Audio File #4: Civil, Civic Discussions

Our conversations about civic matters—economic policies, schooling systems, religion, science, and social institutions—are severely lacking in nuance and reasoned debate. Instead, what flourishes are simplistic arguments and ad hominem attacks. This trend is strengthened by a media environment where we can easily consume pieces tailored to our point of view, avoiding challenge and change.

On Being is a weekly public radio show hosted by Krista Tippett ostensibly about religion and spirituality, but now the host of a broader series of discussions called the Civil Conversations Project. I used to turn off On Being when it came on my radio Sunday afternoons, put off by the wispy quality, assuming it was a liberal echo chamber of feel-good, empty spirituality.

But as I would listen in snippets, or accidentally turn it on in the car, I found it to be a series of careful, respectful dialogues about difficult subjects, with religion, of course, among the trickiest.

So it did not altogether surprise me to find myself enchanted by a recent episode on gay marriage, which really became a window into how to have civil debates. An interview of David Blankenhorn and Jonathon Rauch—originally on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate, and now friends in agreement on many issues—the discussion covered David’s changed mind on gay marriage, but much more interestingly their process of what they called “achieving disagreement.”

For this post I really want to excerpt some longer segments that, I think, speak for themselves. I encourage listening to the full episode. To have two people agree about how to disagree, that are intellectually honest in their point of view and empathetic enough to consider the other side is tragically rare these days and models a better way to converse. I think we can learn from them how to continue to passionately disagree while remaining not just polite, but truly civil.

Following are minimally-edited excerpts.

 “We called what we did achieving disagreement,” David said, describing his and Jonathon’s years-long process of debating gay marriage. “It’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say: ‘Oh you’re a bad person and you’re stupid.’ But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground; it means finding out where we agree. Otherwise, how do you know where you disagree if you don’t also know where you agree?”

Krista recalled a previous line David had written about doubt and debate. You wrote this, she said: “What I need as a doubting person is the wisdom of the other.”

“Because if I don’t have any doubt, I don’t need you,” David responds. “I should be nice to you out of manners but I don’t need a relationship with you. I may want you to be available to be lectured by me so that you can come to the correct view. And I may want to treat you politely for that reason. But I don’t really need you. If I’m not sure I have the full truth of the matter, I need you. Civility allows me to have a relationship with you.”

Jonathon went on to describe the higher values of civic debate:

“I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values, ultimately, than what each of us wants as individuals. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core values of our constitution, which is to force compromise. I saw in you [David] someone who was willing to say: ‘Being right about marriage is not as important to me as making a pact with my fellow Americans on the other side so we can share this.’”

“We can live together,” David agreed.

“Nothing soft and squishy about that.”

Expanding on compromise, Jonathon got meta: “I think it’s time for us to get a little more uncompromising in our defense of compromise.”

But this is debate. People do want to change minds; they do care about the outcome, not just the process. David, who originally opposed gay marriage but came to support it in order to avoid discrimination against homosexuals and to attempt to build a coalition to strengthen the institution of marriage, offered his view of how his position changed. Spoiler: it wasn’t being called names.

“It was much more the positive relationships than the bullying. For me personally, it was the positive relationships that caused me to change my mind about this, not being called names in the newspapers.”

Why has public debate, so often called for in moments of crisis and important ongoing discussions, deteriorated? David is not sure, but he describes its effect.

“I don’t know why it is, but I think we’re just at this moment in time where this public conversation is at a particularly low level of quality. The coarseness; the ugliness; the assumption of bad faith; the triviality; the sensationalism. I don’t know if there’s a macro solution right now, because I don’t quite know where it comes from. I can’t diagnose it really. It’s terrible. It’s bad for the country. It’s bad for our souls. The only thing I can think of is modeling on a small scale, whenever you can, a different way of talking to one another.”