Focused Civil Dialogues -- The TBS Approach to Controversy

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The academic world faces many controversies, both within its walls and in its interaction with the wider culture. Climate change, evolution, and animal rights are just a few of the controversies that exhibit an inexhaustible vitality within and outside the academy. In such controversies, where so much is at stake for both sides, it is common to adopt the pose of a Richard Dawkins, whereby the other side is regarded, in his words, as either "stupid, ignorant, wicked, or insane." (ref)

By contrast, we at TBS regard the belittling, demonizing, and bullying of opposing thinkers and views as singularly unhelpful. By eschewing civil discussion and attacking the other side, one simply angers one's opponent and makes him or her all that much more implacable in opposing one's own position. Rather than help resolve controversy or foster a meeting of minds, incivility results in further polarization and entrenchment of opposing positions.

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But civility alone is not enough. Mutual respect is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for fruitful dialogue. In addition, especially when the dialogue is over deeply controverted matters, focus is required. The dialogue must be focused in the sense that interlocutors are not speaking past each other but squarely addressing their own deeply held views and, at the same time, also squarely addressing the deeply held views of their opponents.

It is possible to be civil and yet sidestep the truly crucial issues at stake in a controversy. Thus, at TBS, we stress the need for focused civil dialogue. What does such a dialogue look like? Taking civility for granted, a focused civil dialogue at TBS looks as follows:

Given two parties, call them A and B, on different sides of a controversy, TBS starts by drawing up a detailed set of interview questions and then giving them to A and B. The interviews are meant to provide context for the life, work, and thought of the interlocutors. Yet, crucial in these interviews is that the interlocutors articulate what, in their view, are the strongest 5 points in favor of their position (i.e., A articulates A-strongest-5 and B articulates B-strongest-5) as well as the 5 weakest points of their opposite's position (i.e., A articulates B-weakest-5 and B articulates A-weakest-5).

With the interviews in place, A and B then write statements elaborating their 5 strongest points and defending against the 5 weakest points put forward by their interlocutor. In the next round, as a response, they deal with the 5 strongest and 5 weakest points as addressed by their interlocutor in the previous statement. Finally, both offer concluding replies to all that has preceded in the dialogue, thereby attempting to tie up any loose ends.

The structure of a focused civil dialogue at TBS thus consists of four rounds and looks as follows:

ROUND 1 (4--8K words per interview)
Interview with A (A articulates A-strongest-5 and B-weakest-5)
Interview with B (B articulates B-strongest-5 and A-weakest-5)

ROUND 2 (8--12K words per statement)
Statement by A (elaborate A-strongest-5 and defend against A-weakest-5)
Statement by B (elaborate B-strongest-5 and defend against B-weakest-5)

ROUND 3 (6--8K words per response)
Response by A (respond to B-strongest-5 and B-weakest-5 in B's statement)
Response by B (respond to A-strongest-5 and A-weakest-5 in A's statement)

ROUND 4 (2--4K words per reply)
Reply by A
Reply by B

Our role at TBS as editors of such a dialogue will be to ensure that it does indeed remain civil and that the interlocutors are indeed squarely addressing the key strengths and weaknesses that they articulated. Also, TBS editors need to ensure that neither party is given an unfair advantage, which includes posting items in a given round simultaneously and thus without prematurely leaking an item by one interlocutor to the other.

The interviews would be posted first, with statements, responses, and replies posted serially in that order, and with items in each round posted simultaneously.

A word about word counts and number of strong and weak points: In sketching what a focused civil dialogue looks like, we recommend 5 strong points and 5 weak points from each interlocutor as well as 4--8K words for each interview, 8--12K words for each statement, 6-8K words for each response, and 2--4K words for final replies. These numbers, however, are not set in stone. We are happy to work with interlocutors in setting numbers that will facilitate the most fruitful exchange of ideas.

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