Civilize Public Dialogue and Shape a Better World

As we mark the first anniversary of President Clinton's national initiative on race, all Americans should be encouraged by the call for a "national conversation" on such a divisive issue.

This isn't the only topic in need of the productive influence of dialogue. But if we're going to talk seriously about difficult subjects, we need to think seriously about the difficult task of leading a public dialogue.

Last month, 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 the media ethics. Some of their insights should be considered in any "national conversation" on controversial issues:

* We need to distinguish public conversation from public performance. Real conversation isn't simply displaying deeply held convictions - it presupposes a willingness to consider modifying them.

* Productive public discourse needs to adopt a "learning model" in which it is assumed that new information will generate new attitudes and new policy.

* As the complexities and realities of issues are exposed, a spectrum of positions should emerge, not merely a rigid polarization that stereotypically assigns everyone to one extreme view or the other.

* We should recognize that facts and respect for them are critical to any public dialogue. But emotions, experiences, deeply held beliefs, and powerful self-perceptions also play important roles, and require careful sorting and respect.

* As we organize ourselves nationally and locally to talk about public issues, we need to think constantly about the goals of such conversations and what we would like to see emerge from them - and structure the ensuing dialogue accordingly.

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.

* Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, is chair of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.

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