What Does Civil Discourse Look Like?

President Obama’s  call for “a more civil and honest political discourse” is a challenge we should accept. What does it mean?  What are we called to do?

Ann Friedman in the American Prospect ponders a similar question and notes:

However, few people seemed to have an idea, let alone a shared idea, of what such a discourse is actually supposed to sound like. Some pundits offered examples: In a column at The New Republic, E.J. Dionne called on the Republicans to stop using inflammatory and misleading phrases like “death panels.” Others, like the Prospect’s own Paul Waldman, said that overly dramatic language wasn’t the issue; we should all be focused on eliminating rhetoric that dismisses opposing views as completely illegitimate. But my sense is that when most folks call for civility, they are demanding a “fair fight” that relies on research and employs logic — a rational, fact-based debate. via What’s Civility Worth?.

Over heated rhetoric tends to diminish the significance of facts by denigrating a close attention to the alleged facts as the domain of fence sitters, or slow pokes who fail to act on the truth and go forth and conquer.   Re-examining what one holds as a “fact” or a “truth” seems to be the hang-up, the reason why talking about the facts, if we get there, fails to make discourse honest and sincere.  But the reluctance to admit being wrong is not the only problem.

The debate that occurs in politics is often civil and meaningless, again quoting Friedman,

that “debate” is just politicians taking turns issuing sound bites meant for members of their own base, not as persuasive points attempting to sway the other party. The halls of Congress are not a place where two sides look at an agreed-upon set of facts and then debate the best way forward. Much of the debate is about the facts themselves.

This type of debate is a form of posturing before the public using facts as props for metaphors and stories that have political appeal.  The optimist believes that critically examining political speech can bring us back to the facts.  Of course, there is more to debate than facts, we may disagree about the principles and values that public policy reflects.  Conventional wisdom holds that agreement on facts is more likely than agreement on principles, or values. I am not so sure.

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