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Open government and full disclosure in the bright sunshine are civic ideals that deserve our constant attention. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons in the national interest to temporarily keep government actions from public disclosure, but people should still have the right to talk about what they know of those government actions and to continue to demand disclosure. Foreclosing debate on certain government actions has a chilling effect in other areas where debate is not only warranted, but urgently needed.

Shutting down debate also limits the acquisition and development of rhetorical intelligence.  If you can't understand why your claim isn't evidence and why your evidence isn't proof, or worse, why an opponent's arguments win even though they shouldn't, you are vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.  The best way to hone those skills is with open and vigorous debate that lets in the sunshine of truth.

A.  The Need for Public Skepticism

Citizens are right to be concerned about unwarranted influence on government by organized cliques whose interests don't include them.  It's right to demand that the government prove that its decisions that cause harm to the public in general, or to certain sectors of the public, were not instigated or abetted by cliques or lobbies acting in secret and against the public interest.  That these types of corrupt activities have happened in the past is beyond dispute; to some extent they are probably part and parcel of politics and cannot be eradicated completely.  But they can be limited by vigorous civic oversight, skepticism and inquiry, which forms the key, if not our only, means of public control of government power outside of elections.  We the public neglect one of our few curbs on power at our peril.  

B.  The Need for Open Debate

Any creative knows that there are many false starts and mistakes on the way to a masterpiece.  Any writer knows that if they let their internal critic edit before a word is written, then no words will be written. Any brainstorming session by definition limits criticism of ideas until all of the ideas and their follow-on ideas are on the table.  Open debate will always contain bad ideas along with the good ones.  Some ideas will be beyond help, but others will have a kernel of legitimacy that was simply poorly articulated. Discussion with an informed, articulate and civil opponent is the best way to improve arguments, ideas, and conclusions.

C.  The Need for Rhetorical Intelligence

Examine the circumstances of a claim to gauge its reliability. What is its originating source?  What other motivations could that source have to make those claims?  People often take at face value claims that further research shows originated with committed ideological partisans.  Look at the source first, then look at the claim. Even partisan claims that are fundamentally accurate have almost certainly been twisted to the disadvantage of the opponent, and important information left out.  Partisan claims always need to be evaluated along with information from the other side(s) of the debate.  Even neutral claims deserve scrutiny - sloppy scholarship, printing errors, and misquotes do happen.  Also check the reasoning behind the claim, if possible.  Sometimes even the brilliant, ethical, and revered have a bad day.

It also pays to be aware of rhetorical tricks that are illegitimately persuasive, like pixellating, where a complex event is broken down into small manageable pieces, and each piece evaluated in isolation.  If each piece, or even one seemingly critical piece, has a plausible alternative explanation, the whole matter is dropped because people don't look at all the pieces in totality again.  This trick works because almost any isolated event can be given a plausible alternative explanation.  But just like a cheating significant other can explain away late nights, changed appearance, odd phone calls, unfamiliar purchases, etc., sooner or later the betrayed stops being a chump and realizes that, while each of those excuses might have been believable in isolation, when you put them all together there is only one reasonable conclusion.  

D.  The Need for Sunshine (Public Skepticism plus Open Debate plus Rhetorical Intelligence)

Public skepticism is a more effective curb on government power when it is informed, well-reasoned, and supported by evidence. Open debate allows not only for good ideas to be shared, and bad or poorly formed ideas to be improved (or discredited and discarded), it also allows for the exposition of tricks and influencing circumstances that are motivating some of the bad or poorly formed ideas.  Open debate improves the critical reasoning skills of both participants and observers, and yields vetted, filtered,  more reliable information.  

We need sunshine to illuminate the truth about what our government does in our names.  We need more debate, not less.  Even if the effort to swat away bad ideas is an annoying chore, the cost of the alternative to open debate is too high for a free society to bear.

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