Promoting Constructive Discourse

One of the areas in which I accept projects is hosting fruitful discourse communities. In fact, I have two such projects lined up for Fall. A challenge in these settings is often that people come together with very different ideas of what makes discourse fruitful. Some people engage out of an interest in mutual sense-making in the subject areas on which the community focuses. Others participate with a mission of selling an idea or belief they hold dear and battling for others to accept the truth of their beliefs.

Ideally, in my opinion, people with interests only in selling their own views would frequent different communities than those who seek to learn and find greater understanding through community. But it doesn’t always work that way. What makes hosting hybrid communities so complex is that those with a “selling” frame of mind, who actually take no or little interest in ideas inconsistent with their own other than to shut them down, interfere with other people’s learning.

So I appreciated today when one of our participants opened a thread seeking help in understanding how to cultivate a disposition to constructive disagreement in her students, rather than unproductive confrontation or meaningless and insincere mutual affirmation.

Books have been written on this topic, but one principle that truly comes forward to me is that a productive discourse community needs to have a shared understanding of what constitutes evidence in particular subject areas and what sorts of topics are by their nature not resolvable in such a way that thoughtful people should ever be expected to come to agreement.

Specifically, we need to accept that some matters of potential discussion are matters of truth and others of taste, in the sense Mortimer Adler uses in his essay The Pursuit of Truth. In mathematics, truth means absolutely provable. That standard can be met in no other field of inquiry. In empirical science, the discipline has standards of evidence on which the field agrees for establishing what is for the moment considered true. In science conclusions accepted as true within the community of those qualified to assess the evidence are always open to reconsideration if new, soundly collected evidence casts doubt on accepted theories.

It is harder to find truth in the social sciences, which is one reason disagreement over longer periods is expected and sustainable. As social science is still a truth-seeking set of disciplines, disagreement is accepted, considered healthy, and the subject of continued discussion and inquiry on the basis of observable and replicable evidence.

On the other end of the scale from mathematics/ science are matters of taste, which are not expected to be universally held in common and matters of faith that cannot be proved by standards one would expect everyone to accept. Whatever the avenues by which a person resolves these matters of personal belief and faith are legitimate pathways for him to decide what he believes. But one person’s private, non-duplicable, and non-verifiable avenues of knowing will typically not suffice as evidence for other people. Much bad blood in discussion could be spared if people would simply accept and appreciate the facts of individual taste and faith- individual in the sense that the person accepts his conclusions for HIMSELF as true. This truth-to-the-individual is not the same as the truth-seeking of scholarship in the disciplines.

If people could understand these differences in the suitability of a subject for efforts to come to universal resolution, these matters of personal belief or faith could be recognized as areas for amicable disagreement but not for constructive disagreement in the sense of bringing people’s specific beliefs closer together through civil argument.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for those convinced of individual-type “truths” to understand the difference. When John Forbes Nash, the Nobel laureate in economics whose schizophrenia manifested itself in the form of coded messages from aliens, was asked how he could have believed in the truth of these observations, he explained that these ideas came to him in the same way as his legitimate mathematical visualizations.

Imagine, then, how much more challenging it might be for someone less trained in critical thought to recognize which of his intuitions can really not be considered rational argument or legitimate evidence one should expect others to accept!


About reflectionsandrotations

I'm an educator and coach with a special interest in fostering creative thinking, designing effective learning environments, and building communities of learners
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One Response to Promoting Constructive Discourse

  1. Leland Bunting says:

    I have found this post nearly 3 1/2 years after you wrote it, and it is exactly what I needed to guide conversations with my community of friends, family, and neighbors. Thank you!

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