Health care reform and civic conversations
In the past year, millions of people have been involved in discussions about health care reform, but have these been “civic conversations “? From shouting matches at town hall meetings, to White House summits., to hundreds of hours of television talk, to neighborhood discussions, to street demonstrations, the topic has elicited a variety of voices from different groups. For the most part, however, I think we have witnessed what one could call “social discussions” rather than “civic conversations.”
By social discussions, I mean events where people speak from their social positions. Their arguments are grounded in their social expectations of what is right and wrong. (Most people do what they think is right given the world they think they live in.) And finally, we see others as belonging to other social groups. What makes these social discussions so difficult is the absence of a common ground that allows people to move beyond their social identity.
So what is the difference between the civic and the social? The social, at least in its modern sense, is composed of different and often conflicting groups, such as divisions of class, race, religion, and so on. The civic, on the other hand, provides a common identity as citizens—as global citizens—where everyone is recognized as a member of a global civil society. This membership is what we have in common. It does not resolve our differences and disagreements, but it gives us a place to use civic norms such as moral equality to weigh their merit. It is a place for civic conversations. When the health care debate has been based on such a platform of universal solidarity, then it may have been a civic conversation. When it has not found a common ground for the deliberation of different ideas, it probably did not move beyond a social discussion.