Common Agreements

Sean Starowitz: SPEAK a performance at Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts Faculty and Staff Show

The need for dialogue in our public life is less well understood than the need for debate and activism. In history and civics classes in the US, debate and political activism are presented as time-honored tools in the toolbox of democracy, and rightly so. It was largely through these forms of public engagement that slavery and segregation were ended, women and African Americans got the vote, and the war in Vietnam was ended sooner rather than later.

Dialogue has a vital, if quieter, role to play in a resilient and civil democratic society. It can build bridges across divides in the body politic. It can promote healing in small communities that are struggling with a controversy.

Elysia Contreras: Knit Together Workshop

It can also reduce the likelihood of gridlock in the halls of Congress, hatred in the arena of public opinion, and potentially dangerous misrepresentations in our sound-bite saturated media.

Unbalanced by sufficient dialogue, the constructive impact of debate and activism has diminished in recent decades as public rhetoric has become riddled with polarizing assertions and demonizing stereotypes. Democratic life suffers as we increasingly gravitate to people who share our views and to media presentations that present us with the most offensive representatives of the other side. As we become selectively informed, we become selectively ignorant and increasingly unable to appreciate the extent of our ignorance.”

The following might be helpful agreements for respectful, inventive conversation:

❧ speak for yourself alone, and allow others to do the same

Karima Tung, 12, one of three girls home-schooled by their mother, Fawzia Mai Tung. An important part of the school day: reading the Koran. Photo: David Kadlubowski for The New York Times

❧ resist criticizing another person’s views or persuading them to agree

❧ listen carefully and with resilience – hang in there if something is difficult to hear

❧ take care not to dominate airtime

❧ avoid interrupting, unless it is to say that you can’t hear

❧ pass if you don’t feel ready to speak

❧ respect other people’s confidentiality if they ask

The following suggestions are based on the assumption that new answers arise in response to fresh questions.

Some cash-strapped states and school districts are signaling a major expansion of charter schools to tap $5 billion in federal stimulus funds, despite strong opposition from some teachers unions. Charter schools are typically non-unionized, publicly funded alternative schools that have been widely promoted by conservatives as a needed dose of competition in public education.

Good questions

❧ surface new information

❧ foster reflection, listening and mutual understanding

❧ invite the expression of both deep convictions and uncertainty

❧ are an opportunity to provoke personal, intimate expression – dispelling stereotypes and leading to greater curiosity and empathy

Adapted from the Public Conversations Project

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