GUEST COLUMN: What we need here is civil discourse

Dec 21, 2011


Furthermore, most of us place the blame for conversation failures on “the other guy,” who denies what is obviously true and affirms what is patently false. Of course, the other guy makes the same claims about us.

Unfortunately, even if we see the irony of this finger pointing, few of us have any idea how to reach a better outcome.

I contend that the cause of our inability to have civil public conversations stems from our unstated intentions at the start.

For many of us, our intention is to win — or at least not lose. If this was not the case, why do we mentally review past debates, imagine wittier retorts and snappier rhetoric — and begin many of our thoughts with, “I should have said ...” During these times, it rarely occurs to us that a better outcome requires a different goal at the outset.

The West Michigan Civil Conversation Project would like to try a different approach, one where learning is the goal. Starting Feb. 21 from 7-8:45 p.m., and continuing the third Tuesday of each month, the West Michigan Civil Conversation Project will host community conversations at Grand Haven’s Loutit District Library.

The meetings are designed to encourage all citizens to come together to engage in a civil conversation.

The project is sponsored by Loutit District Library, League of Women Voters and Progressive Women’s Alliance of the Lakeshore.

The meeting room at the library will be arranged to allow small groups of five or six people to exchange views about a preannounced topic. We hope that each group will include enough diversity of opinion to allow attendees to have discussions they normally couldn’t have. A small group size allows “air time” for everyone, but it will still require everyone to listen more than they talk.

There are reasons why we keep having conversations that lead to little more than a contest. The first casualties in a contentious conversation are curiosity and doubt.

Curiosity provides the motivation for seeking different views and asking real questions (rather than rhetorical ones) in order to learn more about the other person’s ideas. Likewise, doubt leaves us open to the possibility that our position has room for improvement.

The abandonment of both curiosity and doubt in our public conversations should trouble us all. Arguers who employ neither are declaring that they have all the information they need to reach a judgment and that information is unassailable; which, if you think about it for more than two seconds, is a rather impossible position to take. Thus, anyone who speaks without some doubt and some curiosity is expressing an opinion that is blocked from ever being improved.

Furthermore, we are not helped by our information sources. Topics that are of importance to civil society usually lack an irrefutable factual basis. Most of our information has been digested and spun by others before we receive it. Our national media provides us with sound bites and interviews with opposing sides, but the truth may not lie in either camp. Thus, an argument presented in this way may miss the salient points entirely.

On Feb. 21, our first topic will explore the common good. It was an important concept to our founding fathers, yet it seems to be a contentious issue now. We will ask the participants to define the term and discuss the role of governments and individuals in creating it.

We do not expect people to reach agreement or find common ground, but we do hope that there will be increased understanding of the views of others and the reasons they place such importance on them. Given the scorn employed by those speaking and writing in our local and national media, this could be a great improvement.

If you agree that today’s public discourse is not working very well, that our TV and radio ideologues present a poor model for civil discourse, that we tend to limit our discussion to those who already agree with us, then perhaps a public discussion forum is as exciting to you as it is for us.

In the end, we will not ask for a general agreement, take a vote or form action committees — although if some want to continue the discussion and make plans at another venue, good for them. Our intention is to expand everyone’s understanding of important issues while simultaneously improving our ability to hold a conversation with those with whom we disagree. Hopefully, by talking together, we can broaden and deepen our individual understanding, allowing each of us to make more informed choices in the future.

— By Richard Kamischke, Tribune guest columnist


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