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Let’s talk, with civility, about the stinker economy

How to fix it is a topic of rancorous debate. Some set out to improve the conversation.

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Ms. Pollack, the artist who designed the Habeas Lounge with the support of Brookfield Properties, which owns the shop, became concerned back in 2002 about the increasingly apparent dearth of civilized conversation. She created an exhibition called “The Daily Constitution,” which set up sites in Los Angeles and New York to discuss the US Constitution. She got the idea from her work in the 1990s at the European Cultural Foundation in The Netherlands, where she was involved with efforts to bring a dialogue between warring factions in the former Yugoslavia.

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“I got used to seeing really innovative projects set up to be an antidote to the fear and breakdown of dialogue in ... Yugoslavia,” she says. “When I felt intuitively the same type of climate was taking over in my own country – post-9/11 there was a similar kind of shutdown of dialogue here – I wanted to do something.”

A deliberate effort to spark deliberation
As Pollack was planning her opening last month, representatives from dozens of public-policy institutes were meeting in Ohio about how to spawn similar public discussions about the economic crisis. The meeting was organized by the Kettering Foundation, which has been working to foster thoughtful dialogues about difficult issues since the early 1990s.

“Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t even find the word ‘deliberation’ outside of communications departments. Now there are national associations to promote dialogue and deliberations,” says David Mathews, president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.

One such group is the Center for Civic Participation at the Maricopa Community Colleges in Tempe, Ariz. Alberto Olivas, its director, attended the Kettering meeting. People are yearning, he says, for a substantive discussion of issues that breaks the mold of Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative.

“We tend to be presented with policy issues as if they were black or white issues that you’re either for or against. But people intrinsically know that it’s never as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ [that the problems are] very complex and the solutions have to be, too,” says Professor Olivas. The prevailing political culture of recent years, he adds, has created an atmosphere that leads many to believe that if someone doesn’t agree with them they are “either stupid or evil.” This trend is beginning to run its course, he suggests. “More and more people are tired of having their communities broken into polarized camps.”

Olivas and others who study public dialogue agree that politics can bring up strong emotions. While Mr. Mathews says he is “unreserved in my enthusiasm for civility,” he also cautions that it’s important to acknowledge those emotions. Experience has taught him that it’s better to try to “work through those emotions, not to try to make them disappear ... or gloss over them.”

The Kettering Foundation publishes books about thorny issues such as education and healthcare, which are used by community organizations, schools, local churches, even some prison systems as foundations for discussions about the difficulties inherent in decisions the public and policymakers have to make.

Mathews says Kettering’s goal is to go one step beyond debating the issues. “What we try to do is recognize the tensions: It’s not [about] what people want [to do], but what they will do when push comes to shove.”