What We Learned at the ‘Civil Discourse in a Polarized Society’ Discussion

Gulfshore Life teamed with WGCU to host an event with Dr. Christopher Phillips about the how to generate respectful debate.

BY March 14, 2018


Let the ranters rant, and then gently prompt another speaker to take the floor. Chances are the conversation will start moving again without devolving into all-out rhetorical war—even if you’re dying to push back.  

Re-frame the question when dialog regresses to party-line talking points, like the ongoing (and deadlocked) debate over gun control. Try something like, “How many people are concerned about violence in America?” an open-ended, politically neutral query that just might lead to a discovery of common ground.


This was some of the advice offered by Dr. Christopher Phillips during last night’s “Civil Discourse in a Polarized Society” conversation at the WGCU Public Media studios. Phillips, an author, speaker and philosopher, is the founder of Socrates Café and related projects including Democracy Café and Constitution Café, all of which are designed to get people talking—respectfully and productively—using the Socratic Method style of questioning.

The event was born out of a partnership among WGCU, Gulfshore Life, and Florida Gulf Coast University’s philosophy and journalism departments, with support from the Daniel and Janet K. Warner Journalism Endowed Fund. The event was designed to continue the conversation that the magazine introduced in this month’s special report, “Talk to Me…Please?”

“How did we all move so far from one another that we don’t just disagree with people, we can’t even begin to fathom how they see things the way they do?” asked WGCU News Director Julie Glenn, kicking off the conversation before handing it over to Phillips. “How do we get back to the point where we can talk to friends and relatives again without name calling and exasperation?”

Nearly 100 people attended, live and via Facebook (Scroll down to watch the video). They were eager to talk.

“I don’t think people are looking at the gray areas—it is or it isn’t,” one woman said.

“Do you feel that way whether we’re talking gun control or affordable health care, building a wall or allowing citizenship?” Phillips prodded.

“Yes,” she responded. “It just all seems polarized—there’s not much gray.”

An online poll Glenn conducted at the event’s start supported her view; the majority of respondents said “party loyalty” was the nation’s biggest source of division. (Race, religion, economic concerns, the Russia investigation, and guns were other options.)

Last night’s audience largely echoed the sentiments Gulfshore Life heard in its previous reporting, offering further evidence of the factors splintering us and also providing a road map for what we need to do to move forward. At WGCU, participants brought up concerns about partisan media; about decisions driven by emotion rather than fact; about a failure of leadership and a public that is growing increasingly fearful as a result.

One young man, who said he works for a right-wing media outlet, said he’s experienced both conservative and liberal influences and has grown disenchanted with both. “I don’t like what I hear or see on either side. … Neither side acknowledges their own faults,” he said.

A father explained his attendance candidly: “I have young children, and I don’t want them to inherit this mess.”

Several people offered insights about how they learned to hear the other side. A few mentioned sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s groundbreaking Strangers in Their Own Land, her account of an immersion into “red” America to learn why people thought—and voted—the way they did. A former lawyer spoke of how he joined environmental groups while representing corporate clients so that he had a full view of issues.

One woman sought commonality with those of opposing views: “Unless we can start with what we agree on, I don’t know of a way I can talk to them about anything.”

“That’s a fascinating starting point,” Phillips agreed.

“The most important thing is to just listen,” said one retiree, who has been running a Socrates Café circle for 10 years. “Problem-solving can really be done in a smaller group, carefully listening. It really does make a big difference in a smaller community. You don’t have to go all the way to the government. We can start among ourselves—to think and to carefully listen.”

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