Point Taken from PBS Offers Debate with a Side of Civility

Point Taken logo, copyright by owner.Television reviews are not usually within our purview. But this month, happily, something interesting is happening in public broadcasting that invites some civility discussion. PBS, together with Boston’s WGBH, have premiered a new show called Point Taken that’s a version of a panel debate. But far from the Crossfires of the world, this debate isn’t about scoring partisan points. The show bills itself as an exploration of all sides of a key issue; and it emphasizes good listening, the determination of fact, and (perhaps most encouragingly) the search for merit in opposing arguments.

Point Taken is hosted by Carlos Watson: journalist, media entrepreneur, and founder of ozy.com. Each episode features a panel of four journalists and experts – two on the ‘pro’ side of a given issue, and two on the ‘con.’ The first episode, for example, had journalists Matt Welch and Isabel Wilkerson defending the position that the American Dream is alive and well. While columnist Tom Shattuck and financial expert Monica Metha argued that its expiration date has come and gone.

But the show adds some new features to the old back and forth. Watson and company survey their studio audience at the beginning and end of each debate to determine what they think about the issue at hand, and how many minds have been changed because of what they’ve heard. And Point Taken has partnered with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion to provide broader polling data that frames the debate in each episode.

In the most recent episode, which was on the subject of refugees, Marist polled on two questions: whether the United States should accept more or fewer refugees, and whether the United States has a moral obligation to accept refugees. Both questions became topics that the panel discussed. And the seemingly conflicting response – the fact that a majority thought that America does have a moral obligation, but that it still should accept fewer refugees – became a topic of discussion, too.

The show also takes a break from the debate in the middle to do what it calls fact checking. In the episode about refugees, for instance, Watson asked the panel how many refugees the United States accepted in 2015; and he asked them which countries accept the most refugees by percentage of their population. The segment runs something like a miniature trivia contest, and Watson even joked that it should feature the Jeopardy music in the background. But it serves two important functions: it shows off panel members’ level of expertise (and therefore helps audiences gauge their credibility); and it makes sure that audiences understand at least the basic facts of the topic at hand.

The level of respect is one of the show’s more exciting features. Panelists seem to come from all sides of the political spectrum, and they are drawn from a pool that is purposefully diverse both in professional and demographic make-up. And yet, though each of the participants certainly seems passionate about his or her point of view, that passion never translates into raised voices. It never translates into ad hominem attacks, or mocking, or patronizing responses, or even a shift onto obvious talking points. Instead, panelists’ answers are calm and detailed. And they respond to the substance of the question, or directly to what their colleagues have said.

Panelists do sometimes try to talk over each other. In both the episode about refugees and the one about the American Dream, as the show’s half hour wound down all sides seemed to want to get in one last point. But Carlos Watson’s strength as a moderator is keeping the peace; and he skillfully deescalated burgeoning tensions with a mixture of well-placed interjections and strategic changes in topic.

Even more encouraging than its tone, however, is the show’s ending. Point Taken takes its name from each episode’s final move, where panelists on one side of an issue must explicitly address the fact that there’s something to the other side’s argument. In the American Dream debate, for example, Tom Shattuck, who had been arguing that the Dream is dead, acknowledges that the debate has caused him to think about minorities’ relationship with the concept, especially given that for many prosperity has been long in coming, and some are only just starting to see it now. And Isabel Wilkerson, speaking for the pro-Dream side, similarly acknowledged that many Americans do feel a loss – do feel disheartened – by the perception that their generation is not as prosperous as their parents’.

Because of the respectful tone, and because of this emphasis on finding common ground, the show has seen some positive responses with regards to civility. One representative tweet reads like this:

And blogger Fred Harris, who was in the audience for the filming of the first episode, echoes that sentiment, writing that the best part of the experience was “good dialogue, among four bright in-touch people who know better than to shout over one another.”

Is Point Taken perfect? No. Debate is a necessary feature of our democracy, but it is also, by its nature, more adversarial than collaborative. The show tries to sand down some of the format’s rougher edges through good moderation and through its unique approach to closing statements. But there are other formats, like the dialogue approach that the Institute applies in its own Congressional Student Forums, that might better serve the purpose of lifting up public discourse.

Yet that said, Point Taken does a lot of things right. It’s informative; it promotes civic engagement through citizen education; and perhaps above all, it models the idea that we can have extensive disagreements about important issues and not only come away amicably, but come away with the idea that though we may not agree with the other side, they have good reasons for believing the way they do. And with so much television out there that seems to prefer the self-serving, the partisan, and the polarizing, all of this makes Point Taken something of a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in watching Point Taken, you can find full episodes here.

Civility Linkblogging: Faith Leaders and Civil Politics

Civility LinkbloggingCivility Linkblogging is an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This month brings us a selection of (mostly) religious voices, from all ends of the political spectrum, calling for civility, tolerance, and kindness. This includes a Unitarian Universalist minister drawing a distinction between debate with the goal of better understanding, and debate with the lesser goal of winning. It includes a Mormon commentator examining civility as a trans-religious value that strengthens society. It includes a Methodist minister reflecting on the value of political correctness. And it includes a Baptist asking us to move beyond civility — to embrace kindness as an active strategy against sin.

As always, if you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Bring Civility to the Debate Process
Posted by Julia Corbett-Hemeyer at The Star Press, March 5, 2016

There is nothing wrong with candidates throwing themselves passionately into the topic at hand. The situations the United States faces at home and abroad are certainly complicated enough that sincere, reasonable and good-hearted women and men will disagree on the best courses of action. The complexity of the world in which political decisions must be made guarantees that, in addition to good decisions, mistakes will inevitably be made. There will be ample cause to challenge the choices and judgments of one’s predecessors and those on the other side of the political party aisle.

We are not at our best, however, when we are sniping at each other and engaging in personal attacks in the name of debate. We are not at our best when name calling and innuendo cloud our discussion of the issues and of what’s good for the country. We are not at our best when we engage in debate with the goal of “winning” and assuring that our “opponents” are defeated.

Civility is Essential to Strong Societies
Posted by Kristine Frederickson at Desert News, March 6, 2016

The definition itself teaches us the consequences of incivility: When we are uncivil, we become harsh, unmerciful, uncaring, poorly performing citizens who, inevitably, will engage in disorderly behavior. We do not need to look far to see this occurring all around us — road rage, physical altercations, physical attacks, and verbal and physical abuse are evident everywhere.

Incivility has the capacity to destroy strong, unified and healthy societies. The reverse is true — harmonious, courteous, safe and civil communities persist by exhibiting respectful, kind and concerned human interaction.

We Need Civility in Politics Because The Kids ARE Watching
Posted at The Times of San Diego, March 7, 2016

Perhaps we can’t stop the escalating behavior and rhetoric in the political landscape, but we can provide students with an understanding of our how our government works best, how to critically assess the 2016 primaries, and how the respective candidates’ ideas, styles and capacity for collaboration might affect our democracy.

In this election year, the anger, distrust and contentiousness of the people toward government have gotten our attention. What hasn’t been talked about so much is how this mood affects those who will inherit the future: our youth. Will the unintended consequences of this toxic election year move our nation into an era of even further division and fragmentation? Or will we find the will to show the next generation how to live effectively in a diverse and eclectic world with others of differing opinions?How we answer this question for our children may well shape the America we leave them even more than the actual election outcome.

Political Correctness is Correct
Posted by Doug Fairbanks at TimesFreePress.com, March 19, 2016

So this brings me to the correctness of political correctness. In my opinion, political correctness is just one attempt to help all of us be more aware of the value and worth of every human being. We only need to access any form of news media to discover that our world and our society have not risen to that high calling. And, though political correctness can make us feel a bit uncomfortable at times, better that than becoming so complacent in regards to human relationships that we become numb to treating each other with mutual respect.

As a child, I learned to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” As a Christian, I am reminded that my main goal is to love as God loves. As a human being, I am aware that I fail at that more often than I care to admit. But at least the awareness of the truth bothers me enough that I keep on trying to imitate God’s extravagant love.

Again, political correctness is at least a feeble attempt to be like a burr under the saddle of our human psyche, reminding us that all is not well in human relationships and we need to keep trying to make it better. Indeed, we need to keep trying to make it much better. And I say better that we continue to be disturbed in this regard than just write off the correctness of political correctness.

We Need More Than Civility; We Need Kindness
Posted by Russell D. Moore at Pastors.com, March 19, 2016

When we don’t oppose demons, we demonize opponents. And without a clear vision of the concrete forces we as the church are supposed to be aligned against, we find it very difficult to differentiate between enemy combatants and their hostages.

The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we’re not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey.

We hear many calls, from across the religious and political spectrum, for civility. But civility is not enough. Civility is a neutral ground, a sort of mutual non-aggression pact, where we agree to respect one another and not to belittle one another. That’s important, and a good start, but that’s not enough. Just as we are not for “toleration” of those who religiously disagree with us but for “liberty,” so we should not be for mere civility, but for, from our end, kindness. Civility is passive; kindness is active and strategic.