How Do We Disagree in the Public Square?

Those Who Study and Work to Keep Civil Discourse Civil Share the ‘Secret Sauce’ for Productive Debate

Illustration by Ruby Alvarado. Courtesy of artworxla.

The public square is the meeting ground where people make society happen. In these spaces, physical or metaphorical or digital, we work through our shared dramas and map our collective hopes. Ideally, the public square provides room to solve the problems we face. It is also where new, thorny issues often arise.

This “Up for Discussion” is part of Zócalo’s editorial and events series spotlighting the ideas, places, and questions that have shaped the public square that Zócalo has created over the past 20 years.

For this fifth and final installment, we pulled in people working to understand our contentious public debates. From vitriolic fights over race, gender, and sexuality to the polarized, partisan brawls over policy to the protests cropping up across U.S. campuses, our contributors share how we might make civil discourse more civil.

They tell us: How do we disagree in public?

Charlie Mackintosh

By engaging with individuals, not existential threats

The Oxford Union—arguably the world’s most famous debating society—was founded 200 years ago, in secret, to provide a space for Oxford undergraduates to discuss religious matters away from the university’s strict conformity and blasphemy rules. At the time, students had to be Anglicans and pass a theology exam to matriculate. Oxford came to realize that permitting debate and discussion of these issues enhanced the university as a seat of learning rather than pose an existential challenge to the Anglican identity of the university, its colleges, and their fellows.

Since then, the Union has helped us work out why civil discourse in the public square is so important—and where it has gone wrong.

Today, with seemingly ever-increasing frequency, speakers and debate motions at the Union are met with a cacophony of outrage. Protests are a regular occurrence, as they have been throughout much of the Union’s history, but they have changed in tone. The target is now as likely to be the student society and its members as it is to be the issue of controversy itself. In my term as president, in 2023, I received a litany of messages and threats accusing me of simultaneously “denying the existence of LGBTQ+ people” and entertaining “heresy,” and being both an antisemite and an “agent of the Apartheid State of Israel.”

This is not just an Oxford problem. Discourse at universities—and across the social and cultural landscape—is getting worse.

Few things evoke such emotion as a perceived challenge or threat to one’s very existence. It would be inhuman to say that this is not understandable. However, response on these grounds fails to be a universal or humanist approach and rather is a clash of identities. A belief that homosexuality is a sin held by a fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or Jew is an idea that is constitutive of the faith that they hold to be integral to their identity; similarly, belief in the cause of Palestinian statehood is an intrinsic and identity-constitutive belief for many Arabs. By attempting to prevent the expression of these beliefs, those who oppose them commit the very offense they are trying to avoid: They dismiss the validity of a person’s identity.

By realizing the strength of our emotional responses to issues that involve our identities, perhaps we can be more understanding of the positions of others. We can seek to engage with others not as existential threats, but as individuals comprised of beliefs and ideas with which we must grapple. No identity-constitutive notion is inherently more or less valuable than any other; it must earn its status in the marketplace of ideas, through debate and civil discussion. If we cannot learn to engage in this way, discourse in the public square is only going to get nastier, and divisions more bitter.

Charlie Mackintosh is a student of philosophy, politics, and economics at New College, Oxford and served as president of the Oxford Union in 2023.

Collin Anthony Chen

Building community across difference

Consider Monica Sparks. She is a member of the Kent County Board of Commissioners in Michigan, a Black woman, and the president of Democrats for Life of America, a nonprofit organization that opposes abortion. Or Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who switched from pro-life to pro-choice after working for more than 30 years seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. Or one of my own students who, after being the victim of domestic violence, supported gun ownership for self-protection as a feminist issue. Or another who believed strongly in the Second Amendment but felt that some sensible regulation was permitted on assault weapons.

You would lose a great deal of subtlety if you were to reduce these individuals to simply Republican or Democrat.

These examples are not aberrations. According to Pew, American political identities are complex and can be broken down into nine different ideological categories. The second largest of these, the “Stressed Sideliners,represents 15% of the population and contains people witha mix of conservative and liberal views.” The largest ideological group—the “Democratic Mainstays,” whose members have a “moderate tilt on some issues,” represents 16% of the population. And the smallest—the “Progressive Left”—represents 6% of the population, which says a lot about how disparate and nondominant our political beliefs truly are.

One way that I’ve found helps to uncover this political complexity in the public square is to seek repeated interactions with a variety of people and talk with them about the evolution of their political identities.

Students in the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Program at Stanford, where I serve as director, connect with one another by sharing their civic self-portrait, a personal story that documents the values, ideas, and experiences that have shaped their political beliefs. Peers—from different states, different colleges, and different political backgrounds—then ask each other whether their beliefs have changed over time and why. Not surprisingly, many students have turning points in their lives that mark important shifts in their perspectives. By shifting the focus toward evolution and change, students are less likely to view each other as locked adversaries. Instead, they learn to view political identity as a work in progress, amenable to adaptation, and capable of accommodating a plurality of ideas.

Of course, deep disagreement persists. But it is much harder to dehumanize someone who has spent time sharing with you the twists and turns of their personal political history in response to life’s challenges. Research from Stanford’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge supports the idea that storytelling, empathetic listening, and curious inquiry comprise the “secret sauce” that makes building communities across difference possible. If we can practice these skills in our own lives, disagreements can be catalysts for change rather than contributors to animosity.

Collin Anthony Chen is associate director for graduate and undergraduate programs at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University and directs Stanford’s Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership fellowship program.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer

Openness, empathetic listening, and taking a moment

After the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 where six people were killed and 13 were wounded, including then Representative Gabby Giffords, the University of Arizona acted quickly to make something good come out of that tragedy: the creation of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, of which I was honored to be the founding executive director. In the months following the 2016 election, NICD received messages from people from every walk of life all over the country who were in anguish about not being able to talk civilly with people who voted for the other candidate.

Take this call, from a mother in New England, near tears: “We have two daughters, both in Ivy League schools—one voted for Clinton the other for Trump, and they have not spoken to each other since the election. They are coming home for Thanksgiving. What can we do to be able to enjoy the Holiday together?” NICD moved quickly to provide tips for how to enjoy holidays despite opposing political views at the table.

Most surprising to me was when we began to receive calls from major corporations with the same concerns, citing entire teams unable to work together, with high levels of mistrust among colleagues—putting productivity and profits at stake.

So how do we disagree with one another in public? Let’s try something together.

Think of a person in your life with whom you are able to disagree without rancor or judgement, someone with whom maintaining a relationship is more important for you than being right. Now think of someone with whom you know you disagree on many issues. Think of an issue about which you have strong feelings and first, imagine the way you would talk about it with the person with whom maintaining a relationship is most important. Sense your own internal state of being. Then imagine talking with the other, oppositional person about it and try to match that same internal state.

Disagreeing peacefully in public requires discipline. If you are able to bring that same emotional state and frame of mind that is natural with someone you value into the public setting, you will be able to listen without judgement and learn how the person you disagree with came to hold their views.

When NICD does this with groups of people, the learnings are profound and lead to four key strategies and principles that can change a potentially difficult conversation right from the beginning:

1. Enter the conversation knowing that your position may need to shift

2. Know that the goal of the conversation is to better understand one another’s point of view; not to change it.

3. Start with sincere curiosity: What in the other’s life experience brought them to their view?

4. If/when the other person says something that triggers your judgment or the need to strongly disagree, first, take a breath, give yourself a moment to return to neutral, and then ask a question; e.g. What in your background influenced you to carry that belief?

Whether in the privacy of our own homes or at our workplaces, learning how to disagree in public is something that each of us, as citizens, can and must do to help heal our beleaguered democracy—and live productive, connected lives.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer has been a leader in the field of deliberative democracy for over 30 years, previously serving as chief of staff of the State of Ohio and as a consultant to the chief of staff in the Clinton-Gore administration.

Jennifer Mercieca

Practicing ‘cognitively responsible’ protest

A group of women gather in convention, delivering speeches and writing a document that demands women’s rights. A group of African Americans boycott their city’s buses, demanding that their city desegregate. A group of students sit-in at an administration building, demanding the right to free speech on their campus. A group of gay activists follow a president on vacation, shutting down a roadway in a “die-in” to draw attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The story of America could be told through what we disagree about in public and how. Critiquing the actions of our government is as old as the American Revolution, and as recent as today’s protests over foreign policy.

When we gather in public to disagree, we are enacting our role as citizens in a government based upon the will of the people. It’s a role so important that the First Amendment protects our communication rights as citizens. Our rights to petition, assemble, and speak freely enable us to disagree in public. While governments and institutions attempt to exert force over us and control our behavior, citizens resist through public criticism.

It may seem counter-intuitive but disagreeing in public builds trust between governments and citizens. Governments based upon the will of the people are “cognitively responsible,” as philosopher Stephen Pepper has argued, when they use rational argument to explain and defend their laws, practices, and decisions. When citizens use protest to show that they disagree with the government, they are likewise showing cognitive responsibility. Protests allow citizens to lodge specific complaints and questions, asking the government to explain itself further or change its behavior. Any government that does not practice cognitive responsibility is authoritarian: it demands obedience and compliance to its laws without explanation (the “because I said so” approach).

While the interplay of cognitive responsibility between citizens and governments builds trust and strengthens democracy, governments (or those in positions of power) often find public disagreement threatening. Can public disagreement actually erode democracy? Yes, but only under the narrowest of circumstances. Public disagreement is a threat to democracy only when it is used to silence debate and prevent the interplay of cognitive responsibility between governments and citizens (using communication as a weapon).

Public disagreement is so crucial that it is always a net-positive unless it fails Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance,” which states that a democratic society must be tolerant of all kinds of disagreement, except for disagreement that is intolerant of disagreement itself. Because the intolerant “are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument,” explained Popper, “we should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” Intolerance is “cognitively irresponsible”—it refuses to give good reasons and does not admit the validity of those who disagree.

Ultimately, though public disagreement is often inconvenient and disruptive, it ought to be given the widest latitude possible.

Jennifer Mercieca is a historian of American political rhetoric, professor of communication and journalism at Texas A&M University, and a contributing editor at Zócalo Public Square.