Toward Stewardship of Civil Public Discourse

Edward Murrow on a television news set in 1953.

By Edward Quevedo and Shaina Kandel  

“Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” — Edward R. Murrow, 1957

We listen to political podcasts on our commute, check Facebook, re-share posts while walking into the office, Tweet on our lunch break, and maybe even respond to comments between meetings. Sometimes we are aware (but most often not) that all of these acts are part of consuming and creating public discourse.  With our ability to create content daily, we can easily lose awareness that our every word matters and that our comments contribute to something much more powerful than we realize – the public discourse of our nation.

This public discourse becomes our shared set of principles and values, the underpinnings of our culture, the intangible thing that makes America ‘American.’ Put another way, language creates reality. If our language as expressed in our public discourse is uncivil, it can breed degradation, disrespect and destruction, and permanently damage our ability as a society to evolve toward a shared destiny of justice and well-being.

We find ourselves today awash in public discourse that is deeply and hauntingly uncivil.  One striking dimension of this degraded tenor of public discourse can be found in the national “conversation” swirling around the 2016 presidential campaign.  It would be too glib and trite to blame this condition entirely on the current Republican party front-runner.  But his rhetoric exemplifies this pathology in a unique way.

At its worst, what President Barack Obama recently called “the coarsening of our debate” can actually incite violence.  This, at a time when healing our divisions and finding creative, inspiring solutions to the challenges of our time calls for us to bring the best, not the lowest, of ourselves to public discourse.

By “public discourse,” we mean the robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest.  By “civility,” we refer the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.

Just as we apply ourselves to being stewards and cultivators of eco-systems, communities, and social justice, we can become active stewards of a more civil public discourse.  How we express ourselves on important issues of the day to our networks, loved ones, colleagues, and leaders determines, to a great extent, the quality of the society we are creating.

We have the opportunity in the coming months and weeks, when we enter the public arena, at city council meetings and hearings, when we comment on candidates’ debates and discussions in the run up to our primary and general elections, to be more informed, balanced, and simply polite in our expression.  We can not only lead by example but also make clear that we expect the same from our future political leaders.

Regardless of who we support for office as citizens, we can contribute, and expect of those who would hold elective office that they represent, through words and behavior, a civil tone in public discourse.

In our daily writing and speaking, from the formal to the spontaneous, we can strive for more clarity, authenticity, and respect.  Individually, this may seem like a small set of actions but the consequences of failing in this civic duty are large.

What hangs in the balance is the intricate web of institutions necessary for a thriving democracy: individuals capable of governing themselves, a state that abides by the rule of law, a justice system fueled by truth, and a vast network of intermediary institutions serving as a buffer between the individual and the state — businesses, unions, nonprofits, places of worship, lobbying and activist groups, political parties, journalistic outlets and so on.

We put ourselves and our institutions in a high state of risk if we do not more actively steward and cultivate the civility of our public discourse.  Our ability to productively engage on issues that compel our attention, to make positive change in the representativeness of our democracy, and to effectively address the complexity of the social challenges that confront us; these all depend on a civil public discourse that is inviting, vibrant and mature.

What we can do is be more self-aware with our words. While by no means a complete list, below are a few thoughts on how we can make our public commentary, posts, and discussions more civil:

  1. Humility: A spirit of shared responsibility for good ideas (none of us are single-handed inventors of the new or the useful – we stand on the shoulders of those who came before and influenced our thinking)..
  2. Tolerance: Encounter ideas with openness and curiosity, grounded in the determination that our point of view is never settled, always evolving, and deserves to be influenced or even changed by new and better thinking.
  3. Reverence: More than mere respect, reverence is the awareness that our children, future generations, our mentors, and our loved ones are party to our civic discourse. Perhaps if we keep in mind all of the hearts, minds, and souls, from the past, present, and future, who have a stake in our public discourse, we may temper, strengthen, and deepen the quality and timbre of our words.

Public discourse, as we have learned recently (and in the past) to our great cost, can tarnish, belittle, and shame a person, community, and a nation.  It can leave us hollowed out, groundless, and slipping into a darker form of society.  But properly crafted, humanely voiced, and virtuously expressed, a civil public discourse can (and ought to) ennoble us.  May we find the courage and discipline to more frequently elevate our voices and ideas along this latter path.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shaina Kandel works to create a more just and sustainable global food system at Fair Trade.

Ed Quevedo is an educator and writer, and directs programs in Peace & Social Justice and Future Economies as a Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future.