The National Issues Forums
By W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn, "The National Issues Forums," selection from Moral Conflict, (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 1997) pp. 169-180.
National Issues Forums (NIF) seeks to improve the quality of citizen deliberation on national political issues. Each year the NIF, with input from affiliated community groups, chooses three issues of national concern. Each issue is formulated as a question. NIF workers identify the available policy choices for each issue. The issues, choices, costs and advantages and supporting arguments are written up in issue booklets.
The NIF then organizes a wide range of events where the public can further explore the issues, building on the basic information and framework set forth in the booklets. The primary events are study circles and public forums, although the NIF has also organized regional and national conventions, and various televised events. Forums are public discussions among community members, usually lasting about two hours. Study groups have fewer participants and meet a number of times to explore an issue in more depth.
The general goal of these discussions is not to reach a consensus, but to develop a deeper understanding of the issue. The NIF identifies six specific goals. Participants should identify the range of realistic choices. They should understand the case for the choices they do not favor, as well as those that they do. They should come to see that others are not merely stupid or immoral, but have interesting reasons for their differing opinions. They should realize that a full understanding of an issue must include understanding opposing views. They should develop an understanding of the values which underlie their own and others' choices. They should still be thinking about the issue after they leave the discussion.
Pearce and Littlejohn argue that moral conflicts often rest on incommensurate views of reality and differing basic values. Because the conflicting parties do not share a common paradigm, normal ways of dealing with disagreements can simply exacerbate moral conflicts. The authors see the NIF model as one way to transcend basic value differences, and facilitate fruitful moral discussion. Under the NIF model, "opposing views no longer constitute a contradiction because their expression and exploration, not the difference itself, are important. People with opposing views end up on the same side, that of promoting deliberative democracy and the improvement of public life for all."