A Metaphor From The Midwest
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?