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On the right we have a president who mocks a woman who was sexually assaulted at a campaign rally, on the left protesters stalk legislators at restaurants and taunt them while they eat.
What’s happened to our national dialog? Why can’t we talk to each other in a way that sets up a supportive communication channel leading to solutions? Abraham Lincoln saw the need for civil dialog to bring a divided nation together in his first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Recently, volunteers from the left, right and political persuasions across the board were represented at a conversation day hosted by Better Angels in Washington D.C. The host group takes its name from the Lincoln quote focusing not on changing people’s minds but instead on just helping people to understand and respect each other – on common ground. The founder, David Blankenhorn, started the group in Ohio after he had become friends with a gay man and changed his position on same sex marriage as a result. Blankenhorn has developed seven habits of good discourse to keep the dialog on a positive level even in fierce disagreement. He sees deep polarization due to multiple factors: “The intellectual habits of polarization include binary (Manichaean) thinking, absolutizing one’s preferred values, viewing uncertainty as a weakness, privileging deductive thinking, assuming that one’s opponents are motivated by bad faith, and hesitating to agree on basic facts and the meaning of evidence.”
We underline the last point, agreement on basic facts is missing from much of our dialog today. As most Americans get their news from non-journalist sources: Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These social media outlets sprung onto the news stage from opinion based businesses, run by entrepreneurs who are more programmers whose interest is in creating opinion platforms not fact based platforms. Facebook, Google and Twitter are now scrambling to find journalists and news professionals to rein in the runaway opinions and falsehoods that proliferate on their sites.
As a society we are left with only a few major national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post for thoughtful in depth analysis, Major television news organizations are more focused on sound bites than drilling into issues in any depth. The PBS News Hours does bring in experts from multiple points of view on an issues to create context and deeper understanding of the topic. Yet, the audience of social media is in the tens of millions while PBS News Hour is seen by a far smaller audience.
Where do we go today? Better Angels, Spaceship Media and Institute for Civil Discourse all host conversations across the political divide. Yet, it is a huge cultural issue tearing apart the fabric of our democracy. To repair our democracy and return our federal government to the people requires seeking the common good over all our basic positions – or we can never reach enough consensus to move ahead as a unified society.