Leading the Conversation
If we are going to talk seriously about difficult subjects, we need to think seriously about the difficult task of leading a public dialogue.
[Over the summer] the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community met to examine the explosion of ideological polarization, coarseness, extremism and intolerance that seems to have engulfed so much of our public life.
With the help of guests as diverse as United Negro College Fund President William H. Gray, University of California Regent Ward Connerly and American Bar Association President Jerome Shestack, this group examined the difficult tasks of national leadership on issues such as race, tobacco, health care and media ethics.
Some of their insights should be considered in any "national conversation" on controversial issues:
These are some of the lessons to be taken into account by those who share our concern for the aggressive and unproductive "in your face" character of contemporary public discourse; who are concerned about the domination by political and cultural orthodoxies of intellectual and academic life; who regret the loss of a sense of shared community throughout our society; and who are worried by the rise of virulent racism, nationalism, xenophobia and religious extremism abroad and at home.
All these phenomena share common characteristics: thoughtlessness, absolutism, self-absorption, lack of self-restraint and inhibition and the need for total, immediate victory over one's opponents.
That's not a very attractive vision. But, if nothing changes, it may be an accurate vision of the world we are leaving to our children.
Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 13, November 24, 1998