I am deeply concerned for this moment in our nation’s history for numerous reasons, including–but not limited to–losing our moral center, damaging any credibility and trust we have established in the world, prioritizing short-term power at the cost of long-term virtues, valuing ignorance, disdaining wisdom, and embracing the blindness of mutual contempt. Our public and private discourse, in person and online, is both cause and symptom as too many are using deprecating and obscene language to describe people with whom they disagree.
However, it is still my belief that though the divides are deep and the contention is full of vitriol and repugnant behavior, we can, and we must overcome. Our problems are not insignificant, but neither are they insurmountable.
This document by the Aspen Institute is to me, evidence that the heartbeat of civic and civil values still beats. It is my desperate hope and prayer that more would humble themselves, and embrace a better way forward in making significant strides towards repairing our nation (and thus, the world) rather than celebrating the divides.
WHY BETTER ARGUMENTS?
In an era of deep divisions, many Americans have recognized the need to heal schisms, repair the social fabric, and restore trust and civility in public discourse. The Better Arguments Project™ is based on the premise that American civic life doesn’t need fewer arguments; it needs better arguments. We aim to make that possible. The Better Arguments Project will begin with an exploration of core American arguments with communities across the country through spirited in-person experiences. The goal of this report is to outline key operating principles to keep at the center of this work. (3)
The project stems from the foundational premise that America doesn’t just contain arguments, America is an argument — between Federalist and Anti-Federalist worldviews, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, pluribus and unum. (4)
The point of American civic life is never for one side or the other to achieve “final” victory; it is our role as citizens to grapple in perpetuity to discover and forge solutions together. Perhaps our highest shared value as Americans is our right and freedom to argue. The success of our shared civic life depends on these arguments continuing forever. If the arguments end, if one side or the other has collapsed, eventually the American experiment is at risk of ending as well. (4)
We believe that arguments begin when at least two people truly care about a topic. Whether they know it or not, those two people already have something in common. Through this work, we aim to harness that idea, and allow it to evolve into a sense of community. In this sense, arguments don’t have to drive us apart. Better Arguments can bring us together. (4)
THREE DIMENSIONS OF ARGUING
Debates in American politics can be boiled down to a finite number of never-resolvable, fundamentally American tensions. The list of tensions includes:
- Liberty vs. Equality
- Strong Central Government vs. Decentralized Government
- Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist
- Color Blindness vs. Color Consciousness
- Individual Rights vs. Collective Responsibility
- Pluribus vs. Unum
In his book Bonds that Make Us Free, American philosopher C. Terry Warner, who was frequently referenced by Better Arguments advisors, describes avoiding an emotional cycle of accusing one another to excuse one’s own behavior.
Instead, parties must step up to take responsibility for their own piece of the issue to create a new, more productive cycle. The same dynamic can unfold – or be avoided – in civic arguments.
In many spaces of civil discourse, participants do not enter as equals. They enter reckoning with imbalances. These inherited inequalities need to be named before a Better Argument can take place.
PRINCIPLES OF A BETTER ARGUMENT
Take Winning Off The Table
In a Better Argument, all parties must shift their common goal. … Instead, the goal should be framed as the reinstitution of civility to build a common community.
A Better Argument can only take place in an atmosphere that does not reward points for one party disputing the other’s claim.
Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately
If individuals care about one another, they are more likely to hear one another.
…fwhen relationships are adversarial, arguments often lead to more polarization. Facts are merely ammunition. In some cases, the higher quality the argument, the more parties will polarize unless the relationship is changed. Once parties shift from adversaries to collaborators, however, arguments can bring people together and facilitate learning. Facts become key tools to solve problems together. As a result, the focus on changing the relationship should always come first.
Pay Attention To Context
…keeping the role of culture forefront is critical to understanding each other more fully, but warns that the culture component can make any situation more complex. He argues that this complexity is necessary, and that attempts to avoid it for the sake of efficiency can be damaging to progress. When efficiency is prioritized, thoughts and emotions may go unsaid. This is not only unproductive in the short term but destructive in the long term, leading to grudges that can increase divisions.
In this context, it is important to distinguish between fact-statements and value-statements. The Better Arguments Project must live in the realm of facts. Factually untrue statements can and should be challenged. However, value-statements, individuals’ statements about their personal beliefs, should be accepted as true.
Make Room To Transform
A Better Argument is a transformational experience for all involved. Without a goal of winning or even reaching resolution, the goal of a Better Argument becomes to change how we engage with one another in order to build a community.
CORE ACTION ELEMENTS
When launching these efforts, we suggest that civic practitioners consider the following core action steps as the foundation of their process:
Lay the groundwork.
Better Arguments facilitators should invest in relationship-building with local institutions and leaders as partners and advisors. It is critical to allow the movement to come from people within the culture of that community and to avoid engaging in social engineering at all costs. Prepare participants before they enter the room so that they have a shared understanding of what is about to happen and establish expectations again in person.
Name the argument.
Efforts to organize communities to produce Better Arguments should be focused on specific topics that are rooted within the community. Better Arguments facilitators should first examine existing local debates and determine how Better Arguments can support progress around these topics.
Get together in person.
Whenever possible, create a space to convene in person. Make every effort to be as inclusive as possible, and pay special attention to groups within the community that might not typically attend.
Be human first.
Before engaging in argument of any kind, facilitate activities that help participants to see one another as human, establish commonalities, and build bonds of trust.
Practice the argument.
Create space to allow participants to lean into argument. Encourage the spirit of trial and error. Provide models and demonstrations to increase participation. Remember: Argue to learn, not to win.
Reflect on the argument in a way that gives it life.
Rather than one side winning, the outcome of a Better Argument should be a shared action. Encourage participants to agree on a next step developed through their Better Arguments experience. The contracted next step could range from a simple agreement to stay in touch to committing to design a community project together.
Document the process to set the cycle anew.
Any Better Arguments participant can become an ambassador. Collect and provide materials that can be shared so that these ambassadors can encourage Better Arguments elsewhere.