Saturday, April 17, 2010

Public debate or Debase?

I was lucky enough to attend a forum this week at Penn on the state of public debate in the united states today. Incredibly lucky both that my daughter invites me to spend time with her, and, that she invites me to spend time with her attending such great events. I think as college students the kids may get blase about their exposure to great minds but for me it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to spend the evening listening in on a conversation between a group of such smart, accomplished and funny people.
The forum was moderated by Amy Gutman, the University President, and the five person panel included three outstanding professors, including Kathleen Hall Jamieson,and Jim Leach, who had been a Congressman for thirty years and now serves as the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Andrea Mitchell, from NBC news.
Obviously everyone agreed that the state of public debate in today's society was horrendous. First was a discussion on the causes.
The Media
What we have today is passion without facts. Given the speed at which talk radio, talk tv and the internet moves there is no longer time to check facts before reporting them and in many cases not even an aspiration toward balance. The increase in media outlets means that people hear only what they already believe. The only show on TV which is watched equally by liberal and conservatives? House.
People are drawn to the most outrageous or extreme shows. Increased ratings=increased revenue which encourages more shows and pundits to employ these tactics.
More important is the issue of money in politics, made much worse by the recent Supreme Court decision. The need of a politician to raise huge sums of money to survive fuels extremism as the those with extreme views get the most PAC money.
The Public
Yes, not all blame can be laid on others. We seem to have lost the art of pro-active hearing, of really listening with an open mind to the opinions of others because we think we already know what the other side is going to say.
How do we fix the problem?
We need to let go of the notion that expressing opinions in a zero sum game. We need to let go of the belief that if you win then I have lost my America.
We need to recognize that words can lead to violence. We need to be more aware of the danger of language that comes from a place of rage, especially rage based racism. The bombings in Oklahoma City and the Nazi regime in Germany both began with a language of violence and rage.
We need to demand more and we need to demand better from our leaders. We need to demand that they do not fight fire with fire, that they deescalate, not escalate, the rhetoric.
Is there any hope?
There was a great deal of optimism concerning the college age generation, with whom his group has a great deal of contact. Although their faith in politics is fairly low, their level of volunteerism is extremely high. Their openness to hearing each other is also very high. One professor sited as an example a group of Jewish and Muslim students who recently joined together to spend their spring break in New Orleans helping the victims of Katrina. They called themselves MAGIC- Muslims and Jews in cahoots. One professor said he thinks they may be the next greatest generation. In one of the funniest lines of the night he said that we may just have to wait until the pig passes through the python and this generation takes over.

So lots of food for thought. Please pass this along to anyone but especially anyone you know who thinks that anyone who expresses an opinion different than their own deserves to be shut down, or worse, shot down.

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