Saturday, March 05, 2005

The North Star

One of my hobby horses when teaching the American history survey is republicanism, which is what historians call the political ideology of the revolutionary generation. As I said in a previous post:

A republic is a form of government that is held together from below, by the citizens themselves. The founders who chose for this country a republican form of government understood that they were taking a very real chance. Historically, republics did not survive. They still do not. Most of the world's "republics" are so in name only. They are really dictatorships or oligarchies. There is no magic that exempts our republic from the same fate.
The steady drip, drip, drip of such sentiments into as many lectures as I could fit them--which is quite a few--has had the heartening effect of causing some students to think about how they themselves might be better citizens. A big chunk of good citizenship comes from being savvy and informed about current events and politics. Some of them--a couple, anyway--indicated they'd like to talk with me about that outside of class. So I announced that I would meet with interested students on Wednesday evening--March 2, the Wednesday just past--and reserved a classroom that would hold fifty students. I didn't know if even a single student would actually show up.

In the event, a few students did. Seven, to be exact. Four males, three females, to parse it one way. Six whites and one African American, to parse it another. Or by political affiliation: Four Republicans, two Democrats, and one conservative Independent.

We had a good discussion. In fact it was really very pleasant. The students knew rather more about politics than many, but what really distinguished the discussion was the way in which it was characterized by curiosity. When someone asked why another student thought such-and-such, it was never done in the aggressive, demolition derby way that characterizes most political exchange these days. It was done in a way that indicated the questioner was really interested in the answer. The objective was not debate but understanding.

It was a microcosm of what a local church hopes to accomplish, on a much larger scale, in a series of forums on contemporary affairs. I was recently approached to offer my ideas about how to help such a project succeed. I had a very nice meeting with one of the organizers, after which I received this email from the church pastor:

Hi Mark,

Leslie got home and filled me in on much of your meeting--­she was very excited! I wonder if you might write out your conception or impression of the process of this community dialogue. My desire is to include expert presentations on the moral issues that are raised and theological reflection on the presentations. The common ground being explored is as much religious as it is political­and I worry that the religious piece will be overshadowed or reframed. More, I hope that any presentation made and any dialogue entered into will be, in part, expressions of personal beliefs and convictions ­that the level of conversation reaches deep into personal identities rather than into ideologies or political positions. Well, ­what do you think? I value your insights and am grateful for your interest and participation in this offering to the community.

I wrote back:

I think the objective has to be the creation of a more civil and constructive public discourse. The presentations, important as they are, essentially create an environment in which to experiment with this discourse--to learn the techniques and approaches that best facilitate it, to see which ones misfire (and no doubt some seemingly promising approaches will), and to counter the inevitable problems that will arise.

The most obvious problem is that if a civil public discourse were easy it would already be the norm. The I-hate-you-I-hate-you-back model of public exchange is common because it works. It meets people's individual needs to vent their spleens and it meets the needs of politicians, lobbyists and political activists to mobilize political support. The most common political tool is the creation of fear. People do not so much vote in favor of things as they vote against things. In the American experience there is what has been called the "paranoid style" in politics. The most common variety is the threat to liberty. This goes back to the American Revolution, when the revolutionaries portrayed the British government and its policies as a threat to the liberties of colonists. A half-generation later the Federalists portrayed the Democratic-Republicans as a threat to liberty and vice versa; the Whigs and Democrats played on the same theme in the 1830s and 1840s; the Democrats and Republicans did the same in the 1850s and 1860s, and of course enough Americans believed this rhetoric to spark a civil war in 1861. I could multiply examples almost indefinitely. Examples from our own day, like the culture wars, are too obvious to need elaboration.

To the politics of fear may be added the tendency to see debate in terms of winning and losing. This model is explicitly promoted in nearly all high school debate clubs; it is used to measure presidential debates; it is of course the basis of our court system. In court the stakes are the guilt or innocence of a defendant. In presidential debates the stakes are election to an office. But what purpose winning serves in everyday debate I cannot fathom. What do you win? Usually your "defeated" opponent, crushed by your devastating wit and knowledge, is simply humiliated and through humilation becomes more, not less, wedded to his own position. All you really win is a boost to your own ego, and there are other, better ways to gain that.

Both the politics of fear and the win/lose model of debate very effectively close off honest discussion. Stacking the deck, ad homimen attacks, verbal tricks, solipsism, and a host of other tactics that would not be tolerated in a high school term paper are the common currency of almost every political conversation. Again, such tactics make sense if you want to gain election or block a given bill. But why citizens would employ these methods among themselves is less obvious, because for the most part, deprived of the chance to ever weigh the issues independently, we effectively just parrot the opinions packaged for us by the political elite.

Not only do citizens consume--indeed, we're force-fed--these pre-packaged opinions in bumper stickers, slogans, and sound bites, often enough what passes for political thought takes the form of dreaming up our own bumper stickers, slogans, and sound bites. Listen to those who call in to almost any politically-related radio talk show. You'll see what I mean.

I comment on the existing discourse at such length because I think there will undoubtedly be a tendency, in trying to create a civil discourse, to fall--or be pushed--back into what Deborah Tannen has called the "argument culture." Some people who attend the presentations will participate using the argument culture model simply because they are unfamiliar with any other. Some will start off civilly but will fall into the argument culture because their repertoire of skills in the civil discourse is limited. Still others, I feel sure, will try to sabotage the civil discourse, perhaps deliberately but more likely from some visceral hostility whose roots they themselves will not understand.

My guess is that the core dynamic will not be unlike marriage counseling which, in my all too extensive experience, is largely aimed at teaching better communication skills. The skills themselves seem simple, almost childlike, and when implemented effectively often produce a sense of stunned amazement on the part of spouses who had earlier been at each others' throats. But they are devilishly hard to implement. Under pressure one keeps reverting to older patterns of communication. It takes practice and the enhancement of emotional intelligence as well as purely cognitive knowledge to deploy these skills effectively on a day-to-day basis. Just so, I suspect, with a civil political discourse.

Because of the difficulty of sustaining a civil discourse, I think it will be necessary to evolve a set of appropriate sanctions to discipline those who violate the terms of the discourse. That, in turn, requires a set of ground rules, so that people understand what those terms are and what constitutes a violation. It requires a mechanism for calling attention to a violation. It requires a set of punishments. I suspect one will need a repertoire of punishments. At one end of the spectrum, it will be enough just to point out to someone that they're over the line. At the other, you will need a sort of ultimate sanction. You'll need a number of intermediate sanctions too, but by way of illustrating my idea of an ultimate sanction that fits this discourse, let me remind you of a key scene in the film Twelve Angry Men--which, I think, might very well be a good candidate for required viewing.

In this scene, the juror played by Ed Begley, Sr. launches into a racist tirade. The other jurors don't shout back at him. They don't call on the bailiff to have him removed. They don't say anything. Instead, one by one, they get up from their chairs, walk to another part of the room, and face away from the racist juror until he's left haranguing the empty air. He's utterly deflated. It's an incredibly powerful scene--and its power derives, I think, because it is so convincing. An audience instinctively knows that this would really work.

Anyway, such are my thoughts for the moment. I can suggest some ways by which a civil discourse might be constructed, but I suspect the two of you, and others, are better qualified for that. The part I'm good at is figuring out what can go wrong, and how to counter it.

As for not losing the religious component: that part's easy. In the New Testament it somewhere says that Jesus spoke with both grace and truth. Learning to speak like that, especially on matters that concern people's very lives, is a worthy project.
My students spoke that Wednesday evening with just that combination of grace and truth--truth as honest and authentic self-disclosure, I mean of course, not truth in the sense of absolute certainty. In fact the exchange had moments of touching uncertainty as a student would recognize a contradiction in their own political values. Nobody pounced. Nobody said "Gotcha." Everyone knew that few of us have worked out a political philosophy so seamless (and, I suspect, articificial) that it contains no tensions and contradictions.

As the evening wound down, we agreed that we would like to meet again. We talked about how good our conversation had been, but also how fragile, because anyone who had come to the meeting with a combative attitude, seeking to "win" debating points, could have squelched the whole thing.

I got everyone's email address and, later that evening, created a mailing list using Google Groups. In the course of creating the list, the server asked me to assign a name for the group. I thought a minute. Then I typed: "The North Star," after Frederick Douglass's newspaper. Earlier that evening there had been a brief moment of confusion as one student misheard a reference to Morningstar and thought she had heard The North Star. It was serendipitous, but more than appropriate. This was The North Star's motto:

"Right is of no Sex - Truth is of no Color - God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."


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