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IF, Civility, and Our Community

Look at recent events in DC, and you’ll find all the proof you are likely to need that civility is a precondition of reasoned discussion.  What’s maybe not intuitively obvious is that politics can just as easily work the other way around: thoughtful discussion can produce civility.  That’s important because to succeed as a society, we need not only working institutions, but also citizens that are capable of adapting those structures to changing circumstances and then running them effectively.  People keep talking about “fixing the system.”  Institutions, structures, and systems are undeniably important.  But who is to do the fixing—now and over the long haul—if not competent citizens?

Interactivity Foundation was created as way of providing citizens with the discussion tools they need to enhance their own competence by educating each other about public policy.  By early 2012 we’d done more than 250 discussions and thought it was time to analyze the feedback we’d been getting.  What we found surprised us.  We were gratified that the kind of learning we were hoping to see was in fact happening.  What we didn’t expect was that the changes we were seeing extended into the realm of behavior.  People weren’t just thinking differently after participating in IF discussions, they were acting differently: getting more involved in other discussions, voting more regularly, contacting representatives more often.  And then we noticed something else.  If one took a step back from all of the individual bits and pieces of information we were collecting, a clear, bigger-picture image emerged: IF discussions could be understood as enhancing every component of civility we looked at—no matter how elementary or sophisticated. 

IF Fellows Adolf G. Gundersen and Sue Goodney Lea collaborated in writing up these results, both as a marker of where IF had come over the preceding five years and where we’d still like to go.  We also think the results will be of interest to other practitioners and to citizens who want to see real evidence that a particular discussion process works in practice.  For those who want to try our approach on for size, the book contains three “how-to” chapters on arranging, conducting, and following-up on an IF-style discussion.  For doubters, we included two chapters explaining the importance of civility in American politics and a special chapter entitled “Promoting Civility: No Reason to Sit on the Sidelines.”   The book, entitled Let’s Talk Politics: Restoring Civility Through Exploratory Discussion, is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Lets-Talk-Politics-Exploratory-Discussion/dp/1482705656/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363615252&sr=8-1&keywords=Let%27s+Talk+Politics