Better Angels Debates

“Truth springs from argument amongst friends.”
—David Hume, 18th C. Scottish empiricist and philosopher

We live in a deeply divided moment where people disagree on very important topics.

We also live at a time when the consequences for expressing a “wrong” opinion, or at least an unpopular one, can be high—social shaming, online bullying, job loss, academic punishment, and more.

These two problems leave us in a uniquely frustrating position: we have many differences that should not and cannot be ignored, and yet we are limited in where, how, and whether we can discuss them. Furthermore, many people, especially those in high school and college, are still forming their beliefs on certain issues, and it is difficult to be secure in your viewpoint on a particular topic if you haven’t heard all the counter arguments to your position!

One group, called Better Angels, is especially attuned to this problem and is doing something about it. They created Better Angels Debates to give people, especially those in high school and college, an opportunity defend publically what they believe—but doing so with the understanding that they are still forming their opinions and don’t quite have everything figured out yet.

At a recent Better Angels Debate at American University, twenty-five students RSVP’d—and over eighty showed up. The topic of the debate: Is health care a human right? (A video showing highlights of the event can be found here). The over-subscription to the event is not uncommon and is indicative of the deep need and desire for such venues of free thought and discussion among both Millennials and Gen Z-ers.

Prior to the debate at American University, the organizers of Better Angels Debates had been warned of a particularly active student group who was known for interrupting organized events—especially ones discussing controversial topics. As expected, the group showed up to the debate. The organizers decided that the best approach was to invite them to participate—and to everyone’s surprise, they did.

As there is growing concern about the constrictive nature of speech and diversity of opinion on college campuses, this example is encouraging because it shows that debate about important topics is something that people actually want.

When most people hear a debate advertised, they think they’re going to watch two people of opposing views debate. But that is not the style of Better Angels Debates. Instead, everyone can be a participant—if they want to be. “I was not expecting to speak myself,” and “I was not expecting to learn so much” are common refrains from participants after Better Angels Debates.

Better Angels Debates are especially ideal for those just starting to take an interest in politics, or those that have an interest but would like an opportunity to try out different ideas or policy positions for size. It’s for people who may not have their views fully formed, and who desire an opportunity to discover different ideas through conversation—in a non-judgemental, non-competitive environment. The aim is to offer students a formative experience by inviting them to be uncertain, to learn by bouncing ideas off one another, and to grow through dialogue.

Though Better Angels Debates is still in its pilot phase, they have already hosted over twenty-five debates at high schools and on college campuses across the country. (You can find out about hosting one for your own institution here.) The good news is that Better Angels Debates are on the rise, and even The College Board—which administers the SAT exam and has relationships with virtually every high school and college in America—are working on a pilot program for the fall. This could make it easier for campuses across the country to host similar debates of their own.

Better Angels Debates are modeled on the Yale Political Union—which is in turn modeled on similar Unions at Oxford and Cambridge—and they show that it is possible to pursue truth on a difficult question and build relationships while doing it.

There is an intense desire for this kind of rigorous conversation, and a need for environments for students to think and speak freely in community. Better Angels Debates foster a collective search for truth, as opposed to the grinding of ideological axes that we so often see.

In our deeply divided moment, it is these types of initiatives that our country needs most.

Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse Initiative

“Intelligent discussion is the life of democracy,” said W. Norwood Brigance, a professor of legend in the Department of Speech at Wabash College, an all male liberal arts college in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

For Dr. Brigance, there existed an important relationship between the quality of speech and the health of our democracy. If one faltered, he thought, you could expect the other to also.

Enter the Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse (WDPD) initiative that carries on Dr. Brigance’s legacy. The purpose is to develop a new generation of leaders committed to an open exchange of ideas to resolve the many seemingly intractable problems we face.

WDPD embodies the ideal that democracy isn’t about creating a polis with identical viewpoints. It’s instead about how we live peacefully together in light of those differing convictions—listening, exchanging ideas, thinking, and learning together.

In essence, WDPD trains Wabash students in the scholarship around, and best practices of, civil discourse, and then immediately empowers students to apply their classroom learning by embedding them in actual communities to work on real problems.

A “wicked problem” is a term originally used by urban planners to describe a problem that is complex and seemingly unsolvable. Wicked problems are deep, systemic, involve multiple stakeholders, and offer little opportunity for trial and error solutions, as any solutions will be imperfect and also have problems. Wicked problems cannot be solved, but they can be managed.

This is because there are multiple, interrelated causes—challenging because the moment you address one cause or symptom, you realize there is another, perhaps more pressing cause. Examples include climate change, the opioid epidemic, homelessness, or how to get people to use public transit.

The students involved in WDPD focus on partnering with communities facing wicked problems. They will study the “wicked” problem a community is facing, craft a discussion guide summarizing the facts and values at play, create an agenda for a community forum, and then lead the community through a public deliberation process.

“For students, the aim is to help them identify values that are held in tension, and how a community can address, negotiate, manage, or transcend those tensions” said Sara Drury, Director of WDPD. “Students learn through real world community problems, using the language of tensions between values instead of a language of right or wrong.”

In considering which communities to work with and what issues to discuss, the main question is whether there is a pending issues in a given community that would benefit from a public, facilitated discussion. Sometimes communities approach WDPD, and other times WDPD will offer assistance.

Students, trained as impartial facilitators, lead the meetings from start to finish. They are taught to talk about the problem using the vocabulary and framing that the community uses, and most importantly, to ask questions. In one recent example, WDPD students were brought in to discuss a crisis that the community thought related to crime.

After asking questions, the students quickly realized that the problems the community was struggling with was more than just crime—it was about after school childcare, loss of community, and also crime—but was really about the way that the opioid crisis had affected their region. The students were then able to craft and suggest solutions around the root problem of opioid addiction, instead of simply focusing on a symptom of the opioid crisis, which was a rise in crime.

A main goal for WDPD is to instill in their students with humility when it comes to social change—wicked problems mean that they cannot be reduced, segmented, or controlled. They are interconnected, complex, and unpredictable because humans are also these things. This reality can leave policymakers and citizens alike frustrated and hopeless. This is especially true in our moment of toxic public discourse where often public leaders are more concerned with scoring political points among their supporters than actually solving problems. This results in a tendency to blame and use black and white langue around pending problems.

“We remind students that it’s the problem that’s wicked,” Dr. Drury explains. “Not people.”

In another recent instance, Wabash students worked with Mount Comfort, Indiana—a small community—related to a zoning issue they were facing—a fraught topic in any community. Mount Comfort had not had the need or interest in incorporating a government to represent them, which unfortunately has meant a limited voice to oppose development changes that are now coming quickly.

Wabash students worked with a local leader, a pastor of a church in Mount Comfort, to study the community. They did background research on what other small communities had done when faced with similar issues to help come up with solutions. They had conversations with the pastor and with a focus group that he assembled; they mapped all the issues, stakeholders, and considered different ways of giving people a productive way to talk through the main issues at play. They then took these ideas, concerns, and information and brought it to people in a structured format to have a conversation.

They students are “passionately impartial,” Dr. Drury claims. “We’re passionate about process, and for providing communities with opportunities to better themselves. But we are impartial about the result—because that is for the community to decide.” Wabash students could not go back in time and change the fact that the landscape for Mount Comfort would be irrevocably changed—nor was that their aim—but they did help the parties involved better understand and manage expectations about what the future held.

Another emphasis for WDPD is the importance of taking a long view of solutions to social problems. Any meaningful endeavor or change takes time. Quick fixes often mean quick relapses. Important work—changing minds, habits, and behavior—is slow. Meaningful change is incremental change. Taking smalls steps toward managing wicked problems is still better than doing nothing. “It’s optimistic but can feel painfully slow,” says Dr. Drury. “Still, the decisions by community members at public deliberation events can be a way forward, towards addressing and managing wicked problems.”

It’s also the method that offers the most hope.

In some ways, the nineteen-year-old college students doing this work are best positioned to facilitate discussions about competing values. They are open-minded, unjaded, and un-cynical, with their views on the world still being formed. They are forced to see the full spectrum of interests, ideas, impact, and the nuance of these human problems that rise above the black and white thinking of issues around party lines.

“Our next great challenge is scaling. How do we have a larger impact with our work?” reflects Dr. Drury.

However, maybe the question of scale is not a problem at all. Maybe the fact that Wabash students are working at the local level is the reason they’re able to have such positive impact.

Maybe the real challenge is how to encourage other colleges to follow suit and seek to have the same impact in their own states and communities.