As Cities Board Up Storefronts, Let’s Open Civic Discourse Online

By Daniel Hack

Nov. 3, 2020

As the nation endures another anxious, divisive election, much of our reaction has been focused on walling up to close out those with whom we disagree. Shops, restaurants, and entire cities have been boarded up in advance of the unrest around election results. Ten states have already announced they are deploying the U.S. National Guard to cities across the country to assist with elections and potential protests. It is merely another example of the anxiety and mistrust that have reigned the last few months, but reached pitched levels now. Vote results are being disputed, and the peaceful transition of power in the United States is far from certain. 

If 2020 was a movie, November 3 would be the climax. It’s about time we begin thinking beyond this election, building back civil discourse and bridging the divides that define us today. 

The youth of this country are politically active like never before. I’ve seen it among my own social circles, in Pittsburgh, where I attend Carnegie Mellon University, and among my hometown friends, where previously apolitical arguments about Jordan vs Lebron have now morphed into debates about climate policy, voter suppression and what constitutes racial equity. The sudden interest in this election among my friends - and my generation -  has opened my eyes. 

The high interest of youth makes sense. We have the greatest stake in any election, especially this one.  My friend group has nothing but love for one another, but we have been arguing on a daily basis about issues that generate passion and are not easy to navigate. But we’ve worked hard to maintain respect for one another as we disagree. We can argue for hours during the day, but then move on and play video games together at night. The key: we listen to each other and consider ideas and views not our own.

Last year, after an especially bruising social media exchange, I decided, with friends, to create an online discourse platform called Convertsation. We created the platform to improve online discourse among young people. Leveraging technology and AI to help enable small group synchronous debate, the platform helps participants navigate challenging subjects and learn positive discourse skills. And we seem to have struck a need; just months after we officially launched, it has been gratifying to see being used in both high schools and colleges this Fall. 

Regardless of the 2020 election’s outcome, political discourse will continue. Critique and constructive debate of our nation's leaders and policy is democracy at its best. But civic dialogue has to include the other side; proactively reaching out to those who have different views is critical. And sometimes listening to other views can broaden your own sense of the world. Let’s be honest here, the chances that one party has everything figured out and the other party is completely wrong is very unlikely. The real truth is that we need to find the best pieces of all the platforms at our disposal and synthesize solutions that help people and America move forward. 

So please, exchange your ideas responsibly online and always be searching for collaborative and productive solutions- stating your opinion in long paragraphs over and over again without listening to the other side isn’t a conversation, it’s a destructive monologue that quite frankly, no one is going to read. The following five rules offered by a civic engagement organization, the Heterodox Academy, offer constructive guidelines to follow when communicating online: 

  1. Make your case with evidence.

  2. Be intellectually charitable.

  3. Be intellectually humble.

  4. Be constructive.

  5. Be yourself.

As someone who participates in endless conversations online with those of all different backgrounds, I can assure you that if you follow these rules, the discourse will feel better and be more productive.  The goal of a conversation in 2020 should not be about being right and proving your adversaries wrong, it needs to be about proving them valid, giving them the respect that you deserve, and coming up with solutions together. This year was a mess; let’s use the deep power of the internet to band together as a nation, learn from one another, grow together, and most importantly: listen. 

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