Public/Private Discourse

There are comments we make in private that differ from the comments we make in public. Some of these private comments might be “off the record,” yet we know that depending on who hears these comments they may be leaked and end up being public and not so off the record. We may strategically position these comments to have other people make them for us because we feel we cannot make them on our own for a variety of reasons. When we have public discourse we are inviting the public in to participate and this leads to the dialogue potentially being co-opted.

In the 1990s there was an increase in violence concerning the polarizing issue of abortion. The Public Conversations Project facilitated a dialogue between leaders of both sides of the issue, held in private for five years. These were held “off the record” because the parties were so dissatisfied with the tone of public discourse on the matter and because they did not want their comments and initiative co-opted, they met in private to hear the other side. They were able to successfully increase their mutual understanding.

In 2008 (Conflict Resolution Quarterly) we conducted a study interviewing 17 dialogue and deliberation practitioners who worked in conflict situations, asking them two questions: how do you bring parties to the table and how do you sustain their involvement? One of the findings was that they had to strategically consider how public or private the conversations should be because that would impact how successful these interventions would be.

Today in Washington, DC, the U.S. government has come to a stand still because representatives of the people cannot seem to have a public dialogue that is collaborative. They cannot seem to have a civil conversation about what is in the best interests of all parties so that they can work together to resolve the presenting and underlying issues. In Japanese there is tatemae and honne that guides what is disclosed and how. Tatemae is the public face of what we say because it is the appropriate thing to say as it saves face and does not compromise either person. Honne is what we really feel that are either not stated aloud or said behind closed doors, off the record.

I really hope there are better quality conversations taking place behind closed doors, off the record, in Washington because the public discourse is embarrassingly scary. Let’s get some real honne taking place so we can get past this debacle of presenting the tatemae of what we think our constituents want. Our elected officials need to be the mature, responsible folk we voted into office.


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