In prior posts I’ve outlined a few of the maladies affecting our current civic dialogue.  Cable news, blogs, newspapers, and talk radio are filled with examples of whataboutism, negative reframing, implicit bias, and truthiness.  Much like the algorithms driving Facebook, these media channels crave attention – and conflict, anger, and outrage draw in the greatest number of eyeballs.  The focus on profit means these businesses are highly motivated to serve up as many ads as possible.  But like my uncle posited three decades ago, the news business is not the same as the entertainment business.  It’s fine to create entertainment based on the news (e.g. comedy and talk shows), but journalism — as a public trust — has to be held to a different standard.

What would a better system look like?  How could we design fora for discussing the great debates of our era without constantly being pulled into the pathologies I’ve previously described?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that what we need are better referees.  As a nation, many of us are consumed by the drama of sports, be it soccer, basketball, baseball, or football.  But none of those sports would work without a referee.  The ref is never the hero, and in many cases is made out to be the enemy.  But if the combatants on the field want give the game their all, they must have a ref to keep the game fair.

In the conflict resolution field we have a concept called the third party.  If you imagine that party one and party two are the disputants, the third party is the neutral – maybe a mediator, maybe an arbitrator, maybe just a trusted expert willing to share their thoughts and advice.  The disputing parties may be unable to preserve trust between themselves as a consequence of their passion or their sense of justice.  The third party has a trusted role to play because they don’t have a stake in the outcome.  The referee is perfect example of a third party.

The ref isn’t playing the game; the ref is running the game.  The ref has no stake in the outcome; the ref administers the rules.  The ref calls the balls and strikes.  The ref hands out the red and yellow cards – but the ref also decides when the ball makes it into the end zone, or when the shot is from beyond the three point line.

The ref isn’t Michael Jordan.  The ref isn’t Venus Williams.  The ref isn’t Tom Brady.  After the time has expired and everyone has gone home, no one remembers the ref.  But none of those sports heroes would be a household name without the services of a many refs over the course of their career.

We have to trust our referees if they are to be effective.  Everyone is going to try to play the ref, whether it’s Neymar writhing on the ground in fake pain, or LeBron’s incredulous gestures after he’s called for a blocking foul (or Giuliani trashing the Mueller team for bias).  Refs have to work hard to see through these attempted manipulations.  Referees are literally the personifications of trust.  And that makes their job very hard.

We’re comfortable with the concept of refs in sports.  You may have an umpire behind home plate, a line judge at Wimbledon, or an instant replay booth filled with refs monitoring catches in the Super Bowl.  But the idea of a ref for a political discussion is a little less familiar.  I think there are several kinds of referees we need to improve our civic dialogues.  They include:

  • The truth ref.  Once we lose the touchstone of facts, all the other pathologies are enabled.  Those who look to undermine our civic dialogue begin their assault with an attack on the very idea of facts.  Truth requires credibility.  This means that the truth refs do not have the luxury of expressing their opinions.  True, no one is free from having an opinion.  But having an opinion does not mean that one is incapable of focusing purely on the facts.
  • The focus ref.  It is not an easy thing to stay focused on a single topic.  Many debate strategies are based around sleight-of-hand reframing (e.g. whataboutism) and changes of subject.  Focus refs facilitate discussions and combat these approaches.  Focus refs aren’t responsible for pointing out what’s true and what’s false – that’s the job of the truth ref.  But focus refs also need to be neutral.  By facilitating the discussion and keeping it on track, they become advocates of good process, which enables them to enforce the agreed-upon rules.  No over-talking, no name calling, no obfuscation.
  • The outcome ref.  It’s easy to talk, it’s harder to act.  When words have no consequences, and commitments have no follow through, there’s no reason to be careful in what you say.  The outcome ref holds people accountable for their words.  We can have a dialogue about anything, and in most dialogues there’s no expected output.  In contrast, deliberative dialogue is aimed at making decisions and getting to the bottom of difficult subjects.  Outcome refs audit discussions and monitor the performance of participants.  Outcome refs also call out hypocrisy, and track the behavior of individuals across different dialogues.

Imagine a cable news show that, instead of teasing “Breaking News” and then throwing the latest controversy to a panel of talking heads who shout over each other, we have a discussion format the focuses on a particular topic, educates viewers and participants about the relevant facts (which have been audited by truth refs), gives each participant an opportunity to share their perspective (drawing on the facts presented) – perhaps asynchronously, so there’s time for the best argument to be put forward.

Each participant would have an opportunity to explain their perspective, listen to the other perspectives, and then provide additional thoughts (with a process facilitated by focus refs).  Perhaps participants would even be asked to summarize the perspectives of other participants to ensure they heard and understood the points made.  And the discussion would be driven by the facilitators toward possible areas of common ground and agreement.  Once over, the dialogue output would be tracked, and revisited over time to measure progress (by outcome refs).

That’s a vision for a new kind of deliberative dialogue that could steer us away from the broken systems we’re using today.  It would feel weird at first, because we’re used to the bare knuckles, no-rules brawls that pass for discourse these days.  But people are tired of the shouting and the obfuscation.  I believe this new approach could be refreshing, particularly if it is packaged in an entertaining way — and it might make the old style seem like a relic of a bygone era.