Change Through Debate

October 5, 2009

A variety of scholars have weighed in on the current debate about American political civility, noting brutal fights on the floor of Congress in the 19th century, nasty mud-slinging of U.S. presidential campaigns throughout history, and other less than impressive aspects of our cultural past. And of course, they are correct that incivility is nothing new. What makes incivility seem omnipresent is the communication environment of our day: the pressure on our 24/7 journalists to fill airtime, new venues for citizens to state their opinions -- thoughtful or lunatic -- online, and a culture that encourages unabashed self-expression.

Who thought we would see the day when CNN news anchors would read incoming “Tweets” from viewers to us in serial fashion, opening an international information channel to faceless, opinionated people with no qualification for broadcasting except time on their hands?

It was difficult not to be appalled by the excesses of campaign rally crowds during the 2008 presidential election, the displays at some health care town hall meetings this past summer, and Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst ("You lie!"). Students of American political history put these events in context, easily, because incivility is manifest in a variety of ways during different eras. But that scholarly response seems a very unsatisfying reaction to the ill-mannered eruptions, name-calling, and sheer meanness that we find on television and our favorite internet sites, now on a regular basis. The incivility is still worrisome, even if historically predictable, and we look for a way to cope with it.

The scholarly literature on trends in civility is mixed in its conclusions, with some arguing for either a bumpy or near-linear increase of incivility in both the United States and Western Europe, others arguing that we are actually more polite now than ever in public, and still others – like myself – who posit that civility and incivility are both timeless strategic rhetorical weapons. Some people are better at using these tools than others, to achieve their goals, but a macro-historical argument about collective civility is probably a bit of a stretch and difficult to demonstrate empirically, to say the least.

The “incivility as strategy” approach fits our current circumstances, particularly the health care reform debate, fairly well. The political right now draws on Saul Alinsky’s mid-century tactics on behalf of the poor in Chicago for instruction on town meeting behavior, and the political left tries to come up with brutally effective broadcast advertisements, guided by the Republican “Harry and Louise” spots that undermined the Clintons in the 1990s. Civility and incivility are weapons, as are facts, logic, demonstrating, teaching, striking, and all the other means of persuasion one finds in the arsenal of public expression.

But perhaps the essential issue is that incivility is just more interesting than is measured, calm discussion. Incivility is intriguing, almost always. It can be downright exciting, as when blows are exchanged at a town meeting, and replayed like a train wreck on YouTube by millions of viewers. And who is not fascinated by citizens (apparently on the same side of the issues) marching with pictures of the president portrayed as both Lenin and Hitler? It is bizarre, and also hard to take our eyes off of.

As President Obama put it on a recent broadcast of 60 Minutes: "I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. And so, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is, how can we make sure that civility is interesting. And, you know, hopefully, I will be a good model for the fact that, you know, you don't have to yell and holler to make your point, and to be passionate about your position."

Obama might, over the longer term, fight incivility in part by maintaining his own preternatural calm throughout incessant appearances on television. But my sense is that exciting nasty discourse needs to be matched by something that gets the blood boiling just as well, or incivility will indeed triumph in any given situation.

Soaring rhetoric from President Reagan in the past, Obama today, and others with their talents in the future may be passionate, but as rhetoric soars, it does not always argue. Great oratory gets steamed up when it expresses hopes and beliefs (e.g., Americans cannot always support other citizens financially, or health care is an inalienable “right”), not when it argues for, say, the "public option" or insurance cooperatives. So, the trick is to find mechanisms for public policy discussion that are exciting, passionate, creative, and thoughtful all at the same time.

From the ancient philosophers onward, a variety of academics across disciplines have tackled the questions of rhetoric, persuasion, political debate, and civility, and as a result, we can offer a tremendous amount of theorizing and empirical research on these topics. But that complex material simply will not penetrate or guide contemporary American public discourse any time soon. And pointing to our campuses as models -- underscoring the ways we debate and argue with respect for each other every day (or nearly every day), in classrooms, faculty meetings, symposiums, and beyond – doesn’t go very far either. It’s hard to explain unless you have lived it: Imploring political leaders or fellow citizens to look to universities as exemplars of "cultures of argument" will not work because it is too experiential in nature.

However, colleges and universities do offer more practical ideas and tools to American lawmakers, journalists, and interest group leaders, that are far more helpful and productive. There is the wonderful work by Gerald Graff and others on teaching argument and conflict, demanding that our students know how to make an argument in class, in papers, and as they go about their lives. As the years pass, these scholars have made a difference, and my bet is that their impact will be even greater as a younger generation of faculty learn how to incorporate argument into their teaching, no matter the discipline or class size.

But even more accessible than these pedagogical paradigms and tools is formal debate itself, from policy debate modeled by national championship college and university teams, to Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, and a variety of other formats that have emerged across nations. While I was only a high school debater myself, and I'm now far outside both the high school and collegiate debate “circuits," it is clear to me that if we can train our students – not only our student leaders and teams – in debate, and make it a stronger presence on campuses, we might build a more constructive public discourse with generational change. Anyone can debate – learn to make an argument, marshal evidence, rebut – with some instruction and practice. And these skills, once gained, can be translated into the sorts of forums our students will eventually find themselves in: workplace meetings, the PTA, community organizations, and in some cases, city halls and legislatures. We do not need to train a generation of lawyers, but we do need to train a generation of students who can simulate what attorneys and great debaters do as a matter of course.

There are many people, organizations and institutions that teach debate either for the classroom or for regional or national competitions, in the United States, abroad, and online (see here and here). But the basic elements are the same across formats: Argument, evidence, forced reciprocity and dialogue, equal time, and mandatory listening. These are precisely the elements missing from much of the contemporary debate about health care reform, and I predict they will be absent as well from the worrisome debates coming next, immigration policy reform in particular. These aspects of communication are the very building blocks for civility, and at this point at least, we have a deficit of them.

Those of us who study political communication used to hope – and perhaps many scholars still do – that the best American journalists would educate the public on the quickly-evolving policy issues before us, leading reasoned debate through newspapers and television programs. Some journalists give it an honest try, when they hold jobs that allow it. And we can locate a few lone heroes among the Sunday morning talking heads, if we wade through all the worthless talk of presidential popularity polls, embarrassing gaffes, and who is spinning whom. But with the financial struggles and disappearance of so many news organizations, it is difficult for any journalist – no matter how talented – to get our attention.

They compete, for better or worse, with bloggers and Twitterers, and wise information “gate-keepers” are leaving us with every passing year. It may be up to academic leaders to take on unexpected and much greater responsibility in shaping citizens, not just in our conventional ways of teaching liberal arts or specialized disciplinary knowledge. Of course we shape citizens already, but we must also figure out how to train our students for the rough and tumble they will find after they leave our contemplative campuses. It’s a jungle out there in the world of American political discourse, and our students will need to give it all some logical structure, and simultaneously invent new forms of civility for their generation.

Many colleges and universities teach public speaking at present, and some have made introductory courses mandatory in core curriculums or as part of major requirements in fields like Communications. Why not, similarly, consider formal debate training, as a mandatory – or at least greatly encouraged – aspect of a college curriculum? To my mind, it should at least be a consideration of all educators watching our national political debate in the fall of 2009. We can shut off CNN in disgust and sit in awe of some truly horrendous town meetings. But we can help things somewhat, by teaching our students both how to argue and why it is exciting to do so. College and university faculty can enhance the long-term health of political communication by focusing on the development of argumentation, in whatever form fits their courses, disciplines, institutions, and community.

Along these lines, Model United Nations is another excellent tool for teaching students how to argue respectfully and take positions they would not normally take. These programs demand more of students in a course than debate might, but as with teaching debate (in person or online), there is extensive support for instructors available for free on the Web. As with debate, the general structure of Model U.N. can be altered to fit a particular curricular goal or theme. For example, in teaching the Middle East conflicts and issues, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations supports a network called "Model Arab League" at both the high school and college levels. And of course, more ambitious faculty can try to fashion entirely new stakeholder-based deliberation programs, using the general rules of more established activities like Model U.N.

Our students will not – no matter how compelling and well-trained – be able to demand that their local school board follow the tight structure and rules of policy debate or of congress (on a good day). That is an absurdity. But they will have an ideal-typical model for what logical, evidence-based debate should look like, and will inevitably bring some elements of it with them to whatever table at which they find themselves. I have found in so many groups and organizations that people are generally starved for rules about how to conduct their discussions – a rationalized (in Weber’s sense) approach that might bring fairness, civility, and progress. The point is that we need to give students exemplars, somehow, so they can lead others toward structures for talking, listening, and constructive exchange, based on mutual respect and decency. And they might even bring civility to the internet, developing new ways to harness free communication in the service of democratic talk.

The truth is that while Americans pioneered a kind of democracy, we have never been particularly good at debate -- not during Alexis de Tocqueville’s era, and not today. We certainly don’t seem to have the patience for it. There have been some intriguing presidential campaign exchanges here and there, memorable moments in congressional hearings, and of course many moving orators in mainstream politics and outside of it. But we will never see the sort of civil, thoughtful, inventive debate that enables good public policy making until we inspire the young adults in our midst how to pursue it themselves.


Susan Herbst is chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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