Volume 9 Number 6
A Call for Honest Conversation
01 December 1996

Richard Ruffin is a former Rhodes Scholar. Since serving in the US Navy, including two years on the staff of the Secretary of Defense, he has been one of those responsible full-time for the programmes of Moral Re-Armament in the United States.

At the height of Athenian democracy and creativity 2,500 years ago, vital issues of the day were thrashed out in the public square. Thousands of citizens - albeit free males only! - would gather beside the acropolis up to 40 times a year to debate and vote on proposals touching every major domestic and international issue. Treaties were agreed, wars declared and decisions taken. Debate was open, vigorous, substantive and respectful. Partly because all views were heard, there was a remarkable degree of social cohesion. Decisions broadly attracted the support of the whole populace, wherever they stood on the issues.

Several worlds and centuries away, in an age of mega-states, high technology and mass communications, the United States experienced the modern-day equivalent of the Athenians' public debate just before the recent election. With the American citizenry represented by a well-known television commentator, the two major candidates for the American presidency took part in two spirited debates. In at least two respects the dialogue reflected the best attributes of its Athenian precursor.

First, both Bill Clinton and Robert Dole conducted themselves with remarkable civility and mutual respect, avoiding the personal attacks and mud-slinging that have often characterized previous `presidential' debates. On the whole they managed to disagree without being disagreeable.

Secondly, they stuck remarkably well to the issues, marshalling reams of data to support their respective viewpoints.

But in two vital respects the debates departed radically from the Athenian model - thus contributing to what many observers see as a debilitating loss of social cohesion.


First, despite appearances, there was almost nothing spontaneous about the debates. What the American public saw was a painstakingly rehearsed and carefully calibrated message designed to touch the emotions and subconsciously woo the support of selected voting blocs. It was high-stakes political gamesmanship. No professional sports team was ever more intensively coached.

Less well known, however, is the fact that behind the coaching was an apparently harmless invention of the American public relations industry that is swiftly reducing public debates to cynical exercises in snaring an unsuspecting electorate. A carefully selected `focus group' of 15 or 20 individuals from a specific target group of voters is convened in the relaxed atmosphere of a neighbour's home. They listen to the candidate's message on a range of subjects and, with the help of a skilled facilitator, engage in a vigorous and unrehearsed discussion of the issues. These are filmed and then used to measure and analyze the reactions, both positive and negative, of the participants to every word, gesture and opinion of the candidate.

A second feature of the debates was that the most urgent questions facing the nation were either ducked altogether or addressed superficially. Consider three examples:

1 There was no serious discussion of America's world role and the principles that should govern her foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. As former US Ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick has said, `No one is asking what are the nature and limits of our obligations to others.'

2 With all the talk about balancing budgets, neither candidate was willing to confront the demographic time-bomb that will explode the federal deficit early in the next century when the post-world War II `baby boom' generation starts to draw on social security, medicare and other state benefits. Present generations are in effect getting away with massive theft from future ones without so much as the courtesy of public debate.

3 Most dangerously, neither candidate was willing to address the devastating realities of America's inner cities or the massive distrust and suspicion in much of the African- American community towards the majority population.

Futurist Robert Theobald has given much thought to this shying away from the issues that most affect our common future. In a forthcoming book, Reworking success, he cites a conclusion reached by Canadian experts who examined a wide range of possible futures: `One striking realization that emerged,' they concluded, `... was that we could design a relatively desirable scenario even if we did not postulate a new economic boom. But we could not come up with a scenario in which any of us would want to live if we did not postulate success in building social cohesion.'

William Raspberry, the widely syndicated African-American columnist, describes vividly one consequence of the wholesale avoidance of crucial issues: `The gap between rich and poor is growing at a dangerous, socially destabilizing rate. Our economy is increasingly disconnected from concerns of community. We are split along lines of race and caste and class. Our politics thrive on wedge issues and division and mutual vilification.'


There's no quick and easy way for concerned citizens to take democracy out of the hands of the political spin masters and public relations experts, but there are ways we can make a start. As the Athenians discovered, social cohesion is the result of open, honest public debate on the vital issues of the day. If our politicians can't or won't do it, is it time for ordinary citizens to grasp the nettle?

What if enough of us chose to go towards those with whom we most disagree and from whom we are most different and engaged them in respectful conversation on the issues that really matter? What if diverse groups in communities across the nation did the same thing? Might we then generate the social cohesion that would enable our political leadership to do what needs to be done?