In 2014, I established an organization called American Public Square (APS), which was an offshoot of an earlier version I founded in Tallahassee, Florida. The history of APS is interesting in light of today’s political climate. In essence, it is an organization of non-like-minded people who attend community programs on controversial issues that are discussed in a civil and fact-based manner. There are several unique features such as real-time fact checkers (i.e., professional research librarians which takes away the concern of who the fact checkers might favor), and civility bells to be rung if the tone of the conversation becomes uncivil. Generally, there are 3-5 panelists who take questions from the moderator and the audience. Fact checks can be instituted by audience members as well as panelists. Additionally, we ask audience members not to clap to express agreement with one panelist or another so as to not interrupt the flow of the discussion and to keep things as measured and balanced as possible.
So, what happens at these events? First, we almost always get 200+ people to attend. Secondly, speakers are more careful with their commentary due to the presence of the fact checkers and “red meat” one-liners are almost non-existent since we have removed the “roar of the crowd” when one utters one. Therefore, I have a suggestion which will have little chance of implementation, but would be most helpful at all levels of government.
Let’s have fact checkers in real time at all public meetings. They can point out errors and we can give everyone a chance to walk back errors or overly partisan remarks that have no grounding in fact. We don’t want to embarrass people, but we do want them to be careful about what they present as truth. We could ask the audience to hold applause or disgruntlement until the end of the meeting and we could arm each side with “civility bells” to be rung when the tone becomes uncivil. The rule could be the same as ours. If the bell is rung, everyone stops talking, takes a breath and civil discourse may begin again – I know that may be a lot to ask these days.
Can you imagine how the tone would change in Congress and at the local and state levels if we just did this? It wouldn’t cost much, everyone could still have their say and we could count on things being civil and fact based. A novel concept given our current state of affairs, but the next time someone tells you how it is impossible to change things, use APS as an example. It doesn’t make dumb people smart or bad arguments good ones. What is does do is give us a chance to see if we can return to a time when civil discourse was helpful and not just another food fight.