Two Qualities for Public Conversations

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Let’s face it, many public conversations are about as pleasant as the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Often they are less real conversation than serial monologues where each person makes talking points and attempts to score rhetorical points against the other. Very few represent a serious attempt to hear one another that affirms what we hold in common, carefully makes distinctions where we differ, and argues both thoughtfully and graciously for those distinctions without personal animus. I would suggest that there are two essential qualities, or two “C’s” for good public conversations.

Perhaps before I discuss those “C’s” I should try to articulate what I mean about what is a “public conversation.” I see a public conversation as one that occurs in a public forum, whether that be a political debate, or a town hall meeting, or a university seminar, or a presentation in a community room at one’s local public library. It is a conversation about some public and social good, about what will benefit the flourishing of human beings and the social and physical environment in which they live. And it is inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the public attending. No one group controls or presumes to control the conversation.

I am indebted to an article titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale for the two “C’s. In answer to the question of how a Christian scholar might speak with a Christian voice into the public conversations at a university he writes:

“Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.”

The first of the two “C’s” is one he mentions by name. It is charity. No public conversation will be constructive if it tears down people. No conversation will be constructive if it assumes the worst in others. No public conversation will be constructive if begins without good will toward others and the effort to find common ground in our humanity and in at least being willing to give a fair hearing to the ideas of the other. I find it helpful to assume that another has been at least as thoughtful if not more than I about the matter we are discussing. All this is charity.

The other “C” summarizes the idea of a “voice that can be heard.” The idea here is cogency, “the quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.” It means speaking with a voice that is knowledgeable. It is a voice that speaks in terms that are shared and may be grasped by the listening public and the others in the conversation. It means a voice that makes its case with thoughtful argument and not simply provocative soundbites. If charity takes the dignity of others seriously, cogency takes the minds and thoughts of others seriously.

It seems to me that it is these two qualities, practiced together, that produce a third quality, a third “C” that is so wanting in much of our discourse, that of civility. I wonder if one of the criteria we ought to apply in considering candidates for any high office is whether they practice the qualities of charity and cogency resulting in civil public conversations. It seems to me that if they do not meet this criteria (and I think there are those who do not), then they should not be considered fit candidates. Civic leadership at any level should rest on the quality to engage with civility with the civitas, the whole body of citizens one aspires to serve and lead.

Equally, in the academic world, which is often known for its vicious politics, it seems that the qualities of charity and cogency also apply. Universities needn’t be places where people agree. In fact, it is the disagreements that make them interesting places! The rigorous clash of ideas sharpens thinking but it needn’t make enemies. And for those to whom Wolterstorff speaks, Christians, his challenge is one of choosing charity and the hard work of cogency, over pat answers and put downs.

I have no illusions that a magic wand can be waved as in a Disney movie that makes everything sweetness and light. But if enough of us practice these qualities in whatever public forum we engage, and prefer those for leadership who approximate to these virtues, we might at least give others the whiff of something better.

But will they follow their noses?

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