Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can we coach Civility in political discuss?

The confusion and tragedy of last weekend has created a powerful fellowship behind the call for civility in political discuss. The call for civility had come from the President, leaders of both major political parties, lawmakers, governors, mayors, sheriffs, police and the clergies. Many Americans see this as a green light for constructive debate on all public policy issues. Is this really feasible or is this just a wishful thinking?

The main area of concern for this type of bandwagon or reflexive call is that it has a tendency to fizzle out after a while. Politicians and the public go into a cocoon mode immediately after calls to bring civility to discussions from leaders in the public eye. Unfortunately, politics by its general nature is contentious; just as civility comes to public discuss, there comes issues that cannot wait to stir emotions in debaters of political issues. Politicians and the public are often searching to protect their turfs or interest(s); or, are often seeking ways to present their position on public issues, that does not portray them as disingenuous, insensitive or plainly foolish. Most of the bravado you saw among politicians and the public at large in the past two years over much legislation and debates of bills come out of the usual nature of the business of politics. Could we have a better or much more civil debate on political policies? Yes, but hardly has this been in the past hundred years. Can we be the first generation of Americans to bulk the trend? Maybe, but this wishful thinking is a long shot.

The difficulty of debating issues is found in the true art of debating: there are groups in support and others against the issue(s). The realities of debates are the myriad of emotions and contentions from both parties in a debate. People are generally not interested in bearing the burden of any public policy alone, they want it to be a shared burden or pluralistic; and sometimes, or occasionally, a few who are willing to have a shared burden hardly have the pulpit to present their case and are most drowned out by opposition voices. The dichotomy of a docile crowd as against the proactive or bullies, if you may, creates the challenge of incivility. How about a debate over if America should continue the war in Iraq or Afghanistan? How about the atmosphere in the country or congress during the debates over the civil rights bill in 1964? Could these bills or issues be debated in civility or will incivility be considered a way that will prevent the interest groups from winning opponents over? Could being civil guarantee that sponsors of a bill will win followership or allow the accomplishment of the initial goal of the bill’s sponsors? No one will ever know and that is why we must continue to have this debate over civility and incivility in public policy debates.

While it is feasible to have a public debate environment that is not so much acrimonious, the possibility of repeating such a civility for a longer time is very difficult, especially now with the multiple outlets of news and a 24/7 talking head atmosphere. What the fellowship and calls this week are seeking seem rather unattainable, especially when the stakes are so high that some opposing views in debates have sometimes been termed as toxic or caustic. In support of demand for civility, the blog today wants to contemplate if it is possible to coach civility to politicians, lawmakers and the media, who are main actors in national debates that impact public policies. Additionally, the objective of the blog today is based on an assumption that the current atmosphere of public policy debates has become too toxic and hardly beneficial for constructive and useful deliberations over public policy.

There are wide variations in the atmosphere of debates over public issues among national, state or local politicians, lawmakers and the media. Essentially, a debate at the national level tends to take a bigger air time and media or higher bully pulpit. Local politicians debating issues like where the water districts should end or where a crosswalk may go, hardly receives the type of media or emotions among politicians debating these issues. However, consider debates over an issue as ending a foreign war, health care or financial reforms on a national stage and you get the type of acrimony or toxicity that everyone is now saying is hardly in the interest of the nation and its people, or the politicians in the middle of the acrimony.

Now, how about coaching civility in public discuss to lawmakers or everyone that is in the public arena or in City Halls, States Assembly and the Capitol Hill? Effort as this must consider the context of impending debates in these venues of political power or public discuss. For this purpose, we will highlight three methods that can assist a government or agency seeking to develop civil cultures among our lawmakers and politicians as they ponder over the bills and laws in making:

 Coaching that facilitate self reflection and personal assessments:

Whether it is an internally generated or written bill by lawmakers, or one that was mid-wife by lobby groups, organizations, associations, networks, or paid hired hands, a lawmaker must be able to see himself or herself and their constituencies in the position of those who will directly be impacted by the bill if passed into law; or, where those in the receiving end will be if the bill actually passes. The lawmaker must start a self-discovery process of finding out where he or she stands on the issue and attempt to build both a support and probably not so antagonistic position to the impending bill, while still making his or her crucial points towards the debate over the bill.

Conversations on either phase, in support or against, by the politician, must take the maturity of impugning not the prejudice of the individual lawmaker, but the welfare of the public or state. Listed conversation positions must be neutral enough to be perceived or termed, as closely civil or civil, in public forums. The contextual understanding of the provisions in a bill or proposed public policy will afford the lawmaker the opportunity to articulate a more constructive stance that may perceived as or termed as, civil enough for public arena, even among those that are vehemently against the bill.

 Coaching that facilitate application of the law in the context of other existing laws:
When lawmakers consider upcoming bills, it is probably in relation to other existing laws on the book or public polices. Lawmakers debating upcoming bills must build on strengths, sometimes weaknesses, and opportunities associated with the existing laws and prevent radical change or transformations that will call attention of opponents, to the extent that they want to stand up in a radical way, at least in relation to what civility in public discuss, is expected to take. The most meaningful way they proceed to accomplish this, is by understanding and appreciating the position of supporters and opponents of the bill; and, in many cases the behavioral interactions among those advancing the bill, i.e. the sponsors, and the extent of possible antagonism from opponent group(s). This process is not often splendid but it is probably the best approach to achieve civility without loosing ground with your position.

To prevent chaos, which is often associated with incivility in debates, the lawmakers must not seek to dominate the debate or impact the discussion to an extent that those who are apprehensive about the proposed bill find themselves overwhelmed by the way the provisions of the bill is being touted or how the proposers are honking down on any form of opposition to the bill. For example, if the lawmaker sees the proposers of the bill are attempting to dominate the debate over the bill, he or she may want to articulate a later reaction or a well-thought out vocal response that will not be construed as being too over handed, in whatever position he or she chooses. Instead of suggesting positions that seem too uncompromising to the proposers or opponents of the bill, the position of the discussant lawmaker must be middle way; call it centrist in modern day political discuss. Instead of leading the discussion with radical rhetoric that makes either group in the political aisle uncomfortable or infuriated, the debating lawmaker may want to stimulate discussion from all possible opposition groups to facilitate a much amenable or centrist position; a position hardly considered as radical, aggressive or uncivil.

 Coaching that facilitate Language use Evaluation:
It is important that a lawmaker, public or media person evaluate the use of language, including the history and origin of a word or term before using them in a debate. It behooves the user of a language, to understand the intricate nature of using a word or term in the context of a debate or argument. If the use of a word or term will not add anything new or good, or make a substantial difference to a debate, it is in the best interest of the lawmaker, public or media person, to refrain from using it. Using a word or term in a public discuss without understanding or appreciating the origin of the word or term, can actually boomerang in the face of the user. For example, a politician seeking to absolve herself of the controversy of last week fracas, ended up using a term, that by all intense and purpose, created a sense of insensitivity and or insensibility to the concerns of a minority group. Rather than absolve the politician of any responsibility for the fracas in the Tucson, Arizona parking lot, the politician added another insult to an ebbing injury in the history and lives of the minority group. An outstanding ignorance in use of language, term or words, in any context of public debate can show insensitivity, even if done in ignorance.

Ask any seasoned debater: Are you better off using a term you are not sure of, just to fill the void in a debate or not? A resounding response will be, never! The lawmaker needs to evaluate how a term reinforces his or her argument in a debate before proceeding. Using a term could offer opportunities to focus on other previously insignificant issues which may end up derailing a good argument. When in doubt ask questions regarding the use of term or language in the context of the issue or a bill being moved through congress. Refining language use, defining the problem in the context of those that will be directly impacted and offering suggestion without offending is not only wise, it is prudent for a politician seeking to be civil in public discuss. Using some terms and language may caricature a very serious issue or create a hostile environment even for the communicator in public arena. Refining language used in a public debate not only ensure that the issue of insensitivity is taken care of, it offer the debater an additional ethos that he understands where the group about to bear the burden of a bill to be passed is coming from and where they are probably seeking to reach.

Politician must attempt to engage the public directly without offending them cautiously for public discuss to be seen as civil. The implication of a use of a term in the context of the issue being discussed will offer the audience the benefit of seeing the lawmaker as self-assessing, even on issues that he or she has deep preferences. Incorporating and adjusting the use of terms or words in a public discuss have the additional benefit of portraying the debating lawmaker as arguably grounded in the discussions at hand and open to amend where doubts or misunderstanding is apparent.

The current call for civility in public discuss is commendable. In a time of crisis like what we had last week, it shows that our leaders are cautious and understand the need for civility in the current national debates. It is also appreciated that political leaders from the two major parties saw the need to address this very hot issue in American politics of today. Whether it is possible to coach civility is another issue that this blog have only scratched its surface. What we now need is leaders in all levels of our government articulating the importance of civility in public arena and discuss, especially in our halls of government. The current antagonisms, criticisms and probably extreme radicalism you find in the length and breath of public discuss, do no one any good; rather, it gives everyone of us a bad name or rap: who of us will like to take the responsibility of having Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on an hospital bed from a gun shot because of our incivility in the use of language?

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