Improving Our Public Discourse

How do we improve our public discourse and conversations?

Politics is the struggle for power and in any democracy, it involves conversations and sometimes contentious debates. Rapid innovations in information technology, especially in social media, have made this struggle noisier as more citizens with access to a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone can now engage in any online discussion, or turn a nice conversation into an emotive and even divisive one. Almost anyone with access to social media now has an opinion on any issue, and as one offshoot, the Philippines has become the heaviest user of texting and social media.

While this wider democratic participation is most welcome, it has also engendered a more difficult process of consensus-building, a key element in governance. A multitude of opinions is sheer idle chatter unless these opinions are converted into sensible arguments, and arguments are converted into proposals or options that can be considered by those in power to make decisions.

The challenge then is how to turn a variety of viewpoints into clear arguments and finally into sound policy proposals. In other words, how do we improve our public discourse and conversations? I hope that with this column, I would be able to listen to some of the chatter and tease away the sensible ideas. I hope that my background in policy research (working both in international and local institutions) would be of use in this regard.

This column is entitled “Above the Fray,” an expression dating back to the 14th century. A fray refers to an angry, disorderly, or protracted fight, struggle, or dispute, and standing or rising above it means being in a privileged position not to get directly involved in it. The image calls to mind a person in authority, such as a king or a general, at a vantage point, looking down on soldiers fighting, and making sense of the fight.

A similar image could also be conjured of modern-day academics, policy analysts, and researchers who have the privilege to read up and listen to policy disputes and debates in the marketplace of ideas, and then hoping to bridge or resolve these conflicts, or simply identify what the remaining differences are. This is what I aim to do in this column.

To improve public discourse, one has to rise above the fray. In their book “Inventing Arguments” (Wadsworth, 2009, p. 112), John Mauk and John Metz listed nine techniques of standing above the fray: (a) accurately summarizing opposing positions; (b) making and supporting strong claims; (c) objectively presenting information from reliable sources; (d) avoiding logical fallacies; (e) exploring various sides of the issue; (f) seeking out shared values as a bridge between different viewpoints; (g) considering how one position might respond to another position; (h) conceding the value of important opposing claims; and (i) maintaining a respectful writer’s voice.

If we could apply these on particular issues, then we would have taken the high road to better politics and to a better world.

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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