C&D: Civic Dialogue for the common good?

On March 26-27, the National Constitution Center will host an interactive, interdisciplinary forum and workshop titled “Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America.”

Conference participants, drawn from such fields as history, political philosophy, political science, law, sociology, journalism, and communications, will explore both the historical and contemporary context of civility, dissent, and democracy.

As a warm up, we asked some of our guests: “How can we foster civic dialogue that simultaneously produces the agreement necessary to advance the common good and respects the voices of protest that often contribute to social progress?”

There are so many things we can do.  One place to start is by cultivating the art of listening.  We can be insistent in arguing our case, but we must respect the views of those with whom we disagree.  Ultimately, both sides have to be able to listen to the other.  And this is hard to do.  Most people don’t know how to listen.  Really listen.  Without a knee-jerk dismissal of the other side.  Most people, when they hear something they don’t like, start forming their response before hearing the other person out and thus any chance for dialogue is lost.  Then you just have two monologues talking at cross-purposes.  Passionate disagreement is good for political dialogue.  Demonizing the opposition cuts off dialogue.  We can be passionate about our beliefs without thinking we hold a monopoly on passion and patriotism.

Ralph Young, Professor (Teaching/Instructional), Department of History, Temple University

For our democracy to work, citizens must know how to deliberate, and they must deliberate “in good faith”—that is, with respect for their fellow citizens and a commitment to the “common good.”  Our founders’ biggest fear was that America’s great experiment in democracy would be undermined a citizenry that failed to distinguish between sound, well-reasoned arguments and what James Madison called “the artful misrepresentations of interested men.”  Unfortunately, the Founders’ great fear may be our new reality, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

How might we encourage more productive yet inclusive public dialogue?  The news media certainly could do a better job, and a variety of political reforms are needed.   In the final analysis, however, we face an educational challenge:  How can we prepare our young people to be more engaged and responsible citizens, more critical consumers in the “marketplace of ideas,” and more ethical participants in civic life?   Those are tough questions, but they are questions we cannot afford to ignore.

Michael Hogan, Research Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at the Pennsylvania State University

I think “civic dialogue” is a second-order virtue, a means to ends like justice, liberty, truth, not an end in itself. Civility has often been narrowly defined to exclude women, minorities, and the poor. The Supreme Court was right: one person’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.

The media’s role? They can model ways to take ideas serious (but which ones should be ignored?) and to entertain different views with respect (but some do not deserve respect). Those parentheses are problems! The media should also explain, critique, and defend our shared political institutions — what other grounds of common discourse do we have?

Professor of Communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

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