Argument and Sound Bites Trump Civility

At a dinner party the other evening, one of the guests stated, with great indignation, "The entire south is against gay marriage." This was the day that the Supreme Court had issued its ruling upholding the constitutionality of gay marriage. The trouble with his statement, whatever your opinion of gay marriage, is that it is not true. Media soundbites had asserted the same sentiment, but the truth is that only a few counties in some southern states had said they would not comply.

Civil discourse, which at its root requires a broader, contextual understanding of the issues facing our nation and world today, is being short-changed by the sound bites that batter us in the media each day.

The New York Times on Sunday published highlights of a discussion between Norman Lear, the 92-year old prolific writer and producer of such groundbreaking 1970s television as All in the Family and The Jefferson's, and Seth McFarlane, 41, creator of Family Guy and the newly released movie, Ted 2.

In discussing their different paths in creating controversial, thought-provoking, television and movies, Lear noted the changes in our nation since his heyday. "America's biggest export is excess," he said. "We are excessive about everything and we've become consumers of excess rather than citizens. Media doesn't inform so much as it argues, bumper-sticker style. Context is everything, and we get very little context now."

McFarlane agreed, and added, "The massive overflow of media -- too much media -- has made it harder to have a discussion. The freedom to find answers through communication is punished when things are picked apart and used for profit as soundbites."

In short, soundbites too often trump civil, informed conversations, which are no less than the building blocks of a democratic society. Context, curiosity and compassion are the hallmarks of civil discussion and can serve to bridge differences, while soundbites act more like battering rams driving people apart.

David Bornstein, writing last year in the Times, offered hope. He wrote, "Better conversations are possible -- in fact, they can be facilitated by almost anyone who cares to learn how -- but it means giving considerable more thought than we normally do to the kinds of questions we ask and the context in which we ask them."

Ask Big Questions is a program that Bornstein noted can help us learn again how to engage in informed discussions. Co-founded by Rabbi Josh Feigelson and two Northwestern students, Lexie Komisar and Allison Gross, the program encourages, as Bornstein wrote, "genuine exchange rather than a debate...students actually listened to one another."

The program encourages posing not "hard questions" but "big questions." As the program founder has noted, "A big one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people's sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart."

If soundbites have emerged as the vampires of our culture, snuffing out the lifeblood of intelligence and informed discussions, curiosity and "wisdom from the heart," can still be tapped to save us all. We can, as citizens of this nation, open our minds, ask the "big questions," and seek, through civil discourse, the solutions that will make our country stronger and more viable, a true beacon to the rest of the world.