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Discussion points
The ground rules for deliberative discussion, itemized by students at Wabash College for a session at IPFW:
Everyone is equal.
Encourage participation.
Listen to one another.
Inclusion – no one should dominate the discussion.
Slow down.
Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

Rising above the NOISE

IPFW joins in helping to restore civilized national political debate

Tim Harmon | The Journal Gazette
Shannon Lee of Bellmont High School in Decatur, Jan Lange of Canterbury School and Dennis Johnson of Wayne New Tech Academy participate in a small-group Center for Public Life discussion April 21 at IPFW.
Tim Harmon | The Journal Gazette
Wabash College students C.P. Porter, left, and L.V. Bowden, assisted by moderator Nathan Manning, center, were among those taking part in the April 14 Center for Public Life discussion.
Polimedio

Ah, the primary election season.

The weather has broken, the birds are singing, and issues are getting the deep, thorough airing they deserve. And after passionate yet civil discussion, disagreement and enlightenment, you, the voter, are ready to make your choices with the insight that flows from invigorating debate with your concerned, informed and always open-minded fellow citizens.

Not.

Whatever the foreparents of democracy envisioned, the campaign strategy for candidates has devolved into taking a few key positions fresh from the cookie-cutter options offered by their party or ideological splinter group, leavened with an occasional snide attack on their opponents. Too many citizens read, watch and listen to commentators who reinforce their preconceptions, talk with friends who agree with the same points of view, and cast their votes accordingly.

What we’re avoiding has a name: the Groan Zone. That’s anywhere people go to wrestle with conflicting views with the goal of finding points of consensus.

But there is hope. IPFW’s Mike Downs Center for Politics has joined a national effort to return the democratic spirit to democracy. In recent sessions, college and high school students were challenged to seek common ground as they discussed important issues.

Sara A. Mehltretter Drury, an assistant professor of rhetoric at Wabash College, teamed with Mike Wolf of IPFW to put on a session with students from both schools participating.

“It’s uncommon in political life these days where you sit down with people who disagree with you,” Wolf told The Journal Gazette’s Brian Francisco. The idea of these discussions, he wrote in an email after the event, is “to try to draw out voices that are often not heard in the regular political debate.”

“Engaging in political discussion and disagreement is something citizens have full control over,” Wolf wrote. “We can’t control the media information flow … we can’t control the duplicitous and purposeful hedging of things by many political leaders, and we can’t easily control the political agenda of power politics much. But we can disagree with each other and we can open ourselves up to listening to information that might not fit within our comfort zone of previously held attitudes.”

Wabash’s Nathan Manning moderated as the group I sat in on considered three options that might answer the question of the evening, developed by the National Issues Forum: What does national security mean in the 21st century?

The group was strongly divided on Option 1: “safeguarding the United States.”

“We have all the guns and bombs we need,” said C.P. Porter, a Wabash College senior. “The last time the superpowers had an arms race, one of them had to fall.”

“Increasing our nuclear power could make other countries increase their military power,” added Anthony Douglas, a Wabash freshman.

But L.V. Bowden, another Wabash freshman, cautioned, “We feel safer now. But if we sit back, complacent, another country could knock us off.”

Manning added, “North Korea, Ukraine, it seems like Russia is pushing the boundaries.”

“It doesn’t matter how many nukes you have,” Porter said. “We have to change the culture of America. There is a cockiness,” he said, that makes it hard for us to “talk to the rest of the world.”

The group was more receptive to Option 2: “putting our economic house in order.”

“We’re less flexible if we don’t address Option 2 first,” Douglas said.

“I think that Option 2 actually does solve Option 1,” Porter said. A weak economy, he argued, could ultimately leave the country defenseless.

Some in the group suggested that getting its house in order meant that the United States could no longer afford to support other countries with aid; someone else suggested that it would be ruinous and dangerous to sever such support.

But Chayenne Polimedio, an IPFW senior, offered a middle ground that everyone seemed to like: weaning the world off dependence on us. “This is a long-term process, a gradual process. Of course, you don’t just cut aid to another nation.”

A more difficult discussion ensued over Option 3, “recognizing that global threats are our greatest challenge.” Moderator Manning itemized some of the threats they might consider: pandemics, terrorism, nuclear weapons, economic disruption and climate changes.

“We have to enforce peace in the world,” said Delon Pettiford, a Wabash freshman.

But, Douglas offered, “we’ve been trying to solve global issues for a long time.” Trying to support and police the world “has caused our own economy to be in trouble.”

Pettiford acknowledged the argument. “When we do step in … I feel like we have to fix our own problems at home before we go out trying to fix up the neighborhood.”

Manning asked, “What is the biggest issue?”

Bowden answered, “Global warming.”

“I disagree,” Porter said. “We can’t remove what’s already there.”

But if we act, Bowden said, “it’s not going to be increasing.”

Peter Fouts, a Wabash junior, contended that climate change is a longer-term problem. “What will affect us in our lifetime is the threat of nuclear war.”

In the end, the group agreed that a focus on a combination of the options was in order.

“Everything is to be done in a balanced fashion,” Manning summarized.

Drury, the Wabash professor, thought the discussions she was involved with went well.

“It can be hard to get people to participate,” she said. “By choosing three options, you’re in the Groan Zone,” a name given by nationally known collaboration advocate Sam Kaner to the uncomfortable but productive situation where you’re forced to truly listen to other people’s opinions and look for common ground. “We don’t like to do that as a society,” Drury said. “It encourages you to look at a problem from multiple perspectives.”

Nowadays, Wolf said, said, political parties have “purified” as they switched their geographic power bases: the South became Republican, and the Northeast became Democratic.

“We have changed. It used to be, parties didn’t stand for anything. Remember ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’? Be careful what you wish for,” Wolf continued.

It used to be that individuals within parties more often had their own positions, and neighbors who didn’t agree with each other used to talk it out.

Now, it’s the opposite – people in one party tend to hold a rigid set of beliefs, and nobody wants to talk. “People avoid any sort of thing that challenges their existing attitudes.”

The Mike Downs Center has connected with the nonpartisan Kettering Institute, which is attempting to break through those walls and get neighbors talking again in communities across the country.

These forums began with seemingly distant issues that are relatively “safe” to talk about. The Downs Center is making plans to zero in on topics that are direct statewide and community concerns.

“To open up to disagreement requires a lot of interpersonal trust – something that is sorely lacking in contemporary society,” Wolf wrote. “You have to trust that the person won’t light you up with aggressive rantings, for instance. So deliberative forums try to play off this trust-building and provide people with a low-impact way to consider trade-offs and to share ideas that hopefully provide some sort of blueprint to consider future issues.”

Polimedio is one who takes the process seriously. After graduation, she’ll be working as a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before starting graduate school, with the goal of working on world problems for a nonprofit agency.

“A lot of people here feel that there’s nothing they can do,” Polimedio said. “The way to start that is to have them share this forum.

“The importance of dialogue can’t be overstated.”

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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