Start with ‘discourse about discourse’

May 1, 2017

This was published May 1st, 2017 in OP-ED in print and online. Copyright © 2017 LancasterOnline. All Rights Reserved.

The April 8 article on the visit of Jonathan Haidt (“America’s Uncivil Discourse”) is a reminder of how the need for civil discussions is a central concern of this era, perhaps a lost art. Our political and cultural divisions are starker than ever. “Discourse about discourse” sounds like self-indulgence until we notice that many cultural traditions — and contemporary conflict resolution methods — take this step very seriously.

Ground rules, as they’re called in modern conflict mediation, are fundamental to the success of any dialogue. Where people share linguistic and cultural norms, ground rules often function invisibly. But in situations of escalated tension with diverse assumptions about “normal,” conversation about conversations is necessary. That’s the state of America today. Our diverse schools, businesses and communities are increasingly microcosms of a diverse society, including its conflict.

The insight of ground rules suggests that neither Haidt nor those he criticizes for demanding “safe spaces” are wrong. What may be wrong is prescribing the rules. Each challenging dialogue will have its own needs and goals. More likely than not though, people will want similar guidelines — respectful listening, equal chances to speak, refraining from putdowns, etc.

The point of creating ground rules for each conflict is not to shape unique guidelines. It’s to get buy-in for the eventual dialogue.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested that democracy be periodically remade so that each generation could renew its sense of ownership. Similarly, in heated debate with diverse norms, our communities and institutions can be strengthened by inviting people who want to join the dialogue to jointly build that conversation from the ground up. Then when we begin the deeper conversation, we’ll be speaking in a space safe enough for everyone to be part of the change they seek.

Christopher Fitz
Executive Director of Community Engagement

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