Jane Prescott-Smith is the managing director of the Tucson-based National Institute for Civil Discourse, a privately funded organization that encourages media, politicians and the public to improve our country through productive discussion. To do so, it's leading workshops, testing social media programs and even persuading politicians to fly in (without being paid!) to learn something new. Prescott-Smith will be leading a discussion called "Is the 10 Ton Carrier of Civility Beginning to Turn?" with the League of Women Voters from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. For more info about the institute, go to nicd.arizona.edu.
So what's with the "Ten Ton Carrier" metaphor?
I think what it's getting at is that sometimes you get so much momentum behind a cultural shift that it just kind of moves on its own, and it takes time to change that. We have so many individuals who have opted out of discourse. And depending on which research you give the most weight to, there's either a very quiet majority in the middle hungry for rational discussion or a huge number of people who are disaffected and not engaging. I believe that our democracy is based on the written precept of free speech, and that the Founding Fathers believed that it was important to have discussion in the public square.
A number of those disaffected people of my generation have grown up on the Internet, where it can be anarchy.
When you talk about anarchy on the Internet, a lot of people attribute that to anonymity. But there's not a lot of empirical research to support that. The truth is, a lot of people go to inappropriate rhetoric because they're unskilled. Civil discourse is a skill, it can be learned, and that's what we're working hard to convince people of and train people in.
What is NICD doing to train people?
"Building Trust Through Civil Discourse" is the name of one workshop, and we've had interested legislators flying in from around the country giving up their time, without compensation, to work with us. We cover a lot of skills and help legislators to create their own vision for how they'd like to see the legislative process work, and develop a series of goals and steps that they can take.
How much work have you done with Arizona legislators?
Well ... we're hopeful that we'll be able to do the workshop in Arizona. I think that we have an excellent example of the ability to work across the aisle here in Legislative District 9; Victoria Steele, a Democrat and Ethan Orr, a Republican, jointly wrote legislation about mental health first aid (HB 2570). These are two individuals who ran against each other, yet were able to put the community ahead of their ideological differences and put forward important legislation. There have been a couple of senior legislators who have indicated willingness to look at our workshop, but only after the election.
The fact that an upcoming election affects your message kind of bothers me as a citizen.
Right, and that's certainly part of the challenge, that (as a society) we never stop campaigning. Something I'm certain we'll encourage people to become more vocal about is the kind of campaigning that they'll respond to. I don't mean that politicians shouldn't be able to take opponents to task for their record, but there's a body of literature that indicates that negative campaigning around issues is effective, and that trashing opponents on personal issues can backfire.
It seems that, immediately following tragedies, discourse shifts; that lasts a week or two before things go back to normal. What are your thoughts?
One of the things that allows people from very different points of view to reach an agreement is that the alternative to reaching the agreement is untenable. I think that's what happens in tragic moments; that there's an outside terror that we unite against. What I hope we might be able to do is help Americans move past the visceral sense of being attacked and harken back to the time of the constitutional convention, where if we don't work to solve our problems, we're at risk of an untenable future. Then, it was subjugation by the king of England; today, it's the risk of losing our economic welfare. We need our leaders to come together and put other things aside to safeguard our country against a shifting world economy.