Perhaps it’s having just celebrated Independence Day… could be my irritation at the negative rhetoric marking this political season… maybe it’s simply my sorrow at the rash of recent hate crimes and gun-related murders sweeping our nation… I find myself wanting to stand on a very tall soapbox and proclaim “God Bless America” or “Can’t we all just get along?” or something similar. I am longing for real dialogue… conversation that allows for varied opinions and serves to inform disparate parties about other perspectives in a way that both respects and acknowledges differences without resorting to anger or violence.
Recently, I became involved with a really cool organization which supports just that. American Public Square, founded in 2014 by former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Allan Katz, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, and it is changing the tone and quality of public discourse. It brings together non-like-minded people, from across the community, to create a forum for fact-based, civil conversation about potentially controversial national, regional and local issues. The organization has covered everything from religion and politics to income inequality to what it’s like to be Muslim in America to the state of education and beyond. Most programming is panel-based and includes commentary from speakers on all sides of a topic.
The moderated conversations are required to remain truthful and civil. Every program features two objective fact checkers who confirm, in real time, the validity of the comments made using credible, library-grade, online resources. Plus, event attendees are always invited to submit specific fact-check requests through the duration of the discussion. By way of example, take the time American Public Square hosted an event on the contribution of immigrants to the United States. One speaker, a prominent state policymaker, claimed immigrants take more from the economy than they contribute. He was wrong. The fact checkers were on it! They confirmed positive net contribution levels from multiple sources. The politician chose to clarify his statement.
Additionally, peppered throughout the audience are what are called “Civility Bells.” As soon as one of the speakers wades into false, overly dramatic, hyper-emotional territory, the holder of such a bell may ring it and the speaker must stop talking. It’s a rule speakers agree to adhere to in advance and, so far, my understanding is that without exception, even the most passionate of “experts” has honored the code.
Now, let’s be real: I have no expectation that all attendees and/or panelists will leave any given event as a convert. I don’t assume that they will somehow see the error of their prior thinking and exit enlightened. However, with certainty, I do know this: 1) that which we agree on as American citizens outpaces that on which we disagree and 2) with fact-based, civil discourse, perhaps we will leave conversations with a fresh perspective or at least a better understanding of our neighbors’ point of view.
I’m so proud to be a member of this organization and love the work they are doing in the community. You can learn more about the work of American Public Square at www.AmericanPublicSquare.org.