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Tragedy, Civility, and the Public Discourse We Need

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

We may never completely untangle the reasons behind last weekend's shootings in Arizona. The slayings of six people at a congressional event, including a nine-year-old girl, have prompted a national debate over whether hyperpartisan, overheated political rhetoric pushed the accused gunman over the edge. President Obama himself called for a more civil dialogue at the memorial service yesterday.

But the truth is that our system of political discussion is broken, even if it played no role whatsoever in this horrible event. Part of the evidence for that is the fact that so many in politics and the media immediately thought that inflamed rhetoric could have played a part in the Arizona tragedy. That says as much or more about the state of our debate – and the people who largely shape it -- as it does about the mind of Jared Lee Loughner. So many in public life apparently already suspected that some day, somewhere, someone might snap because of the state of political debate – even, it seems, as they participated in that debate every day.

Life is not a civics lesson. Passion, even anger, are an essential part of public debate. Demonization of your opponents isn't. The calls for greater civility coming from all quarters are entirely right, and we agree.

Yet a harsh tone is only part of what's wrong with our public discourse.

  • Our model of "an informed public" isn't working. We do a reasonably good job of alerting citizens to problems, but we do an appalling job of helping them understand how, realistically, we can solve them.
  • Rather than helping citizens understand issues, much of the news consists of experts talking to each other, scoring points off each other rather than really explaining anything. As a nation, we do very little to help people actually follow the discussion.
  • As more people choose their news sources to match their preconceptions, there aren’t enough venues where typical citizens from different walks of life can exchange their ideas and perspectives. When Public Agenda helps communities organize conversations on important issues, participants routinely tell us how fascinating and important these kinds of discussions are. They want to know when they can do it again.

None of those problems would ever cause violence. But every day, in large ways and small, they keep us from solving our shared problems.

We need greater civility, and the fact that so many in public life are re-examining the tone of the debate is a positive thing. We hope it takes root. But civility is only a start in having the dialogue we want – and need – as a nation.


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