The Power of Positive Public Discourse

If you read here regularly you know that I often fret about the polarized nature of public discourse.  We have had plenty of examples of that this week with the new oppositional House and the President ready to square off on tax cuts.  And it is no surprise that the rhetoric of partisan politics, wrapping itself in the flag and in the assumed “voice of the people” has created a stalemate before the talks even begin.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I read a wonderful example of the power of informed debate.  There they were, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.  Head to head opinion pieces by Bill Gates and Matt Ridley on the best way forward for developing Africa.  They disagree, as the headlines (and linked articles) below show:

Gates: “Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories”

Ridley: “Africa Needs Growth, Not Pity and Big Plans”

I humbly suggest that our nation’s leaders (and those of us who aspire to leadership in any form) take a page from the way these two engaged in this debate.  Here is what I saw that is different in the way the discussion was undertaken:

Both Men Listened to Each Other

Gates had read and clearly understood Ridley’s book on the topic.  He could accurately see the subject through Ridley’s point of view, even if he did not agree with it.  Ridley on the other hand had read Gates’ critique of his work with an open mind and a willingness to concede that perhaps Gates had a point of view as credible as his own.

They Based Their Argument on Fact

An old saw goes that if you give 10 economists the same data, they will come to 10 different conclusions.  Perhaps so, but by starting with facts as the basis for the debate, we avoid positioning and rhetoric dressed up to look like a fact.  No one treats their opinion in these articles as undeniable fact.

No One Claimed Authority That They Do Not Have

Neither writer accused the other of torpedoing any hope of growth in Africa, threatening the world economy, racist desires to suppress developing economies or greedy exploitation of the continent.  Neither man wrapped in any flag, a moral authority or a mandate from the people.  Each treated the other’s point of view with respect and admitted the possibility that it might even have merit.

I could imagine that Gates and Ridley, given some time and resource for the project, could engage in a development undertaking that might find a way forward to speed the sustainable development of Africa.  They may both be entirely wrong.  And of course neither of them are Africans.  But the way that they have engaged, at least in print, demonstrates a leadership capacity for holding ambiguity, listening well and debating fairly that in time gets past politics and positioning to find sustainable solutions.  Debate of this nature has a higher possibility of finding a solution that uses the best ideas from all sides.  In my fantasies, I see our political leaders engaging this way.