Tag Archives: democracy

Weeding and Watching – Part 2

 

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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In our last post we identified a number of weeds that are growing in our civic soil, including inconsistency and incoherence, deflection, distortion, and denial.  So how do you weed? Whether you are a citizen or a facilitator, there are a number of tools you can use.

Key tools for addressing inconsistency and incoherence are to simply point out the gaps, seek to align rationales and principles, and use open-ended questions to guide discussion towards a more rational analysis.  This might sound like, “I’m interested in understanding your thinking there.  I’m not sure how X leads to Y.”  Or it might sound like “If we were to do that, how would that help us [stated purpose], or further [core value]?” Or it might take the form of an observation:  “I’m not sure why we aren’t worried about growing the deficit now when we were so opposed to that in the last administration. I would like to see some consistency in how we evaluate our policies. Are there principles or values we might use to guide us?” Another approach is to focus on a point in the future and then work backwards. For example, you might ask “How will [current approach] help or hinder our progress?”  Still another approach is to invite reflection on the integrative effects of a particular proposal on related issues, e.g. “If we were to take that approach, how would we fund [accepted programs]”, or (using a real life example) “If we were to create jobs by subsidizing ethanol production, how might that impact the price of the corn we feed our cattle and the health of our agriculture industry? Could one harm the other? What might be the net effect on the economy?” The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking is an excellent resource that can help you identify questions you might ask as you encounter the weeds of inconsistency and incoherence.

Key tools for deflection are to stay persistent in your focus, to break up references to the “either/or” dichotomy and, when deflection takes the form of ad hominem attacks on individuals and groups, to #justsayno2mean.  Staying persistent in your focus includes not taking the bait when a provocative comment attacking something you cherish is offered as a response to an observation or invitation you have made. When such a comment is made, you might say something like, “I’m not sure how that relates, and before we move to another topic I would really like to discuss [the topic at hand].”  A key question for breaking up the “either/or” dichotomy is to ask “can we talk about both?”  or “what if it’s both?”  For example, “I understand you are concerned that leaks are important, as is the interference in our politics by other countries. Can we talk about both?”  Or as another example, “Could it be that both individual choices and systemic injustice contribute to poverty in our community?  Can we explore both, and even other factors that might come into play as well?”  When deflection takes the form of an attack on others you can point out your discomfort (“I don’t like it when others dismiss us that way and I’m uncomfortable talking about my fellow citizens in that way”).  You can also offer a positive observation or experience with the targeted individual or group, or reframe the conversation using the “Stories of Wisdom” patterns.

Key tools for distortion are to request and share sources, invite mutual analysis, and explore underlying emotions, especially fear.  For example, you might say,  “it sounds like we have been looking at different sources of information.  Here is what I have read and I would like to know more about what you have been reviewing.”  And then (after some discussion on sources), note differences in perspective and where the information overlaps (if at all), and ask questions about context, data evaluation, and real life experience that are aligned with the data to wisdom continuum. As you explore why a particular source of information seems credible, you can also identify and discuss the experiences and emotions that affect trust in that source.

Exploring fear and anger is also a key tool for addressing denial.   For example you might ask, “What makes this such a difficult issue to discuss?  What do we fear might happen if it were true?”  or “What harm is there in taking some action if we don’t know for sure?  What would we lose?  What might we gain?”   You might also invite comparisons with the standards used to make nonpolitical decisions. “Before we trust in that denial, what questions might we ask?  If were making a personal investment based on that, what might we want to know?”

Note that all of the above approaches invite dialogue and avoid debate.  As with force-feeding food, force-feeding facts or opinions usually evokes a gag reflex. Debate oriented approaches are ineffective weeding tools precisely because of the emotional and intellectual resistance they automatically produce. Also, none of the weeding approaches discussed above involve the poisons of derision or scapegoating.  All do, however, involve phrasing that emphasizes community and invites joint problem solving.

As with weeds in a garden, rooting out the weeds in our civic soil takes persistence as well as patience and effort. It’s up to us to change the discourse.  Will we?

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.

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.

Back on Track

It’s been a busy few months.  Sarah’s daughter got married and, along with other matters, we have been working on a very interesting project with the Kettering Foundation involving the media and democracy. Sarah has also been working through a local nonprofit on dialogues about youth and education, using another Kettering sponsored guide. We sponsored some calls looking at the role of trust in dialogue, and most recently facilitated a dialogue on issues relating to the EPA’s 111(d) regulations.  Subsequent posts will summarize ‘lessons learned’ in all of this work. As we get back on track with regular posts we want to start by  sharing one from Brad Rourke of the Kettering Foundation.  In his post, Brad summarizes a problem often encountered in public deliberation – lack of agreement on what the issue is, why it matters, and who should be involved.  He also provides a  graphic that is very useful for analyzing whether there is sufficient agreement to compel the community to act, and if not, where to begin the discussion.  As we pointed out in our earlier post on the data to wisdom continuum, one reason public deliberation efforts often fail to gain traction, or even result in increased polarization, is that they focus prematurely on specific solutions without engaging citizens on the component parts that would help build understanding and awareness.  Creating more safe spaces for exploratory dialogue, and providing for citizen driven interaction, would help promote more effective public deliberation.