Monthly Archives: June 2014

Unity and Diversity in Civic Discourse



I’ve joined a local civic action group. We’ve formed to oppose a county decision to convert public parklands to construct a public school. The Arlington (VA) County Board has said the schools can “consider” the site under a “public land for public use” policy recently adopted.

Our group of citizens argues that parks already are a public good and that the county should buy new land for the school. It should not give up one public good in order to create a different public good. In a rapidly growing County like ours it should pay for essential services from the growing economy rather than trade one good for another in order to build cheap.

So our supporters of parks have organized. We have messages we want to send the School Board and the County Board. But grass root civic action is a lesson in the tension between the individual and the community and who decides the winners and losers.

A grass roots group brings lots of individuals with different opinions together around a common cause. The challenge is the tension between unity for the cause and diversity about defining the cause and effective ways to persuading the County to embrace it.

Some say “not one inch of parkland” should be sacrificed. Others are more willing to compromise on marginal parts of the park. Others simply want to be part of the process of shaping the site. And our supporters have lots of ways of explaining it all.

Of course, the County works at a higher level of diverse demands. The policy tries to respond to booming enrollments in schools and public resistance to paying to do something about them. It tries to find land for affordable public housing. It needs land for growing public services. All are public “goods.” But if money is tight, the “goods” are thrown into competition among those most concerned for each.

So our group needs to speak with one well-supported public voice to assert our common demand to recognize the essential public good of parks that serve everyone with better health, environment, fitness, leisure space, and recreation benefits.

The question is how to construct effective unity in civic discourse and keep those with divergent ideas from breaking away. It’s one of the oldest tensions in society and quickly devolves into issues of power and manipulation. Hegel talked about it as a “dialetic” of will and adaptation, mind and spirit, individual and community. Habermas talks about it in terms of understanding and strategic manipulation. Heidegger and Gademer talks about it in terms of what is and what might be.

Civic discourse, like democracy itself, is the essential and uncomfortable business of opening one’s settled knowledge to the views and beliefs of others. It requires those participating to confront the fact that other people see facts and ideas in different ways. It requires that we confront our own facts with the real possibility that others may have found another way of seeing those same facts. The heart of civic discourse is to open ourselves up to a new way of understanding the facts and beliefs we have built throughout our experience.

Of course, for those trying to organize action, this flow and shifting of facts and ideas creates difficulties in creating a “strategic communication and action plan” to speak with one voice.

Civic action happens at the grass roots level. At the county level (not to mention the state level or national level), arguments scale up. The most unified voices are the ones most easily heard. They seem most urgent because they are unified with a large following regardless of how they have suppressed dissenters within their ranks.

This is the heart of the dilemma for community organizers and politicians alike. It is also the heart of the dilemma for civic discourse and, ultimately, civil discourse. Grass roots discourse may be hardest because it organizes individuals working to understand each other into strategic teams, whose job becomes persuading public opinion and pubic policy to conform to the kind of unity they create. They quickly move beyond discourse for understanding into strategic discourse for results.

The struggle is to keep civic discourse authentic.

Start with Discourse, Not Metrics

Arikia Millikan, the founder of @LadyBits and an (now) ex-Collection Editor with the online site Medium resigned from the site this week. She wrote a powerful parting account of some of the challenges she faced, including an unpredictable payment system based on “clicks.”



Eris Biba, a former Wired magazine editor, also posted her frustration as a correspondent for the online tech magazine Medium Paid through a “clicks-for-pay” system. She described an experiment she had run. She appealed to readers to click more so she would be paid more. It worked. She got a lot of clicks. But it was not satisfying.

Medium Editor Evan Hansen has responded with a post of his own in Medium ( “It’s arguable whether the fault here is in how people were paid, how attention gets divvied up online, the proclivities of the Medium audience at this moment in time or a question of editorial judgment. It’s probably a mix of all four, and other more subtle things to boot,” he wrote and said Medium was shifting toward pay based on a new “total time reading” model (TTR). He suggests this new “metric” experiment “sets the stage for us to build durable business models, for writers as well as ourselves.”

This fascination with metrics to measure “engagement” reflects a similar emphasis found in the New York Times “innovation report” ( and in much of the preoccupation of the media industry as a whole with how to sustain a business model through strategic manipulation of audience interests.

For me, the approach to measuring audience interests (grounded in the search for successful business models) misses a deeper underlying demand from media users: the demand for a voice—for discourse.

Much has been written about engagement, discourse, connection, interaction, and audience participation. But such terms usually are couched in how to harness these principles for business purposes—the media business model.

Of course, there is every reason to want a successful business model that can sustain the activity of providing what readers want and need. The difficult is the starting point. Experiments like Medium and research like the NYT innovation report start from the wrong end. They start with business demands and try to figure out how to engage the audience/reader/user in order to meet those demands.

Human beings use media to get what they need and want. Writers from Heidegger to Gadamer, from Dewey to Rorty, from Hegel to Habermas have described how human beings use language, communication, and media. They describe how discourse changes understanding by confronting what we think we know with surprises—things we did not know. The result is a new way of understanding.

This is the kind of discourse that drives readers, users, and audiences to mediated communication. This is the “new” in “news.”

Finding articles, programs, and posts that can do that should be the goal. Such work is “creative.” It stars by understanding “curiosity.” It creates the successful business model from its own success with readers/users/audiences. This is the kind of “quality writing” that Eris Biba said should be rewarded. It is the kind “news story” that newspapers and magazines once paid handsomely to print. It’s the kind of creative programming that broadcasters and filmmakers hunt.

Begin with “discourse” rather than “metrics” if you want to create a successful media business model.