In this strangest of American election years, discourse, long regarded as the lifeblood of democratic societies, appears more endangered than ever before, confined to sound bites and slogans of the moment. Rarely do people have the need or occasion to account for their beliefs, much less question them. It’s enough that I identify where I stand, without needing to say why. Dialog, if it occurs at all, is confined to the “echo chamber” of like-minded individuals.
In this age of twitter, is reasoned discourse truly an historical relic, or is there hope for its revival?
As one who has explored ways to develop the values and skills associated with reasoned discourse among young people, I am cautiously optimistic. With the right setting and little prompting, we have found, young teens are ready to engage deeply in debating complex issues of the day with their peers. Yet, reasoned discourse as a cultural practice can flourish only if its participants have achieved a critical set of intellectual skills and intellectual values. We need to nurture both.
Underlying them is an understanding of the nature of knowing. Epistemological understanding—the understanding of how we know what we claim to – develops in a predictable sequence. Through at least their first decade, children believe that we know the world directly and first hand—just look and see and truth reveals itself as a set of known facts. By their second decade, the discovery that the beliefs even of alleged experts differ typically leads to a radical turnabout. A world of certain facts is replaced by one of knowledge as freely chosen opinions—how things seem to me. Knowledge, once entirely objective, is now treated as entirely subjective – believe whatever you want.
Only some individuals progress to a third epistemological stance in which objective and subjective dimensions of knowing are coordinated and knowledge consists of judgments, made within a framework of alternatives and evidence and expressing our best current understanding, though subject always to change.
This evaluativist epistemological stance not only welcomes discourse but demands it, as the means by which knowing is accomplished. Knowledge as facts or opinions, in contrast, renders discourse irrelevant. Claims are not open to question. Facts can simply be “looked up,” and opinions must be accepted as the unquestioned possessions of their holder. You can’t challenge how I feel because my feelings are mine. Tolerance demands that all beliefs have equal status—because everyone has a right to their beliefs, all beliefs are equally right.
An evaluativist epistemological stance is thus the foundation for a commitment to discourse a valuing of it as a form of human activity worth the effort it entails. It affirms respect for all views while maintaining that they are nonetheless subject to evaluation.
Yet values by themselves are not enough. If it is to be productive, reasoned discourse requires particular intellectual skills of its participants. There are others, but I describe two here that are particularly consequential for discourse.
One of them is making clear distinction between explanation and evidence. When we asked a random sample of teens and adults of all ages what evidence they could offer to support their view regarding the cause of a social problem (for example, prisoners’ return to crime following release), they often offered an explanation of how the alleged cause they identified could produce the outcome (a mechanism account), rather than any evidence that this cause does produce the outcome. In effect, the plausibility of the explanation serves as the evidence, which has the further effect of drawing attention away from any quest for genuine evidence.
The consequences become more damaging if explanations are rehearsed and investment in them forms, further disinclining one to seek or be responsive to evidence. The damage to discourse is considerable, allowing Jack to claim “Here’s how it happens,” and Joe to counter, “No, here’s how it happens”—an exchange that quickly reaches a dead end, one moreover in which neither has addressed the other’s claim. And should they do so, the grounds for comparison are limited to ones of plausibility.
Second, and equally important as an intellectual skill that affects discourse, is disavowing single-cause thinking. Not recognizing that multiple causes most often contribute to an outcome is severely limiting to thinking in general, as well as to discourse. Yet we found the majority of a random sample of adults satisfied with single causes of a phenomenon (such as poverty or longevity). If a single cause is regarded as sufficient to bear the explanatory burden, alternative causes will be seen as contradictory: Either my cause or your cause is the correct one. An affective component enters in and reasoning becomes motivated by allegiance to one’s preferred cause. An alternative cause is seen as threatening to replace it, when in fact it may be unnecessary to choose between them. Do we look inside the abuser or outside the abuser to find the cause of drug abuse? A single-cause thinker is never going to develop a very deep understanding of the phenomenon. Nor is he or she likely to sustain a rich conversation on the topic.
Educators today are talking a lot about the need to equip students with 21st century skills. In a democratic society, reasoned discourse should be one of them, if citizens are to participate in shaping the future of the society they live in. A culture that supports discourse is certainly needed, but so is each individual’s development of the skills and values that reasoned discourse requires