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Objective civil discourse

Recently, when I have spoken about “data as evidence” in several academic settings, there has been a recurring question. Essentially it concerns the fact that dishonest people acting in bad faith will generate false, badly formed, or misleading data and propose it as evidence in support of predetermined (i.e. prejudiced / pre-judged) positions. To this day, parties or groups that base themselves in “values” or “beliefs” that are assumed a priori – i.e. values that are non-negotiable – in fact, not subject to discussion — dominate our political landscape. One has only to watch the response of some of the Republican Congressional caucus to President Obama’s discussion there this past week to see clear evidence of this. A fundamental tenet for these believers is that compromise with any other set of beliefs represents moral “relativism” – which is equivalent to amorality (if not immorality).

I believe that much of the trouble we experience in contemporary civil discourse can be traced to a confusion, conscious or otherwise, of the distinctions between “Church” (institutionalization of religious belief) and “State” (government based on trust in a diverse and tolerant community). From the time of European settlement of this continent we have had problems in separating Church and State [See LoC for an excellent summary history ] AND, concomitantly, in maintaining the distinction between empirical knowledge as a basis for public policies and commitments to “truth” based in belief. The former can be understood as “objective and invariant” (as discussed previously) the latter as subjective and highly variable — the phrase used by John Searle of UC Berkeley, “first person ontology” is well applicable.

With objective, scientifically based knowledge, we have the opportunity of arriving – through investigation and discourse — at common agreements (within some bounds of reasonable, relative probability). Respecting contending “truths,” based in belief, we have the very strong possibility of violence and conflict — consider – Northern Ireland or South Asia? It is wrong and misguided to characterize the separation of Church and State as somehow inimical to one system of belief or another.

Separation of Church and State is fundamental to a diverse and inclusive society and protects religious freedom and the right of individual conscience. Without separation – and religious tolerance (as clearly expressed in the Bill of Rights) – a change in political power may result in murder. We are all too familiar – elsewhere in the world — with the consequences of confusing government and religion.

And so we must return to the problem of objectivity and pragmatism in civil discourse. Today we are faced with a range of a priori values – beliefs that are considered “true” and above debate. On the right, the most fundamental of these a priori tenets is that “government is bad” [The Reagan/Thatcher formulation being: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”] coupled with the corollary that raising funds to support government (taxing) is bad. Aside from the fact that this is fundamentally subversive (!) of the common welfare – it is also impractical and nonsensical. But I would also argue that on the left, there are similar a priori values – i.e. that government is good and corporations are bad.

All forms of human organization are subject to corruption and abuse – certainly this is true of government at all levels – but is absolutely true of corporate governance and is also true of private sector non-profit governance. I believe that the most stable and sustainable principle for our American system of democracy is justice based in the common value of fairness, and this value demands commitment to tolerant civil discourse embodying both rationality and science. It will be protected by an ongoing commitment to transparency and accountability in governance of all sectors: for profit, not for profit and public. (In recent years we have all seen flagrant examples of abuse in all three sectors. Journalism and publishing under first amendment protections together with free, open and effective access to data and information have been essential to the process of transparency and accountability.)

The previously mentioned GRI [SEE: http://www.globalreporting.org/ ] — and similar initiatives working for transparency, accountability and rigorous standards of evidence –- present a clear alternative to organizational business-as-usual.

(As an aside, I will here note that expressions of anger – verbal or physical – as a part of political discourse – for example shouts of “You lie!” — are signs of impotence, sure evidence of the abandonment of civil discourse, of the rational intention of serving the common welfare.)

As custodians of knowledge, as teachers and as advocates, librarians have always been primary defenders of fair and equitable access to knowledge for the common good. The World Wide Web is a technical fulfillment of the most basic ethos of librarianship. For the first time in human history, we have the technological means of sharing knowledge worldwide. But the existence of a global network does not assure that all people will have access, it does not assure that what flows across the network will be effectively useful in informing public discourse for the largest number of people.

We, librarians, have an obligation, in all our interactions to support the broadest possible access by all – freely, openly and effectively. We must maintain critical sensitivity to the practical usefulness of resources provided over global networks, to teach critical and evaluative skills and to assist wherever possible in interpreting and refining available resources.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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