Discourse on Discourse
originally posted in 2011
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.
I had the honor of speaking at a youth conference hosted and led by young people involved with “I’m Determined” in the state of Virginia (www.Imdetermined.org). I knew the focus of the work and leadership development was on young people with disabilities and that “I’m Determined” is committed to ensuring that these young people develop their voices, understand their power, and achieve self-determination. The experience was incredible; the youth were amazing; the adult staff appropriately supportive without claiming too much power; I left inspired and reflective.
Yes, I met some phenomenal young people - powerful leaders - who also had disabilities. From blindness to dyslexia, from Williams Syndrome to Cerebral Palsy, from ADHD to Aspbergers, these young people redefined traditional notions of individual leadership. But, my inspiration didn’t come from any individual, but from who and how they all were together.
So, what happens when you bring 130 young people with disabilities together, many of whom had never been to such a conference, some of whom had never even separated from their parents for hours at a time? What happens when you cram these 130 young people, many in motorized chairs, a few with vision impairments and others with an array of physical walking supports and bulky contraptions into a small hotel ballroom full of tables and chairs and bags and personal items on the floor? What happens when some non-verbal, some partially verbal, and some fully verbal youth “discuss” what leadership means and how they can become better leaders? What happens when it is meal time and there is a buffet line and some do not have the physical capacity to get their food by themselves, much less carry their food back to the ballroom and then eat it? What about the young man walking in circles in the corner? What about the young woman who cannot tolerate the sound of the lights in the room (which the rest of us could not even hear)? What happens when you turn all organizing and facilitation of all of this over to a subset of these same youth?
What sounds like a logistical impossibility was a beautiful manifestation of community, and I don’t mean “disability community”; I mean community in its ideal.
When everyone has a disability, no one has a disability. When the assumption is that everyone could use a little support, everyone offers a little support. When we understand that everyone communicates and learns differently, we listen and teach differently.
Every young person at this meeting stood ready to help someone else. So, when something was in the way of a motorized chair, someone else leaned down to get it. When someone got in line for food and couldn’t serve themselves, someone else helped them first before getting her own. When someone needed help writing, speaking, hearing, or just calming themselves in this foreign environment, another young person made it all happen. The day went off without a hitch.
If only I could be so in tune with others and they with me. I’m determined to be so.