Much has been made recently, and I believe rightfully so, about the current state of American political discourse. And, as many of you who have read my blogs before know, I believe that the language we choose is formative and that it sets the stage for how we live, often even in opposition to our intentions or values. Our language frames, and then we tend to fill out those frames as we act upon the language. Unfortunately, we often use language without clear intention or understanding, which in turn muddles and confuses our processes and our lives, inhibiting our ability to act upon our intentions and generating continual frustration as our actions don’t match our words.
With this in mind, I wanted to offer some thoughts about the nature of “discourse” and its function in a democracy.
True discourse, I believe, is made up of at least three distinct but not mutually exclusive components: 1. dialogue, 2. debate, and 3. discussion (terms that are often used interchangeably and out of rote repetition rather than any degree of intentionality).
Dialogue is about sharing and learning. It is about building understanding and is as much about listening as it is about talking. In genuine dialogue, we are not seeking to be “right” or seeking to “win” but seeking to grow and expand our thoughts. In dialogue, power must be shared equally.
Debate is more about competition, but not to the exclusion of learning. In good debate, we hone our skills at presenting and defending our perspectives, but we are also seeking a deeper understanding of our own work through opposing perspectives. In that sense, we are actually dependent on opposing perspectives. Each participant is seeking power through the process of debate and each can gain power through learning whether he wins or loses in the debate.
Discussion is about being right and establishing the answer, and as such, it is often about overpowering the opposing perspective. If I listen, it is only to respond. Discussion is prone to diatribe as talking is emphasized over listening. It is more zero-sum than debate and is a natural outgrowth of ideology as opposed to genuine democracy. On the other hand, discussion can also offer a “hard line” when debate and dialogue feel like an endless loop. It can put a pause to process in the interest of making a decision.
In our current political state, there is no dialogue; we know (or at least think we know, so we don’t listen anyway) what someone will say before they say it because of the “side of the aisle” they are on. They will say it today and again tomorrow without interest or need to listen to anyone; and on the flip side, we will hear what we want to hear anyway. To demonstrate genuine listening and learning would sadly somehow suggest political weakness. What would we think if we saw a politician have an “ah-hah” moment right there at the mic!? And yet, growth and learning and democracy are built on “ah-ha” moments.
In our current political state, there is little debate; there is mic time and TV time in which we reiterate positions and attack those of our opponents. Think about the political “debates” we see on 24 hour news channels. There is no “spirit of competition” in which you respect your opponent enough to compete with them and learn from their perspective. There is no learning. But rather, competition is paired down to a mere matter of who wins, who speaks last and loudest; and as the victor you somehow attain the right to disrespect and minimize the opponent.
In our current political state, what we do have a lot of is discussion; pontificating diatribes, self-righteous ideology, and pre-packaged content that does not change or grow or evolve over time. The packaging of our political discussion is too narrow for growth and change and therefore eliminates opportunity for dialogue and debate. By its nature, it must be clear and pre-formed and infinitely recyclable. And, when political discourse is narrowed to mere discussion, we are left with a politics of ideology, a politics based on fundamentalism over learning, of sound-bite peddling over governing, of investing in the “what is” versus working toward the “what could be.”
To be clear, ours is not a time of American political discourse but one of American political discussion.
True discourse requires dialogue, debate, and discussion and requires that we value, model, and build the skills for each of these with an understanding of the time and place and ethics of each. In our current state of American political discussion, we are modeling a dangerous and narrow version of democracy and of the American political process.
As we allow dialogue and debate to atrophy, we should not be surprised as our next generation comes to power when what we are calling the “current state of American political discourse” becomes the defining characteristic of a troubled and confused democracy.