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The case for a good debate

A new Citizens League project encourages rigorous disagreement, without the rancor.

Sean Kershaw

Instead of working together to find the best solutions to our common concerns, too many policy groups, single-issue advocates, and political operatives are spending precious time and resources trying to demonize one another. The approach is fodder for great theater, of course. Just ask the social media giants who depend on bloodless algorithms to build audience, or the popular pundits on Fox and MSNBC who favor broad stereotypes and tribalism over evidence-based, solutions-oriented dialogue.

We’ve been conditioned to conflate debate with take-no-prisoners combat, where personal insults and ideological litmus tests trump logic. And we’ve been encouraged to conclude that thoughtfully considering another person’s point-of-view or, heaven forbid, changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness.

Consequently, what we dare think (or not think) is now routinely conflated with our values and our value, particularly within our increasingly insulated social circles. According to the Pew Research Center, not only is polarization at a multigenerational peak, it extends beyond politics to impact how we socialize and even shop. One-third of Democrats and one-half of Republicans would actually be “upset” if their child married someone from the other party.

David Schimke

In surveying the Citizens League’s achievements over the years, it’s clear that there’s one approach that’s consistently led Minnesotans from across the ideological spectrum to collectively, constructively engage in public policy. We routinely assemble people with a diversity of opinions and backgrounds, and then help them hash out issues from transit to tax policy, education to aging. This emphasis on an informed, rational back-and-forth not only helps define the state’s most pressing challenges; it often generates unexpected, innovative solutions.

Last spring, we decided to create a new publication that would embody our mission. What resulted was the Citizens League Voice, a quarterly magazine that revolves around a model of considerate, evidence-based discourse we’ve chosen to call “A Good Debate.” This involves recruiting people to offer their differing opinions and best ideas, of course. But, beyond that, we’ve also carefully crafted a set of ground rules and an editorial process that, as the magazine’s vision statement reads, encourages rigor, not rancor.

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We are not the first or only organization to recognize that transcending easy stereotypes and self-righteousness requires deep listening and mutual respect. There are a number of nonprofits, media organizations, and public intellectuals engaged in a quest for civility. Too often, though, the journey ends there. People participate in dialogue training and public exchanges where the end goal is, in essence, to listen politely and then agree to disagree. Admittedly, this both feels better than and is a vast improvement over what passes for discussion these days. Ultimately, though, this approach fails to get us to truly grapple with our most complex and crucial fiscal, social, and cultural challenges.

After we take the vitriol away and retrain ourselves to honor different viewpoints, it’s vital that we take the next step and learn how to properly argue with one another again. Or, as we like to say: Get into it a little bit.

It’s a good bet that when it’s all said and done, the citizens, thinkers, politicians, and other stakeholders who contribute to the Voice are unlikely to change each other’s minds. It’s just as likely, in fact, that as we challenge them to hone their arguments and deeply consider the other side’s response, they’ll be more passionate about (and better able to defend) their overall position.

What experience tells us, however, is that when the rest of us are exposed to this sort of exchange — void of personal attacks, red herrings, and ideological characterizations — we’ll be in a better position to open our ears, eyes and minds to novel possibilities and previously unexplored ways forward, regardless of any one participant’s political affiliations or social status.

Minnesota, like the rest of the country, is at a crossroads. We have to decide whether we’ll continue on our current path, where debate remains shallow and polarizing, or risk engaging in dialogue that, while difficult, is designed to find a higher ground.

We know which side we’re on. We hope you’ll join us.

Sean Kershaw has been executive director of the Citizens League since 2003. David Schimke is the founding editor of Citizens League Voice. 


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