Dialogue … Is An American Value ®

Louis Brandeis, a former US Supreme Court Justice, stated that “In a democracy, public discussion is a political duty.” But what kind of discussion?  What promotes civic capacity?

As the public education reformer John Dewey said “we can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.”  How can our discussions be better informed?  How can we share perspectives and experiences in positive ways?

Our guides can help inform, and help citizens practice, civic dialogue.  You can scroll through these guides on this site or download them as PDFs.

Some of the posts from our early years are set forth below and we will be adding others. You can also review more tips for building dialogue on the Blog for Building Dialogue. We look forward to working with you.

Moving Beyond Negative Norms

As we mentioned in some of our previous posts, dialogues are regularly plagued with the sorts of oppositional behaviors (finger-pointing, name calling, ridicule) that make constructive solutions to real problems difficult to achieve.  Other factors undermining effective dialogue include wishful thinking, simple dismissal of alternative viewpoints, insistent oversimplification, jockeying for credit, and unwillingness to trust in others.  If we are to make dialogue a part of our self-governance, how do we go about moving beyond these negative norms?

This is no easy task.  What we may require is a sea change in the way we do politics.  What must we do to create a truly inclusive and functional public sphere that leads citizens into dialogue, helps them collaborate to develop the knowledge needed to make good decisions, and then results in those decisions being reflected into policy and action?

From Dialogue to Policy

In our previous post, we indicated that interlocking sets of bounded dialogues may be necessary to make broad scale public dialogues more productive in evaluating or implementing policy changes.  While many can agree that dialogue is a useful tool for public engagement, it is not so clear how this dialogue can or will intersect with or influence the legislative or regulatory processes that lead to changes in policy.  And dialogue cannot be expected to replace procedural or other safeguards inherent in those other processes.  Sustained and informed dialogues that are designed to interact with those processes could over time help make those processes more accountable to the public, and serve both to educate the public and inform decisionmakers.  Americans indicate that they want greater involvement with, and greater transparency and accountability from, their government, yet, it is unclear exactly what this means.  Is the general public prepared for intensive and informed dialogue?  Why or why not?

Dialogue With Boundaries

It is often assumed that dialogue should be an open forum in which everyone gets to speak their mind.  Not  everyone though is comfortable with this sort of dialogue and thus fail to bring their concerns to the table.  Not all who do come to the table are informed or interested in learning.  Yet, the myriad and pressing problems we face today require public dialogue that is both informed and inclusive, and that builds the understanding needed to create a broad-based political will to change.

We might make more progress by creating more dialogues with boundaries  –  that is, dialogues, whether in person or online, that are focused by mutual understanding and acceptance as to their purpose, moderated for civility, and organized into discernible threads that help new ideas emerge in coherent ways.

How do we create an inclusive dialogue on major policy issues and still have boundaries? One way might be to have multiple dialogues at different levels that are networked.  People enter dialogues at many different levels. The Office of Science and Technology Policy has recently started a blog that is working to develop a national conversation on how we approach policies, and other groups like The Right Question Project have started dialogues that help citizens learn basic skills needed to participate in everyday democracy.  Citizens have also been encouraged to host house parties to discuss health care and other issues. How can such efforts be linked? How do we build and share knowledge? What would help us to better understand the intersections between issues? To what extent does blog technology allow us to have the sorts of dialogues that can lead to real and productive policy changes, and what are its limits?  One of our commentators, commenting on the post below titled “what makes discussion meaningful or productive” suggested fielding panels of speakers on key topics of interest to help citizens become more informed about issues.  Could we build “information gateways” – attendance at an event, reviewing written materials, or viewing on-line videos — for participation in a moderated blog?  Are there other approaches we should be taking to gather our resources and make the best decisions possible?

Here is a quote to consider from Woodrow Wilson:

I not only use all the brains I have, but all the brains I can borrow.

Our primary question is, how can we best use all of our brains?