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?

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?

Transparency, Open Government, and Education

On January 21, 2009 President Obama issued a memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” which was published in the Federal Register on January 26, 2009, Vol. 74, No. 15, p. 4685.   There he stated that his administration would work to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and work to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” with the goal of strengthening our democracy.  Different paragraphs in the memo state that “government should be transparent” in order to promote accountability; “government should be participatory” in order to improve the quality of its decisions; and that”government should be collaborative” in order to actively engage Americans in the work of their government.  These goals are well aligned with the ideals of our democracy.  Yet they may assume an intellectual infrastructure that is not yet in place.  A column in the December 24 & 31, 2007 New Yorker titled “Twilight of the Books” cited a Department of Education study on literacy that indicated that the proportion of adults capable of comparing viewpoints in two editorials at 13%.  A 2005 study by the American Bar Association indicated that only 55% of adults surveyed could name the three branches of government. Other studies have indicated that many Americans lack the literacy needed to handle complex, real-life tasks like reviewing credit card offers and other financial instruments.

Participatory engagement would suggest knowing the branches of government and their functions, and understanding the different proposals made.  Although engaging more Americans in the work of government is a laudable goal, it is one that will require more than posting data online and otherwise making text available.  We also need to equip citizens for informed dialogues in which they can learn from and inform each other, as well as provide input to their elected officials.  This will require active effort to build skills and a range of media.  If done well it has the potential to revitalize public involvement.  Suggestions for engaging the public made elsewhere on this blog have included public debates and other kinds of forums.  How do we best equip the public for a participatory role in modern government? Your suggestions are welcome.

Gaining Wisdom

“If the United States is to be a democracy, its citizens must be free. If citizens are to be free, they must be their own judges. If they are to judge well, they must be wise. Citizens may be born free; they are not born wise.”  These words were written by F. Champion Ward, Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, in 1949 as a preface to a  collection of  readings designed to help students better understand “American History and its great arguments”.  The collection was titled “The People Shall Judge”, and like our guides, it was designed to help students engage in discussions — or dialogues — where historical facts and thought could be digested, questioned, and integrated with the experience and thinking of those in the group. It is through this kind of dialogue that we can develop the type of judgments that lead to wise decisions. Dean Ward wrote of the importance of “forming habits of open discussion and independent judgment which will lead to wise decisions and new achievements in the American future.”  He concluded that “Surely, a democracy should invite its citizens to learn and think in this inquiring way. Surely, a democracy whose citizens do so learn and think will be well and freely served.” Where in our current political culture are the opportunities to practice and form these habits? What are the barriers? Where can we as citizens provide new opportunities to sift through, synthesize, and evaluate the often overwhelming amount of information that floods our daily lives, particularly in an election year?  Let us know what you are doing, and what more might be done.