What Is Public Discourse?


If citizens and politicians believe that victory is to the loudest, or to the most dramatic, then loud and dramatic they will be. The process of public discourse, by contrast, is often deliberative, difficult, and slow. Its participants must, on occasion, “dare to be boring.”

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As the first anniversary of Public Discourse approaches, it is worth asking what the idea of “public discourse” is all about. The need for this is particularly acute at a time when many commentators, on both the left and the right, are concerned with the issue of civility in public life. It is natural to wonder whether the two notions—public discourse and civility—are linked, and if so, how. Understanding the linkage can then help us to see what Public Discourse hopes to accomplish, and by what means.

Our public life is riven by significant moral and political disagreements. From issues like health care and immigration reform, to debates over war, abortion and the nature of marriage, our common life as a people suffers from the strains of conflict. These disagreements cannot simply be avoided by being relegated to the private sphere: their resolution is crucial to the common good, to the set of conditions that we, as a people, work together to provide for one another and ourselves, so that we may all flourish as human beings.

Nor are these issues “merely political”—they are not simply issues of policy to be “solved” by appeals to prudence, or efficiency, or pragmatism. Rather they are issues calling for public principles, the sorts of principles whose recognition shapes a people’s moral character. For this reason they are, additionally, matters not just of public importance, but matters for the public, for the people of a nation to come to grips with so as to shape the course of their politics, their self-understanding, and their social life.

Consideration of these issues is thus a matter of public importance; it is likewise a project that must be carried out by the public and in public. But how is such a project to be carried out?

“Discourse” indicates the crucial means by which this project is to be pursued. Proponents of competing positions must communicate—not just to those who already share their views, but to those who don’t; they must be part of a public conversation. This conversation is not just, however, an exchange of views. It must be an exchange of reasons. It must have the character of a public argument.

Of course, that conversation can go badly. If, for example, it is carried out without mutual respect, then the fabric of our common life will be further rent. So there need to be norms—ground-rules, as it were, for that conversation, and yet, even the character of these rules is a subject of debate. Two erroneous accounts of those rules in particular should be mentioned.

One such erroneous account banks too much on a denuded notion of civility. It is clear that a lack of manners, or the presence of downright rudeness, is a failure of civility in public discourse. This failure is a form of disrespect which is not justified even if the offending party is correct on the substance, and the offended party in error. Civility thus really is a virtue of public discourse. But the presence of good manners and politeness is far from a sufficient condition for genuine civility in public discourse. To reiterate, such a discourse is all about a competing class of claims which, to be well grounded and deserving of public consideration, must be backed by reasons and arguments. A civility which merely politely asserted, or politely listened, without engaging in argument, would be a bogus form of public discourse, a sham. It would come nowhere towards an adequate address of the real weight of our public disagreements.

Are there other restrictions on our giving of reasons and arguments in public discourse? A second error draws the boundaries on what counts as public discourse too narrowly, holding that only “neutral” reasons, or reasons that can be disengaged from conceptions of human good and well-being, or from substantive “world-views” may be raised, considered, and addressed in public discourse.

These demands for neutrality, many people have noted, are themselves far from neutral. They rest upon a particular conception of the human person and of human freedom, according to which it is an affront to human dignity to be “coerced” in accordance with reasons that are not one’s own. This conception is not shared by those who believe, for example, that freedom is valuable for persons only insofar as it is oriented towards the truth, and that the freedom of unreasoned self-assertion is, in fact, damaging to human character and welfare. But if the demand for neutrality depends upon a particular substantive view, then it cannot be carried out without falling afoul of its own requirements.

Nor, on their own merits, are such requirements reasonable. To refuse to listen to reasons—evidence put forth to defend a claim as true—is unreasonable, and to refuse to allow such reasons to be put forth in the public square is unjust—it unfairly restricts some citizens’ participation in the public conversation on arbitrary grounds. So our public conversation on matters of public weight and importance should be unfettered, as regards the kinds of reasons that are permitted.

The requirement that reason be “public” in the limited sense is thus not sound. But reasons are rightly thought of as “public” in a variety of other ways. They must be reasons for thinking that the advocated position is true. They must be reasons that are available in principle for others to recognize as true. They must, again, be reasons bearing upon issues that genuinely are a matter of public importance. Finally, they must be reasons that are put forth in a relevantly public forum.

This last point is of critical importance in this day and age. While a lack of civility might strike many as the most prominent feature of our public discourse, this is perhaps only to be expected to the extent that citizens are increasingly unable or unwilling to engage in the mutual giving, understanding, and criticizing of reasons characteristic of genuine public discourse. If citizens and politicians believe that victory is to the loudest, or to the most dramatic, then loud and dramatic they will be. The process of public discourse, by contrast, is often deliberative, difficult and slow; its participants must, on occasion, “dare to be boring” (an expression I have heard attributed to a colleague of mine who teaches English literature).

And, crucially, they must have a public space within which they can carry out the tasks of public discourse, a space in which the sort of public conversation necessary for a reflective opinion on public matters can develop. This common space was made possible in the eighteenth century by the developing print media, in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers. At the heart of this common space, in turn, was a form of impersonal communication of ideas and arguments. But such a public space is at risk in an era of instantaneous communication and reaction, and competition to be heard above the din.

Public Discourse has, as I understand it, been an attempt in part to recreate part of that public space, to recreate the context in which the impersonal communication of ideas and arguments can be carried out. It is not, of course, the entirety of that space, nor could it ever be: the essays of Public Discourse, while manifesting various internal disagreements amongst its contributors, nevertheless share to a generally high degree a common set of values, presuppositions, and standpoints. But this is not a failure of Public Discourse or of public discourse—those shared ideas must be communicated in a reasoned, civil fashion so that those who disagree can come to grips and engage with their fellow citizens. By doing so, our fellow citizens help us at Public Discourse in our task of creating that public space; thus, even when we do not successfully come to consensus, we—those at Public Discourse, and those with whom we critically disagree—are all nevertheless still engaged in a communal task. Our bonds of citizenship are thereby strengthened by our reasoned disagreement rather than weakened.

Further, when Public Discourse carries out its task effectively, it brings those citizens who might, in fact, agree with our contributors’ views into that same wider community of reasoned discussion in ways that might not otherwise happen. No reasonable person on any side of an important dispute can be pleased with unthinking or unreasoned support for their position. Public Discourse thus seeks to engage not only those who disagree, but, just as importantly, those who do agree, in the common project of a public conversation about our days’ most pressing issues. It attempts to do this with genuine civility, of the sort that acknowledges all our fellow citizens as equal partners in the search for moral and political truth. Such acknowledgement requires not just the manners so often lacking today, but also the mutual giving and criticizing of reasons that marks us as rational beings.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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