The following are some of the key ideas that have emerged from the Commission's work. These ideas have played a central role in determining our plans for the future:
- Incivility Is Not New
Incivility and coarseness are a continuation of behaviors that have always been with us. However, these behaviors are greatly amplified by the new economic dynamics of mass markets, by the new technologies of mass communication, and by laissez-faire governmental policies.
- The Centrality of Public Discourse
Effective public discourse, or "public talk," plays a central role in the functioning of a well-ordered democratic society and can facilitate productive dialogue on such "hot-button" issues as immigration, race, abortion, and affirmative action. The processes of engaged, productive public discourse de-sensitize such issues and facilitate co-existence, even in the face of frank opinions and irresolvable disagreements.
- The "Thinning" of Public Discourse
Population growth, technological change, mass migrations, economic development, widespread literacy and education, and a plethora of new and sometimes unfamiliar voices in the cultural mix have made public discourse more diffuse, "thinning" it, in the words of historian and commission member Thomas Bender. As a result, "bad" discourse sometimes seems louder and more dominant, while productive public talk can be harder to hear, recognize, and participate in. The Commission's recommendation is the "thicken" public discourse by surrounding uncivil behaviors with a wealth of constructive and energetic public debate.
- Effective Public Discourse Has Changed
A useful formulation of what constitutes effective public discourse emerged from a review of the scholarly literature on this subject prepared for the Commission by Dr. David M. Ryfe of the University of California at San Diego. Ryfe says that while traditionally good discourse has been interpreted solely as rational argument, today good deliberative discourse integrates rational arguments with narratives, personal experiences, expressions of emotion, and empathetic listening. Discourse fashioned along these lines will be argumentative -- but argumentative in a way that seeks to achieve greater inclusion and stronger communal bonds.
- Different Institutions Playing a More Important Role
The Commission has concluded that a variety of social and cultural institutions -- from neighborhood cultural institutions, community foundations, and local museums, historical societies, libraries, and universities to corporations, sports teams, and the military -- have assumed new and important roles in creating "communities of conversation" among increasingly isolated individuals and groups. Historically, many of these organizations have not seemed central to the creation of a sense of community or to the provision of forums where citizens can engage in frank public dialogue. In many instances, these organizations now fill the gaps left by social and cultural changes, creating and engaging diverse communities and using their professional resources to foster productive public discussion.
- The Importance of Effective Discourse Leadership
The Commission's analyses of the public discussions surrounding major policy issues such as affirmative action, campaign finance reform, immigration, health care, tobacco, civic journalism, and arts funding have highlighted the crucial role that leaders in all walks of life play in shaping and setting the tone for public talk. Preliminary research sponsored by the Commission suggest that even small improvements in such leadership can reduce conflict and stabilize communities.
- Creating Communities of Conversation
Public culture is the place where we constantly negotiate the boundaries of privacy and public interest and the tensions created by different visions of the public good. The Commission has concluded that these is a need for a more active and self-conscious effort -- a national movement -- to foster a public culture that supports the building of strong, inclusive communities through substantive, honest, and productive public conversation.
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