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.

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