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the exciting things now going on across the country and worldwide spotlighting the urgent need for fuller and more open discourse on topics of import: to support that greater good.