Category Archives: politics

Weeding and Watching – Part 1

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-5

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

harvesting-metaphor-4

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

harvesting-metaphor-3

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.