Author Archives: sjr

Weeding and Watching – Part 1

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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A weed is a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to grow. Many weeds are invasive and propagate quickly, crowding out or killing the plants that you do want. The seeds from which weeds spring can be buried in the soil, mixed with the seed that was intentionally sown, or carried in by wind, flooding, birds, or animals. Often weeds like to root in damaged and exposed places, and they thrive in poor soil where the plants that bear fruit struggle to survive.

Keeping weeds out of your field is hard work. It takes research (some weeds look attractive although many don’t), effort (many weeds have long and tenacious roots), vigilance (weeds can sprout quickly), and persistence. However, the more good plants there are, the longer they grow, and the more regular you are about maintaining your field, the easier it is to defend against weeds.

Our national civic life is full of weeds, many of which were intentionally planted and then cultivated by our political parties. These weeds reflect the erosion of our civic soil. They incorporate rhetorical habits that are designed to divide, confuse, and alarm. They crowd out opportunities for productive dialogue and limit our ability to identify or implement pragmatic solutions that meet our collective needs. You can identify weeds by looking for the following characteristics:

    • Inconsistency and incoherence: Inconsistency is shown by the gaps between talk and action. This occurs both when unrealistic commitments are publicly made and then quietly abandoned, when parties fail to take responsibility for the consequences of policies whose enactment they urged, or when one party castigates the other for violating “rules” or “principles” that the critics and their colleagues are themselves unwilling to live up to (and at times are actively violating even as they accuse others).  When both parties lack a consistent set of values or principles to guide policy development, and when leaders are willing to “change the rules of the game” depending on who is in power, inconsistency often descends into incoherence. Inconsistency and incoherence are also evidenced by conflicting rationales between policy issues. For example, we argue on one hand that education is “failing” because children are not achieving more in math and science both of which are critical to our future, yet then reject scientific consensus on some of our most pressing issues. As another example, “local government” is lauded as the best level for making decisions, except when the local government doesn’t agree with the direction of a party and then the argument is that the state or even the federal government should step in. The misnaming of bills and policy efforts to reflect a direction different than what is being sought has become common practice and reflects another kind of inconsistency known as hypocrisy.
    • Deflection: Deflection  is another way of avoiding accountability, especially on the hard issues. It is used to shut down inquiry or challenge by diverting the focus to other subjects, and follows the pattern of  “look over there, not over here!”  It might sound like,  “I know you asked about this issue, but what about that other issue?” Deflection is particularly problematic when combined with denigration of a particular individual or group. For example you might hear “I don’t have to answer that, because the people raising it are____”, or “We would never be in this state if it weren’t for the prior actions of ____” Often deflection incorporates the cognitive errors of “either/or” framing or “shoulds”, or follows the confusion of victim and actor that is common in narrative patterns of hate. Use of scapegoats – – blaming one person or group for the misdeeds of another — is a another common form of deflection.
    • Distortion: Distortion includes both outright misrepresentations (e.g. “Pizzagate“) , and the confusion of fact and fiction that characterizes bullshit. It also includes the cognitive errors of overgeneralization, and catastrophic thinking. Conspiracy theories and the conjuring of bogeymen (e.g.” ‘they’ are different, full of malice, and out to get you”) are also common forms of distortion.
    • Denial: Outright denial takes the form of a declaration that a statement is untrue (this includes its dismissal as “fake news”). It also includes a denial that the statement you just heard simply didn’t mean what it sounded like or wasn’t in fact said (often followed by selective editing and restatement). It may also take the form of a refusal to acknowledge or discuss a well-established doctrine, finding, or proposal, or the validity of someone else’s experience. Denial is currently a fast-growing weed. It aligns with the aphorism that ” the best defense is a good offense.” Forcible rejection and even mockery of what is otherwise clearly before us creates doubt, confusion, and cognitive dissonance, even in those who don’t believe the denial itself.

Note that the blurring of the label “fake news” (meaning “deliberately and strategically constructed lies that are presented as news articles and are intended to mislead the public”), with the reality that news reports are often biased (meaning actual facts are selectively presented or slanted toward a particular perspective,) is a hybrid of distortion, denial and deflection.

Deflection, denial, and distortion all flourish in the damaged soil of division, particularly when they root directly in the negative emotions of anger, hate, and fear.

All of these cause us to lose our focus, particularly on hard issues. With so many weeds, it can be hard to know who or what to believe. In our next post we will look at what you can do as a citizen or as a facilitator when you encounter these weeds in our democratic garden.

Plant The Seed

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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Seeds are amazing – small, seemingly lifeless, yet capable of generating new growth and change. Although planting the seed is necessary for growth, it alone does not ensure growth. Actual growth takes time and depends on the interaction of many factors.

For example, when choosing seeds to plant you need to know the type of crop you want and whether it is suitable for your field. You would also think about the correct depth for planting – too shallow won’t allow the seed to root properly, too deep and it may fail to sprout.  You might further consider the age of the seed, how many need to be planted together to ensure that something will sprout, how much water the seeds might need, whether the weather will be too cold or too hot, and how early or late you are in the season.  Some factors you control, some you don’t.

So, turning to our politics, what kind of a harvest do we want? If we want a more cohesive country, the capability to solve our problems, better accountability for our elected officials, and policies that place “citizens at the center”, then we need to plant different seeds through our civic discourse than the seeds of factionalism, hate, and fear of others. We need to be discussing what brings us together, how to promote “the common good”, and our hopes for the future. We need to discuss these questions directly rather than simply debating or protesting policies designed by partisan interests. And as we talk together, we also need to be promoting the habits of critical thinking and problem-solving

Two ways to plant the seeds of a new approach are asking questions, and sharing your own experiences and values.

Questions: Questions are a useful tool for both tilling the field and planting seeds. When planting, you can ask questions to open discussion, introduce the concept of a common good, and change the partisan focus.  For example you might ask questions like, “What are we hoping to accomplish? Why? What would progress look like? How might we work together to make progress? How would we monitor progress? What else might we do to better understand each other and move forward as one community? What don’t we know? How might we find out?” Note the importance of asking your questions  in an “open” way. This means using phrasing that allows for the potential that ideas other than the ones you favor might work as well.

One approach that often helps to broaden the focus of a discussion on policy and promote consideration of the intersection between issues comes from the school of Appreciative Inquiry.   This is to ask, ” What’s going well and how might we get more of that?” You can also gently introduce additional context or concepts by asking questions aligned with the five sources of conflict.  For example, depending on what direction you wan the inquiry to go, you could also questions like,” What types of values are coming into play here? What information do you think others are relying on and how might we compare that with what we are using? If we were to favor that interest, what other effects might it have on our community? How would that affect us, short term or long term?”

You can promote critical thinking by asking definitional and follow-up questions like the following: “What is it that makes America great? What do you mean by “great”? What role in that was played by pragmatism? Courage? Character? Collaboration? Concern for the next generation? How might those factors affect our thinking here?”  And you can also  introduce new approaches or ideas by asking “What if . . . ?” combined with an invitation for further input, “What if we were to [describe approach], how might that work or not work for us?”

As with any kind of planting you need to be both patient and observant. As you ask questions it is important to provide time for a response, and really listen to that response, asking follow-up questions as needed. We often say in our trainings that there are only three simple rules to communicating effectively with others, rules that are easy to state and hard to apply. They are (i) know your message; (ii) know your audience; (iii) speak so that your audience can listen and understand. When you listen you get to know and understand your audience better. And if your audience is to listen to and engage in conversation with you, at least part of your message needs to be “you matter to me, we are in this together” — or, stated in other words, “united we stand, divided we fall.” This subtext is reflected above in the repeated use of the words “we” and “our”, in the invitation to respond, and in the action of listening.

Sharing: John Dewey once observed, “We can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.” Open-ended questions can of course be used to introduce both facts and context on an issue.  And yet it is worth recognizing, particularly on complex issues, that the known facts may not in and of themselves provide clear answers. There is much we don’t know. Critical and integrative thinking requires a willingness to not only review data and the sources it comes from, but also a willingness to explore more subjective factors like values, interests, and feelings which affect both our evaluation of the risks and direction each of us might be willing to take on a particular issue. A sharing of facts though, when followed by mutual evaluation and further dialogue may well help to illuminate a next step. This sharing and invitation to further evaluation might sound something like this: “I understand it is very upsetting to think about [x], although I have also read [additional facts] and I am curious about what other factors are affecting our differences on this issue. Can we explore that more?”

When planting seeds, sometimes a question with listening is all you can manage. Other times, you will know that you can offer more – planting at a greater depth or with more seeds. When the interest is present you can offer to share an experience, idea, or perspective, saying something like “I have had a different experience, that I would like to share with you, if I can”, or “I understand your thinking on freedom, and there are some other values that I would apply here too that I would like for us to look at together.” Again your phrasing would emphasize the importance of working together, planting the seed of jointly pursuing a common good. As you think about this type of sharing, it is worth reviewing and aligning your phrasing with the elements in Stories of Wisdom.

N.B.: Change can be slow. Few seeds germinate overnight and most plants require weeks or months of growth before they bear fruit. So it is with both ideas and relationships. A successful future harvest requires hard work both before and after the seed is planted.

Till The Ground

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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Once you have your field, the next step in preparing for the harvest is to till, or cultivate, the soil. This means preparing the soil for planting, which includes both plowing to break up the soil and fertilizing to add nutrients. Both of these help the seeds you subsequently plant to grow.

In our political field, trust – a respect and belief in the integrity, good intentions, and capabilities of others – is the soil that helps us grow and flourish as a society.  The trends discussed in our last post have depleted our communal trust.  Using the rubric of “trust taxes” and “trust dividends” described in Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust“, these trends have resulted in a destructive tax on the citizenry. This is evidenced through the growing number of citizens who view those not of their own political party as “the enemy”, the excessive defensive posturing and legal positioning by our political parties, and the general level of venom used in discussing differences of interest or information. All of these factors suggest a “trust tax” of 60% or more.  This is a very high burden.

So how might we use dialogue to remediate some of the damage that has been done? Below are three actions that can help break up the hard crust of fear and anger that has formed, followed by two that can help prepare the ground for new growth.

  1. Invite.  Invite others into dialogue. Simply choosing to use dialogue rather than debate – to move beyond the right/wrong, win/lose framing used in debate and actually explore the complexities of intersecting issues —  is a step towards building trust. By choosing dialogue you are moving from an “Us” v. “You” competitive dynamic into a more inclusive “we are in this together and will be stronger together” partnership and problem solving mode. You might begin by acknowledging differences in values or interests while also exploring similarities, by exploring the different questions being asked, or by comparing and evaluating the different sources of information that are being used.  An invitation can be as simple as asking questions like “How would we like it to be? Why?”  Although you can introduce dialogue in everyday conversation, there are also many resources and organized efforts you can connect to and invite others to join.  Two current efforts include the Kettering Foundation’s annual “A Public Voice” collaboration and the Better Angels “One America” bus tour.
  2. Align.  If you are going to invite others into dialogue, once you are there you need to act like you mean it.  The communication patterns that promote dialogue are the opposite of competing factions spitting “trigger words” at each other or ridiculing, rather than engaging with, other points of view. No one likes to be attacked, dismissed, or shamed. If you are going to sustain a dialogue, you will need to act in ways that show interest in, and care and concern for, the others in dialogue. This means aligning your comments with a focus on the relationship, not just the issue being discussed. You can also think about how to align your narratives and questions with stories of wisdom and the common good.
  3. Listen: Often we ‘listen’ simply to find the gap in the conversation in which we might insert our own views, or to harvest fragments of statements to use in our rejoinder. This is not what we mean by “Listen”.  Instead we mean listening in ways that attend to the speaker.  This includes reflecting back an understanding of the speaker’s emotions and concerns, and inviting further thoughts on what might help the speaker move forward.  This kind of reflective listening calms emotions and enhances the speaker’s ability to process new information.  It also strengthens relationships and builds trust by demonstrating respect for the speaker’s presence in the dialogue.
  4. Educate.  John Dewey once said, “Democracy must be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.” As the last election showed, many citizens lack an understanding of how their government actually works, use very different sources of information, are unsure of their own ability to influence the decisions that are made, and might benefit from additional skills in the areas of communication and critical thinking.  Dialogue can help in all of these areas.  Note that in dialogue, education occurs through asking open-ended questions, sharing resources and experiences, and inviting reflection, not through lecturing or proselytizing.
  5. Commit.  Studies in different fields demonstrate that taking personal responsibility for one’s views and actions improves how information is processed, shared and evaluated. It also  builds trust.  This kind of commitment and willingness to be accountable for what one says and does is aligned with sincerity.  It is the opposite of the “bullshit” discussed in the last post. Taking responsibility for what you think and say, admitting what you don’t know, and inviting others to do the same, is the essence of effective dialogue.

Choose The Field

A Metaphor From The Midwestharvesting-metaphor-2

When thinking ahead to the harvest, you first need to decide where you will plant the seeds you want to sow. To some extent you will be constrained by geography. As you assess the field you will also need to consider the suitability of the available land and climate for different types of plants. For example, it is easier to grow wheat and corn in the Midwest than rice or cotton. There are other questions to ask as well: has the quality of the soil been depleted by past crops? Has the soil been weakened from the use of fertilizers designed to boost short term growth? In planting, as in politics, overuse of any one technique generally leads to poor growth and diminishing returns at harvest time. Worse still, the soil may be poisoned by overuse of herbicides or pesticides.

As we consider our political field, there are also limits on what we might do. Our representative form of democracy sets some constraints as does the constitutional separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. There are different levels (local, state, or national) on which our political discussion is occurring. Certain issues and problems align with certain branches or levels of government more so than others. Each of these levels, though, informs and affects the others, and so their interactions must be studied and understood.

Regardless of the level at which our field is located, there are many past actions and trends that have depleted and poisoned our political soil. At least three of these could be remediated through dialogue.

The first trend that could be remediated is the categorizing of broad groups of individuals, whether by location, education, race, culture, or economics, into the “them” that threatens the “us”. This stereotyping has been an intentional focus of “wedge politics”, a strategy designed to maximize the returns (in votes and dollars) for both of the dominant political parties. The heated, polarizing, and partisan language used by many political leaders, which is repeated through social and other media, is as poisonous to our democracy as herbicides and pesticides  that leach into soil and water. Such language strangles the growth of new ideas, restricts our ability to consider facts that are different from our preconceptions, and makes it easier for us to deny the humanity, aspirations, interests, and needs of others. The dangers of “Themification” are summarized well in this Ted Talk by Dick Simon. We have moved away from the “united we stand, divided we fall” sentiments that grace many of our public spaces, towards a “what’s in it for me and my tribe” focus.  By doing so we have limited our ability to plan for and take pragmatic steps toward a future that might benefit us all.

The second poisonous trend that could be remediated through dialogue has been the rise of a passive notion of citizenship.  We elect our “gladiators” and sit back to cheer or jeer.  Too few of us engage in the the hard work of informing ourselves, working through the competing choices, or getting directly out into the arena. The media and political parties have been only too happy to lend their support to feeding this “blood sport” of politics by handicapping the players, and focusing much of their effort on raising money in order to “win” the most current “contest”. This approach has eroded both our individual and collective capacity for the critical  analysis that most complex problems require. Instead of identifying and engaging voters on the difficult trade-offs involved in finding solutions, the parties and media are more likely to present “slices” for consumption – dividing complex problems into a series of isolated issues.  These “slices” are often then supported with data that are incomplete or taken out of context, and are argued as if there were a single definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.  This way of presenting what are, in fact, complex issues is highly misleading.  Framing these issues in simplistic either/or terms also ignores the reality that the analysis of most complex issues requires reasoning within multiple systems (e.g. information, values, interest, experience, etc.) and some element of subjective judgment. These fundamental flaws in our collective reasoning are  rarely discussed and often go unnoticed. As we fail to consider the integrative effects and trade-offs across issues we miss opportunities both to identify and to work together to implement solutions for our common good.

The third poisonous trend is the rise of a “bullshit” and celebrity driven entertainment culture that has infected both our news and our ability to reason together.  What do we mean by a “bullshit culture”? In his best-selling book from 2005, “On Bullshit” , Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt attempted to provide a framework to describe communications made with no objective factual constraints or boundaries.  He characterized these as statements “unconstrained by a concern for the truth”, or “bullshit”.

Consider the following quotes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to support the truth nor to conceal it. ” (55)

*

A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers the statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all of these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man or the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (55-56)

*

[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” ( 61)

The leaching into our political sphere of a tolerance for, and even admiration of, bullshit as a means of discussing serious political issues, has further eroded our ability to think critically about and solve the problems we face as a country.  In a culture that often mistakes celebrity — conferred by the ability to entertain or simply attract publicity– for character or merit, this tolerance for bullshit as political speech is even more damaging.

So, what harvest do we want? Do we want a “government of, by, and for the people”? Do we even believe that is possible? Our current political soil neither nurtures the sense of community that many citizens say they want nor promotes pragmatic problem solving for the common good. Taken together, the above trends have led many to believe there is no way even to discern what that common good might be, and so feelings and affiliations take the place of hard facts and critical analysis in making decisions. If we aren’t willing to change or challenge these trends, we will continue to be disappointed in our political harvest.

________

We have a workbook that can help you assess civic health in your community, and other resources for building dialogues.

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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You reap what you sow. That aphorism is well known to us in the Midwest. The reality is a bit more complicated.  Your harvest is affected by the soil, the quality of the seed, the weeds that grow, the sun and rain, and other conditions at the time of harvest.  For example, if you poison your soil, it may help your yield in the first year.  Over time though, yields will decline.  Failure to weed may ruin your crop, or at least diminish your returns.  If you don’t have the right weather conditions or sufficient labor at the time for the harvest, your crop may rot in the field.

In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.  The dismay expressed by many citizens over our bitterly partisan political system, and its inability to create broadly accepted and sustainable policies reflects a poor harvest or return on our collective efforts.  The next few posts will examine conditions and practices that have led to our current state, and how a commitment by citizens to dialogue  and more collaborative practices might lead to new growth and a more satisfying harvest.

Justice, Peace, and Dialogue

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1958

During this last election cycle, the rhetoric form both political parties has reflected the patterns of hate.  Although division, distrust, and rancor between political parties is not new, it is worsening.  This trend is a threat to our ability to grow our economy, preserve our freedoms, and provide opportunities for all Americans to thrive.

We as citizens hold the power to stop the slide. If you are willing to change the way you talk and listen, and demand the same of both those who would seek to represent you, and of the media you consume, our country’s divides would begin to heal.

The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all. – Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1992

If you believe in the aphorism “united we stand, divided we fall,’ reach out and start a new conversation.  Use dialogue not debate.  Listen for and share the stories of wisdom that can illuminate our next steps.

At this time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify -as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize – is more important than ever. – President Barack Obama, 2017

Take a chance won’t you?

How Do Patriots Speak?

Patriot – “One who loves his country and zealously guards its welfare.” Webster’s Concise Dictionary of the English Language, 1997

On this July 4 we look back at Resolution 108, passed by the American Bar Association, in 2011. The ABA warned then that  “political discourse continues to spiral to unprecedented levels of acrimony and venom”, and that “orderly debate all too often is giving way to invective, distortion and gamesmanship”.  Six years later the tension and heat in many quarters have only increased.

Why should we care? As the report behind the resolution points out, a toxic political discourse leaves citizens frustrated, disillusioned, and angry; the problems of our society go unsolved; the rule of law is threatened, and some turn to violence.

If we care about the health and future of our country, then we need to focus on how we talk with each other – as individuals, as political parties, and government and citizens.  Three things we can do, especially as individuals and citizens:

  • Ask Questions.  The questions to ask are open-ended ones, not the sarcastic “Why are you so stupid?’ or “Who knew you were so dumb?” questions often used to shut down others.  Open ended questions sound like “I’m curious as to why you would say that, can you tell me more?”, “What information are you relying on?”, “What do you fear would happen and why?” These questions invite further dialogue if sincerely asked and the answers received with some level of respect for the speaker. Sometimes the best questions to open-up the conversation are simply definitional – “how do you define ‘being an American?'” “what do you mean by “conservative”/”liberal”?”  Other times a question that simply focuses forward  can change the conversation, for example, “What would you like to see happen over time? Why?”
  • Speak-Up for Civility And Model It Yourself.  We don’t support bullies in schools and we shouldn’t in our public life either.  Bullies often back down if someone standing by is willing to call them out. What if more of us were willing to speak up and also to vote against bullying behavior even by those politicians with whom we agree?  Or if we actually rewarded efforts at more informed and civil discourse at the polls?  We can also plant the seeds for more civic discourse in our conversations with friends and family by speaking up and responding to hateful or bullying speech. Simple phrases like “that kind of speech is not helpful”,  “if we can’t speak civilly I will leave”, or “I love you and have experiences that give me a different perspective, which I hope some day we can share”, may not immediately change the speaker, although they can change the course of the conversation over time. Speaking up often will encourage others present to respond in constructive ways as well.
  • Learn and Use “Stories of Wisdom.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Hate doesn’t drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Much of our political discourse is hateful. Recognize those patterns and avoid responding in kind.  Stories of wisdom offer an alternative pattern, one that can help you to both acknowledge the underlying concerns that affect us all and re-frame divisive arguments.

How does a patriot talk about the problems that face our country?  With care, with compassion, with a willingness to learn, and with the hope that if we listen to each other and work together we can heal our divides and improve our future.