March 28, 2019
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A new kind of town hall challenges people to have better arguments

The Better Arguments Project traveled to Detroit to test its innovative approach to fostering civil discourse.

The Better Arguments Project is on a mission to get people from all different perspectives talking—and listening—to one another. They started in Detroit by addressing tensions between longtime residents and newcomers. Photo by Valaurian Waller

The modern day town hall is a fixture in American discourse. Community leaders and residents use it to hash out local issues; politicians and their constituents use it to discuss the big ideas that affect their lives. At a recent gathering in Detroit, a new style of town hall emerged, one that’s rooted in the way we argue.

At Better Arguments: Longtimers and Newcomers in Detroit, nearly 200 residents participated in an innovative approach to public discourse. Hosted by the The Better Arguments Project—which is a partnership between the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, Facing History and Ourselves, and The Allstate Corporation—and Urban Consulate, this new initiative challenges Americans to engage in a more productive debate on contentious and often sensitive topics.

It might sound counterintuitive, but even now as America is as divided as it is, it’s not time to stop arguing, said Eric Liu, executive director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute and one of the event’s moderators. “It’s not that we need less arguments, we need less stupid ones,” he said.

In a city like Detroit, where a majority of residents are African American, tensions over race, class, culture, and who has access to economic opportunity have been seething for decades. The idea for the event was to explore how these tensions manifest between longtime residents, many who were born and raised in Detroit, with relative newcomers who have migrated to the city in recent years, just as the city has begun to emerge from one of its darkest eras—its 2013 bankruptcy.

In teeing up the program, Liu outlined the five principles of a better argument:

1. Pay attention to context. Acknowledging culture is imperative to a better argument. And in a city as rich in history and culture as Detroit, this was a guiding principle for the day’s discussion.
2. Take winning off the table. The goal of a better argument is not to win, but to understand, said Liu.
3. Prioritize relationships. In the room, many participants knew one another or were familiar with each other’s work, but still, Liu challenged participants to truly listen to one another.
4. Embrace vulnerability. By being willing to engage in an argument, especially with someone who has a different worldview, participants naturally open the door to vulnerability.
5. Be open to change. Liu encouraged participants to make room for transformation, something they will hopefully carry with them outside of the event and into their communities.

Liu and the program’s moderator Jennifer Jones-Clark of Facing History and Ourselves prompted longtimers and newcomers to share their personal “Detroit story” in small groups gathered around tables.

Participants were also asked to express their feelings about how Detroit is changing. From their responses, Detroiters have mixed feelings: from pride and hope, to anxiety and betrayal.

After several rounds of group discussions, many participants shared some of their personal takeaways. One participant spoke of how both new and longtime residents can “create belonging” in their neighborhoods. Another expressed anger over stereotypical “white savior” narratives that are written about Detroit and its newcomers. Another acknowledged the idea that through more conversations, Detroiters should get “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Detroit native Lauren Hood, who also served as a guest speaker at the event, said there’s room to expand on the debates and discussions that took place at the event. “As a city we have to have these conversations all the time.”

In June, The Better Arguments Project will travel to Denver.

Read The Better Arguments Project: Report on Key Operating Principles. Read Eric Liu’s essay in The Atlantic: Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing

Margaret Myers