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What if our political opposite isn’t (actually) a demon…what then?

Jacob Z. Hess, PhD, Director, Village Square Salt Lake City

colored_fd58941c-d78c-434c-82d2-61b7a8f272afIt used to be that friends and acquaintances were mystified at my interest in liberal-conservative dialogue – ‘why would you spend time on THAT?!…Whatever floats your boat, I guess.’

Not anymore. America is having a rude Awakening to the value of dialogue and deliberation practices these days.  REALITY itself has become their best advertisement.

No longer are voices that stoke our anger and foment our angst confined to radio shows or tawdry books at airport bookstores.  They have now taken up residence center stage in our nation’s socio-political awareness.[1]

At the center of the harshest rhetoric (across the political spectrum) is one essential claim:  Those Other People (on the other side of all the issues we care about) are dangerous. They cannot be trusted and do not have America’s best interest at heart (and if they say they do, they’re basically lying through their teeth…).

In short, Those People are demons incarnate…and must be treated as such.

However silly that may sound, let’s be honest:  most people actually believe leaders of that Other Political Party fit precisely that caricature: dangerous and no-doubt malicious…more interested in their power than ‘America’s well-being’ for darn sure.

Is that true for you?  If we’re honest, most of us might admit holding on to at least a bit of this essential accusation regarding Those (Dangerous) People…am I wrong?

What if, my friends and neighbors – fellow citizens of America – that caricature is simply NOT TRUE?

What if it closer examination revealed that (eureka!) people holding widely different socio-political views were equally good-hearted and cared the same about preserving America’s well-being and freedom….but (gasp) had different ideas about what exactly that task required!?

The national dialogue and deliberation community has been pleading and begging over recent years – in every way we know how – to invite people towards something radical:  sitting with our political opposites. Spending time with him, with her, with them…Not to fight or debate.  But to listen.  To inquire.  And most renegade of all – to get curious…with some chips and salsa thrown in just for kicks.

Why?  Because we know by experience that this is the fast track towards having the same basic realization we (and everyone who practices genuine dialogue) ultimately has.

Namely this:  That thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on pretty much…um, everything!

The existence of God?  Check.  Creation, evolution, sexuality, gender, identity, immigration, race, guns, policing, government, religion, education and health care?  Check, check, check, check….Greatest threats to our planet?  Big time check.

Do you want to personally know his ground-breaking reality – experiencing for yourself the degree to which really great, amazing people see all these issues (and more) differently than you?

Well, if you do – get this:  this Radical Experiment costs no money.  And only one night of missing Game of Thrones.

Are you up to it?

Let me be annoying and answer my own question:  For most Americans, the answer is:  NO.

We’ve learned that for ourselves. At one point last year, I decided to try a full-court press. First, Village Square Salt Lake City and Living Room Conversations made a local press release to all our state’s newspapers and radio stations letting people know that free consultation would be given to anyone wanting try one of these conversations (with anyone they wanted, on any topic they chose).

Then, I went knocking doors in my own neighborhood, inviting people directly. These were people I had grown up with, who knew me well (and who would have to buy girl scout cookies from my children).

The result?  I was turned down right and left (and in the middle too).  You would have thought I was inviting people to try an elective colonoscopy – ‘no seriously…it only hurts a little.  And has very rare side-effects.’

“Jacob – there is something about the polarization people like…” Liz Joyner, national director of the Village Square told me in the aftermath. “There’s something almost reassuring and comforting about knowing Our Side is inherently superior to Those Heathens.”

No wonder people didn’t want to talk!  Like kids who have been convinced there really are monsters under the bed, we’ve become almost scared of getting too close to each other. And we’re angry too.

Stewing in these bitter juices, no wonder we’d rather just keep reading, watching and listening to people who fuel our anger and remind us why it’s all Their fault…And you’re asking me to actually sit with the very people responsible for all of our suffering?!  Who are you kidding?!!!

Okay – so we get it.  You don’t really want to do this.  So will you do something else instead?

We’ve decided to try something else at the Village Square – an attempt to ‘package up’ some of the clarity and insight that emerges in heart-felt conversations about deep American differences – and make it available in other ways.

You see, one of the things that always happens in good dialogue is new insight and deeper understanding about the nuance and complexity of Those Other People and how they think.

Make no mistake:  understanding is not the same thing as ‘agreement’ or ‘reconciliation.’  Not even in the same ballpark.

Understanding is about grasping the rationality of things as someone else sees it – coming out of their experience and their background. It’s about seeing from another pair of eyes, with a dash of empathy thrown in.

Almost invariably, understanding is correlated with a new affection and appreciation that arises for Those People (or at least That Person)…”Hmmm…they’re okay, I guess. Hmmm…they’re kind of like me.  Hmmm…they’re not the stupid-and-evil person I thought they were.”

In other words, the Demon Story goes away…completely.  For good.  That doesn’t mean the disagreements go away. In fact, some of the differences between me and long-time dialogue partners are as intense as ever.  The difference now is that, well, we can actually talk about them!

And we do it all the time.  And we learn a lot.  (And we have a lot of fun to boot…).

As a way to give people a glimpse and taste of this ‘scary’ experience, we’re launching a new series at the Village Square that documents some of the nuanced ways that “thoughtful good-hearted people” disagree about all sorts of things.

Due to the current American conversation, we’ve recently drafted documents focused on race, policing and guns.

And we’re working on additional ones for immigration, climate change, pornography and diverging views of mental and physical health care.

All of these are just a beta launch of our best drafts – and every one remains a work in progress.  If you think we’re missing an important question or phrasing it poorly, please let us know! If you think the different position summaries need improvement to fairly reflect each side, we’d love to hear from you [please send feedback and suggestions to jacob@old.utah.tothevillagesquare.org].

The whole point is to crystallize and capture on paper some of the nuance and complexity that emerges as understanding deepens in face-to-face dialogue. Even if loath to participate in the latter, perhaps people will be willing to taste-test the former.

And if one shot is all we get, we’d like to make sure it’s a tasty one. With the help of our diverse local Village Square Salt Lake City team, and the eyes of a wide spectrum of readers, we’re hoping the text reflects an unprecedented level of fairness and generosity.

In other words, our aim is to articulate the strongest and most thoughtful expressions of contrasting views about key questions. By doing so, we hope to help move people towards greater readiness and predisposition to at least hear out the other side…as fellow human beings.

Later this fall, we’ll introduce a second series in parallel that summarizes Ten Areas of Common Ground for these same areas.

We’re not expecting either series to be widely lauded or embraced.

After all, it’s a lot more effective for some people to believe that Black Lives Matters followers hate all white people and cops – OR that everyone fighting for gun rights is scary and delusional.

Why would you want to unsettle those powerful assertions?

Well…because they are untrue? And fear-and-anger promoting (read: part of the problem?)

Let’s do this, America!  Believe it or not, there’s something WAY better than the creepy comfort of knowing the Other People in America are destroying this country.

It’s something easy, and hard, and completely life-changing too.  Will you at least give it a taste test?

It’s cheesy, but I’m going to say it anyway:  It’s time to make America See-Each-Other Again.



[1] This is not simply a shadow critique of what’s happening the Republican party, by the way (although it is that too). There has never been a time when conservatives felt more demonized (as ‘haters’ or ‘bigots’) than now…the rhetoric from the left is being experienced as at least as hostile and aggressive as that coming from the right.

How can we unite if we don’t even understand each other?

Jacob Z. Hess,  Director, Village Square Utah

It’s been a rough month in America. From Orlando to Dallas, from Louisiana to Minnesota, the bloodshed has been startling.    maxresdefault (1)

Rather than wondering if it will happen again, we’ve gotten used to simply asking: where next?

Meanwhile, some eloquent things are being written about how to come together and move beyond this all.  Calls for unity have been made by President Obama and by many others, like this person on social media who said: “I think the key is that it has got to be all of us uniting together to make the change. That is where the power is.”

While these sentiments are certainly needed, some of us have to wonder, What agreements or changes are we supposed to be uniting around?

Although good answers to that question exist (involving basic aspirations like safety, tolerance and respect or stopping the violence), it’s also true that beyond these rudimentary basics, Americans are very much not on the same page about how to make sense of what is going wrong in our country and what to do about it.

Those disagreements alone, of course, are not necessarily a problem!  In fact, profound differences can become an engine for fueling a productive, powerful conversation that multiplies insight and appreciation – while pointing a way forward.

We at the Village Square know that by our own experience – with many experiences bringing together people for creative, social (and even fun) engagement across these same fundamental differences (liberal/conservative, religious/non-religious).

And we’ll be the first to acknowledge that this kind of exchange does not reconcile many disagreements – nor necessarily unite us in common agreement. But that’s not even the point!

With disagreements intact, something else changes. We go away from the conversation distrusting each other less – and liking each other more.  And almost always, it leaves us with deeper understanding of why Those People (that we just met in person) have come to the conclusions they have.

Even in the presence of vociferous disagreement, THAT small sense of insight and appreciation about where each other stands can change so very much.  Where animosity rules, affection starts to creep in…all on a foundation of new understanding we’ve galvanized together.  

And THAT is precisely the understanding that seems to be increasingly an endangered species in America. As cited in Jonathan Rauch’s recent article, “How American politics went insane,” one research team recently found that “between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures)…do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists” (emphasis our own).

Translation:  Large numbers of Americans have concluded that Those People on the other side of issues they care about are simply corrupt, traitors, evil, malevolent, [fill in the blankety-blank].

Alternative translation: Large numbers of Americans hardly understand any more what their political opposite (really) thinks or believes anymore.

For these Americans, that place where nuance and curiosity has been known to live in the brain has been colonized by something else more seductive (and entertaining):  “Obama is clearly trying to start a race war!” “Those conservatives only care about money, power and controlling everyone else” “Those black lives matter protesters hate all police officers!” and so on.

Bottom line:  In THAT kind of a conversation, within THAT sort of American atmosphere, how in heaven (or earth) are we supposed to “unite” or come together” as Americans? And even more pointedly, how are we supposed to STOP the bloodshed?

It’s hard to see the violence stopping.  Not in this atmosphere.  Not in this way.

Not until something about the space between us changes fundamentally. Like a marriage in crisis, as long as the relationship itself remains charged and toxic, it’s hard to see a possibility of any sort of forward movement….

Like that marriage in crisis, anything being said by One Side in America is now regularly, predictably being taken as further cause for resentment by the Other Side. In this chronic Fight & Defend mode, genuine understanding of where each of us stands doesn’t have a chance, let alone “unity” of any sort.    

Until the conversation in our nation heals, we believe nothing else will.  Until we restore our ability to talk productively across differences, nothing is going to change.

It may even get worse.

We believe that answers may be found in the Space Between Us – far more than in some new complex policy shift or perfect new program-to-change-everything.  

If that’s true, are you willing to join us in doing the hard work to get us out of this mess?  In other words, are you willing to sit down with Those People and have an honest-to-goodness, productive conversation? 

LET’S DO THIS, AMERICA. It’s just too important to ignore…


Our mission at the Village Square is to find creative, productive ways to spark this change in that Space Between Us. As our own contribution to helping spark this kind of space, Village Square Utah will be launching a simple series of dialogue guides in the months ahead designed to remind people on both sides that thoughtful, good-hearted Americans disagree about pretty much everything (and that’s okay).  Our guides on Guns and Policing are in development and will be posted soon.  

A Founding Tale: “Let Friendship Redeem the Republic”

red and blue chairs at table“…You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”

So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”

Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.

They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.

Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.

But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another.

The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.

“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”

The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”

And we are still writing the history of their revolution.

Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.


Liz Joyner is a co-founder and Executive Director of the Village Square. Please take a moment to read the piece that inspired this title, Dining with Jeff, by Patricia Nelson Limerick.

Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

Stars and Confucius

Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

I recently came across an interesting article on LinkedIn: The Importance of Breaking Free of…Yourself. It was adapted from a new book published by Simon & Schuster entitled The Path, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Michael is a popular professor at Harvard. While the article was targeted at new college grads and young professionals rather than a middle aged male, it resonated with me on several levels.

First, the idea of being open and even intentionally seeking ideas and people outside our usual beliefs and experience is a practice that I’ve found wonderfully educational and spiritually nourishing. Especially the last several years as I’ve stumbled across opportunities or sought such experiences and spaces with more intention.

Some of this has come from a couple of groups I help facilitate called Think Again and Faith Again. But some of my most meaningful and heart connecting experiences have been as I’ve engaged in Living Room Conversations in my home and in local Village Square events that I’ve participated in. These forums have given me and others the opportunity, to, as the authors of this article encourage:

“…instead of embracing your self, Confucius urged, overcome your self. Break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.”

As a Christian, this sounded very similar to Christ enjoining us to find ourselves by losing ourselves.

This leads to my second moment of resonating and the point of me sharing this: What if we approached our political space in this same fashion? What would happen if a politician—rather than extolling their virtues, values, and ideas as the only right way—actually sought to understand and have some respect for those who differ from them? What if we, as voters, did the same? Would the tone and timber of our political conversations change for the better? Would the possibility of progress on some of our most pressing and painful issues be more likely? Would there be greater goodwill and cooperation among us all? Might we better live our nations’ dictum: epluribus unum i.e. out of many one, as well as help quell some of the strident contention that seems to pervade our public square?

Yes! Of course! But practically speaking, how do we get there from here? One way, these authors suggest, is to practice rituals. Rituals? Really? Here’s their reasoning:

“Engaging in rituals in a Confucian sense, though, is transformative. Confucian rituals — or “as if” rituals — come from the small conventional things we do all the time. When you pass a friend on the street and smile and say hi as if you weren’t just stressing over a bad exam grade you got, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. When you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something your annoying cousin said, but instead respond as if what she said was insightful, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. 

Yes, these moments go against our authentic, true feelings. They can feel fake, or like we’re being nice for politeness’ sake. 

But Confucius saw value in such rituals — if we do them ritually, and not rotely—precisely because they go against your authentic, true feelings and thus have the potential to allow you to become a different, and a better, person for a brief moment. The more you consciously engage in such moments the more you cultivate yourself. You train yourself not to always act true to yourself, in order to behave better.”

Interesting idea isn’t it? One presidential candidate especially leapt to mind when I read this, because, as best I can tell, his “authenticity” of “telling it like it is” is exactly what is so appealing to his supporters. And, given the natural course and feel of politics, one can sympathize with this hunger for a politician “being real.”

But what if Confucius and Christ actually had it right? What if we practiced treating others like we would like to be treated? What if we expected our politicians to do the same? What if, rather than expressing our rage or dismissal of another’s opinion, we “overcome ourselves” and give the person an authentic and real heartfelt hearing? Would that give space for them to do the same for us? What if we practiced the ritual of “walking in another’s shoes?” At a minimum, what if we at least try ritually “faking it until we make it?

Professor Puett concludes:

“The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break from yourself, you will continue to grow and change. As you cultivate your goodness, it slowly becomes second nature and radiates outward. Your kindness, rooted in the mundane and everyday, extends from the family and friends around you to town, region, nation, world.

That’s why our Chinese philosophers would say: don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation. Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself. This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.”

Shall we give it a try?

Jay Griffith, Salt Lake Village Square Leadership Team Member

Their Normandy Beach, Our Higgins Boats

normandy-higgins-boatOn this day seventy-two years ago, young Americans were fighting and dying on the shores of Normandy France. The soldiers made their way onto the beach that June 6th in Higgins boats, unique high-walled boats that carried 25 men, sort of a “floating boxcar.”

Conservative author Peggy Noonan wrote about D-Day, and about the Higgins boats in the introduction of her book “Patriotic Grace: What it is and why we need it now.” Noonan tells of one soldier, his fate intricately woven with the fate of the other men in his Higgins Boat, heading in high seas to a conclusion unknown… “it took [his] five little boats four hours to cover the nine miles to the beach:”

They were the worst hours of our lives. It was pitch black, cold, and the rain was coming down in sheets, drenching us. The boats were being tossed in the waves, making all of us violently sick.

Noonan reflects in the remainder of Patriotic Grace on the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in as a people today, and of the rise of the partisan hate-filled din. Says Noonan “we fight as if we’ll never need each other,” yet our very fate may depend on one another.

And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace-a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we’re in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported. I’ve come to think that this really is our Normandy Beach… the little, key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed. The challenge we must rise to… We are an armada. All sorts of Americans, wonderful people, all ages, faiths and colors, with different skills, fabulous skills, from a million different places, but all here with you, going forward.

Like it or not, we are in each others’ Higgins boats. Our fate, almost certainly shared.

Given that circumstance, perhaps we might use today to consider how we will best keep faith with those young Americans who left their lives that day on Omaha Beach. It’s something we ought to be doing right about now.

Photo credit: Chuck Holon

Anthony Stahelski: A Graphical Analysis of Contradictions in a Democracy


Many Americans complain about the ‘messiness’ of democracy, by which they mean either the partisan negativity of the electoral process, or the seeming inability of our current political system to solve chronic problems. Rather than attempting to understand the specific causes of democratic messiness, Americans hope someone will come along and magically make the negativity and ineffectiveness go away. However, an examination of our history shows that democracy has always been, and likely always will be, messy. Consequently, rather than hoping for a wand-waving savior, we should attempt to understand the root cause of democratic messiness. The premise of this article is that democratic messiness occurs because democracy allows for a vast diversity of opinion on any issue, and this diversity represents contradictory human needs, and these contradictions lead to political conflicts.

A contradiction is defined in the dictionary as the expression of the opposite of a previous statement. In logic a contradiction is defined as two propositions that are related in such a way that it is impossible for both to be true or both to be false. In a democracy contradictions are not just about statements and policy propositions; they are more fundamentally about the contrasting human needs that underlie statements and policies. In this context each contradiction is composed of two competing needs, and the satisfaction of each need is necessary for a functioning democratic society. Completely satisfying one need means that the other need is completely ignored, and therefore completely satisfying any one need rarely happens in a functioning democracy.

Graphical Tools for Understanding Democratic Contradictions

Stahelski normal curveCollege students taking an introductory statistics class are introduced to two useful graphical tools for understanding diversity and contradictions: the normal (bell-shaped) distribution and the correlation graph. The normal distribution (and other distributions) can be used to graphically map opinion diversity, and the correlation graph can map democratic contradictions. The normal distribution is shown in Figure 1. It can be applied to almost all human characteristics, including human values, expectations, preferences, attitudes and opinions. Opinions can vary from one end of the graph line to the other end. The shape of the distribution indicates that most people are moderate non-extremists on most issues, because their opinions are close to the center of the distribution. Opinions become more extreme moving away from the center in either direction, with the most extreme opinions located in the tails of the distribution.

Of course not all opinion diversity perfectly mimics the theoretical normal distribution. On some issues there is less opinion in the center and more toward the extremes, and sometimes opinion is skewed more toward one extreme or the other. Figure 2 shows positive and negative skewing, respectively. In positive skewing the majority of opinion on a particular issue is bunched to the left of the distribution, and in negative skewing the majority of opinion is on the right.

Stahelski skewed distributionNonetheless, most people have moderate (non-extreme) opinions on most issues. This is shown in a recent Pew Research Center survey on American political positions. Survey results revealed that current overall political opinion is skewed slightly to the right, politically speaking (negative skewing). About 27 percent of registered voters identified themselves as strongly conservative, 17 percent as strongly liberal, and the remaining 57 percent as various types of moderates.

Much research has examined factors that underlie opinions. Opinions are expressions of attitudes, and attitudes reflect needs. Thus different opinions on any given issue reflect different needs, and these needs are often contradictory. Another graphical tool can be used to operationally define contradictory needs. Correlation graphs show the quantitative relation between two variables (labeled X and Y in the figure below), to ascertain the degree of co-relation between them. In statistics contradictions can be operationally defined as negative correlations. A negative correlation describes an inverse relationship between two variables, as shown below.

Stahelski negative correlationFigure 3 demonstrates that one variable is listed on the X axis, and the other variable is on the Y axis. As the X variable increases from zero, the Y variable declines toward zero. For example, as household income increases (X), the percentage of income spent on basic necessities (Y) diminishes. Another example of a negatively correlated inverse relationship is any team-based competitive sport where ties are not possible. In tie-free competition there are only two possible outcomes, Team X wins and Team Y loses, or Team Y wins and Team X loses. The two teams have an inverse relationship. Every time one team scores, it takes the other team further away from its goal of winning, and vice versa. One team’s score contradicts the other team’s likelihood of winning.

When needs are contradictory, completely fulfilling one need completely obviates the other need. In a democracy completely fulfilling one need is usually unacceptable because some people want one need fulfilled, and other people want the other need fulfilled, as indicated by survey results and as the normal distribution predicts. An inverse contradictory relation between two needs means that the only acceptable democratic solution is to try and balance the two needs, by somewhat fulfilling each one. This solution is always less than totally satisfactory to adherents who strongly support completely fulfilling one need and ignoring the other. These less than totally satisfactory solutions are another reason why many people say that democracy is ‘messy’. These contradictory needs are most generally manifested in a cultural dimension, Collectivism versus Individualism.

Collectivism versus Individualism

In collectivist cultures groups such as families, neighborhoods or countries are more important than the individual. Conformity, obedience, cooperation, duty, loyalty, obligation, and sacrifice are valued, and interdependence is acknowledged as the fundamental glue that holds societies together. In individualistic “it’s all about me” cultures each individual’s needs, desires, values and goals have precedence over an individual’s collective obligations. Independence, autonomy, freedom, competition, and individual rights are valued. Simplistically one could say that collectivism imposes various forms of social control over individual behavior, and individualism is about removing social control over individual behavior. As societies become more individualistic they become less collectivist, and vice versa. It is not possible to be both highly collectivist and highly individualistic at the same time. Consequently an inverse relation exists between collectivism and individualism. Since all humans have both collective and individualistic needs, no society is ever completely collectivist or completely individualistic; it is always a matter of which set of needs is more or less satisfied, in relation to the other set of needs. Figure 4 shows the inverse relation between collectivism and individualism.Stahelski collectivism vs freedom

Control versus Freedom

Although there are many specific aspects involved in the overall difference between collectivism and individualism, one aspect that democracies continually grapple with is control versus freedom. In all societies groups exercise control over their members because members internalize obedience to group leaders and conformity to group values and norms. Since almost all humans are members of groups, their individual choices are restricted by their group memberships. In highly collectivized societies group control over individuals is increased, and in more individualized democratic societies (less collectivized) group control over individuals is diminished and individual choice is enhanced, as shown in Figure 4. One way to frame American history is to trace the ongoing struggle between control and freedom through the various issues that can be conceptualized in the control versus freedom context.

Control versus Freedom: equality vs. opportunity

The freedom versus control issue is initially discussed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration mentions both ends of the fundamental contradiction that forms the backbone of democracy: opportunity (freedom) and equality (control). Opportunity is represented by the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, and equality is of course represented by the phrase “all men are created equal”. It is noteworthy that the phrase is “pursuit of happiness”, not “guaranteed happiness”. Thus happiness itself is not granted as a right, but the pursuit of, or opportunity to achieve, happiness is. This phrasing implicitly acknowledges individual differences in interests, ability, talent, skill and motivation, differences that can graphically be represented by the normal curve. Individual differences in these traits mean that some people will do better at using the opportunity to pursue happiness, and others will do worse.

The implication underlying the phrase “all men are created equal” is that democracies must somehow counteract some of the effects of inherent individual differences. Despite individual differences equality must be preserved in fundamental ways. Since no society can ever completely erase the inequality that results from individual differences, equality can only be offered to citizens through guaranteed rights that apply to all, the most important of which is equality before the law and equality of each person’s vote.

Opportunity and equality are inversely related, and democracies attempt to balance them. This is an extremely important balancing act, because an extreme emphasis on either leads to the death of democracy. Communism was theoretically an extreme emphasis on equality which in practice led to permanent “dictatorships of the proletariat”. An extreme emphasis on opportunity also leads ultimately to dictatorship, where the few economic winners monopolistically control most of the wealth, the middle class is destroyed, and the majority live in squalor.

Equality, like collectivism and control, is imposed, in the sense that guaranteeing basic equality somewhat restrains the effects of individual differences. Opportunity, like individualism and freedom, represents the less restrained impulses of each person.

Control versus Freedom: security vs. various specific freedoms

Perhaps the most currently salient control vs. freedom contradiction is the inverse relation between security and freedom of movement. This contradiction has become painfully obvious since the 9/11 attacks. Americans who fly commercially are very aware of the airport security controls put in place after the attacks. Freedom of movement in airports has been greatly restricted and the flying public has been inconvenienced. As security (control) increases, freedom, in this case freedom of movement, inversely declines.

The recent National Security Agency (NSA) controversy highlights another contradictory security versus freedom issue: communication security concerns (control) versus freedom of speech. The NSA and the Obama administration justify the massive surveillance of the various forms of private citizen electronic communication as necessary to combat terrorism. Critics say that the surveillance violates the implied right of privacy incorporated in the freedom of speech portion of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. This contradiction is another inverse relation of needs that democracies will always confront.
Gun control versus unrestricted private citizen gun ownership is another security versus freedom issue that is currently controversial. American civilians have legally been able to own and use guns since the beginning of the country, and this use is supported by the 2nd Amendment. However, as the country has gotten older and as guns have become more lethal both the federal and the state governments have imposed various forms of gun control, without completely banning private gun ownership. As always there are passionate proponents on both sides, and both sides believe that the other side is out to destroy America. A balancing act of contrary needs results from this ongoing inverse relation.

Control versus Freedom: sin crimes

Another general control versus freedom category that continuously plagues democracies revolves around what is referred to as ‘sin crimes’: recreational drug use, gambling and various forms of pornography and prostitution. Many argue that participation in these activities is not a crime, because no one (other than perhaps the participant) is harmed, and therefore participation should not be controlled. Others argue that indulgence in these activities is a crime because others, such as children, can be harmed, and more generally because participation in these activities debases social morality. Therefore these activities should be controlled. Once again we have competing contradictory human needs that can graphically be displayed as an inverse relation.

As with all contradictory social needs, the United States attempts a ‘sin crime’ balancing act. We allow for limited amounts of gambling and prostitution freedom, in limited locations. Until the recent semi-legalization of marijuana in some states, we have not allowed any legal recreational drug freedom, and the other classic recreational drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates, and psychedelics) remain completely illegal. However in the American past the balance between sin freedom and sin control has been very different. For example, before 1920 marijuana, cocaine and opiates could be bought legally in drugstores. In the towns of the west in the late 1800s brothels and gambling were both legal and prevalent. This is mentioned simply to point out that the balancing act between contrary human needs is ongoing and dynamic, and the balance point is always open to future change.

Control versus Freedom: other social issues

Another social issue that can be conceptualized as an inverse contradiction of needs framed in the context of control versus freedom is abortion. Those who support the ‘pro-life’ position want to restrict abortions as much as possible, thus controlling the choices of pregnant women. Supporters of the ‘pro-choice’ position want abortions to be legally available to any pregnant woman who wants one. The Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade made most abortions legal in the United States, but the pro-life supporters have never given up trying to restrict abortions. The point being that although the current balance favors the pro-choice position at this time, there are always those who wish to change the balance in the future.

A further social issue that can be conceptualized as a control versus freedom contradiction is divorce. Highly collectivist societies make divorce difficult, thus controlling the romantic choices of individuals. As societies become more individualistic, divorce usually becomes easier to obtain, giving individuals more relationship choices. In the United States the balance dot has shifted dramatically from difficulty in obtaining divorce (control) to ease in obtaining divorce (freedom). This has occurred as the United States has become less collectivist and more individualistic.

Control versus Freedom: economics

The control versus freedom issue extends to economics. Arguably the history of economic thought can be viewed as an intellectual struggle between proponents of a controlled economy versus proponents of a free market economy. This struggle plays itself out in the economic policies of the various democracies.
Free market economies respond to increasing human economic needs by expanding. An expanding economy is needed to provide jobs for an increasing population. Environmental preservation, which controls and inhibits present economic activity, is needed to provide resources for future generations. In a graph of this inverse contradiction, an expanding economy (freedom) would be on the Y axis in and environmental preservation (control) would be on the X axis. The negative correlation shows the contradictory inverse relation between these two needs. Expanding the economy inevitably leads to varying degrees of environmental degradation, and environmental preservation leads to fewer jobs.

Another contradictory issue with economic consequences is immigration. In its history the United States has been inconsistent regarding immigration, with increased immigration representing freedom, and decreased immigration representing control. At times we have had an open door, and at other times we have closed the door. The inconsistency reflects contradictory needs. New immigrants fulfill societal and economic needs, such as helping to expand the country westward and providing cheap labor for growing industries. However, immigration, particularly illegal immigration, represents a loss of control, both over the borders, and over who is allowed to become citizens of the country.

Self-sacrifice versus Self-interest

A more psychological aspect of the Collectivism versus Individualism overall contradiction is the contradiction between self-sacrifice and self-interest. Collectivist societies try to blunt self-interest by having group members internalize collective values that periodically require self-sacrifice. For example, a young person’s parents want her to take over their small restaurant operation so that they can retire. In a collectivist society she would without hesitation honor her parent’s request even though she desires to go to medical school and become a doctor. In individualistic cultures children are taught to follow their own self-interest, regardless of the desires of their fellow group members. Thus the young person in the example would pursue her medical school plans regardless of her parents’ desires.

The self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction shows up in several different issues. Americans want government services/benefits, but they do not want to pay for them. Receiving free or low-cost government services and benefits is clearly in each individual’s self-interest, but paying for these benefits is a form of self-sacrifice. The work ethic versus entitlement contradiction is another example of the self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction. Work ethic is the internalized attitude that hard work (self-sacrifice) is both rewarding in itself and necessary to earn rewards. Entitlement (self-interest) is the belief that people should receive certain resources and rewards from their society simply because they are members of that society.

The Underlying Psychological Contradiction

The overall collectivist-control-self sacrifice versus individualist-freedom-self interest contradiction has an underlying fundamental psychological component: internalized self-control (impulse control) versus lack of self-control (impulsivity). Impulsivity could be defined as the freedom to do whatever a person wants whenever he/she wants, if it makes that person feel good. This definition implies that people should be able to ignore societal rules and norms if they so desire. Impulsivity is opposed by impulse control, which promotes conformity to societal norms and delay of gratification. There are individualistic forces in American society that promote impulsivity, such as advertising and modern music (rock and rap), and there are collectivist forces that promote impulse control, such as laws, ethics and religious mores.

Impulsivity apparently peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. During these decades several markers of impulsivity reached their highest levels, such as the amount of illicit recreational drug use and the number of out-of-wedlock teenage births.


The basic point of this paper is that democracy can be conceptualized as an endless dynamic governance process that attempts to balance contradictory needs. These sets of contradictory needs can be categorized within the overarching framework of collectivism (control) versus individualism (freedom). Because of individual differences, there will almost always be some people for whom one of the set of two contradictory needs is more salient than the other need, and vice versa. When the balance is equidistant from either axis, supporters of each need are roughly equally powerful in influencing the democratic process. When the balance is more toward one axis or the other, supporters of one need have more influence than supporters of the other need, at least temporarily.
The strong implication of this analysis of democracy as sets of contradictory needs is that most balance points between contradictory needs are usually in the center or close to it. Partisans on either side have difficulty accepting this fundamental fact about democracy. The two major political parties, which are each dominated by their respective partisans, generally fall on opposite sides of each of these contradictions, and they strive to make their particular position dominant by overcoming the other position and thus eliminating the contradiction. Centrists not only accept the fact that these contradictions will never go away; they value these contradictions as the essence of democracy. Centrists believe that partisans waste their time trying to eliminate whatever contrary position they oppose. Instead, centrists believe that the focus should be on finding balance points that best serve the long term health of our democracy.

Liz Joyner: To honor their sacrifice


As we continue to build our new Village Square community both in our hometowns and nationally, Memorial Day weekend, I think, is the right time to talk about the history of the “Threads of A Nation” quilt we occasionally use on our website (and we have in bumper stickers for sale). Many years ago, before I realized that if you spent 14 million hours on a project it was hard to sell it for a profit, I wanted to be a textile artist. I made my first “Threads of a Nation” quilt well before September 11th, as a tribute to my father, brother and grandfather who all served in the military, and to my father-in-law who died in Vietnam. The quilt incorporates a rubbing of his name off the Vietnam memorial. It’s 5 x 7 feet in size.

To get the rubbing, I bought a pad of nice paper and brought a fistful of pencils to the Mall in Washington one day. Other people visiting the wall, all of whom I suppose had some part of themselves etched in granite there, asked me if they could borrow paper and pencil to do their own rubbings. We stood at that wall, some ten or so strangers, connected briefly in common pursuit… leaning and rubbing. I left, short a few pencils and all out of paper, with my rubbing on a single piece of paper and the memory – another thread in the quilt, I suppose.

When I first imagined “Threads of A Nation,” I wanted it to depict the dreams and hopes, the principles, the struggle and heartbreak, the achievement that is woven into the fabric of America. I used ethnic and contrasting fabrics that, as the individuals who together make our country, strain against each other close up, but once assembled make a whole – one with more depth and richness than were all the pieces similar. Among the words printed on the fabric are passages from the Constitution and Gettysburg address which embody both the idea of what this new country could be and the bitter divisions that have strained our union, leaving the threads of our nation worn but not broken.

Today, these ideas seem somehow more real, more important, less theoretical than in the days when I first committed them to fabric. Today, we must take special care to remember the principles on which this country was founded. We must remember that a great insight of our Founders’ was that diversity of opinion could be a strength in governing a country. I believe we need to seek out this diversity to counteract the trends toward tribal division and building fury toward one another. We’ve spent a decade doing that at the Village Square and it really does change everything. Today, we must see how deeply we are all “threads” in the whole. It is these principles that the men and women who have lost their lives for our country were serving.

Today, Memorial Day, it is the day to remember – and honor – what those who fought and died gave for this country that they, like us, love.


Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

Happy Birthday Mr. Jefferson: A good excuse to re-run a great editorial

Jenkinson-outside The Village Square in Tallahassee hosted humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson on October 15th for a live audience taping of the nationally syndicated show The Thomas Jefferson Hour. To learn more about our program and listen to an audio of the program CLICK HERE. To look at pictures of the program CLICK HERE. The below piece by Mr. Jenkinson ran in ” Context Florida and the print edition of the Tallahassee Democrat.

As the 21st century finds its rhythm, and the 2016 presidential contest begins to take up most of our public space, it seems clear to me that we have two political parties in the United States, but they are both thoroughly Hamiltonian.We have what might be called the “greater Hamiltonian Party” and the “lesser Hamiltonian party.” The obscene dominance of money, political action committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, and unrestrained attack ads has essentially disenfranchised the vast majority of American citizens.

In a world where there is no longer any real accountability, our political discourse has spiraled down into the gutter. A citizen from Jupiter, or any rational American, forced to watch nothing but Fox and MSNBC 24 hours per day, would soon despair of the American experiment.

What is to be done?

My view is that we need a Jeffersonian party or (better yet) a Jeffersonian movement in America. Jefferson believed that a republic could not survive without a high level of civility. In his first inaugural address, after a hotly contested election, Jefferson wrote two passages that every American should stop to consider.

First he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

In other words, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, there are more things about which you agree than disagree. Stop exaggerating your differences – to raise money from your most virulent supporters, to appease the most extreme elements in your caucus, to erect a pedestal of righteousness in your name.

Jefferson’s second passage is even more important. “Let us,” he wrote, “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

Think about what Jefferson is saying here. The ideal of a republic is social “harmony and affection.” We live in the freest country in history, on what Jefferson called a “wide and fruitful land” with “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” We have every reason to rejoice, almost no reason to lament.

Who would not agree that the rancorous partisanship and political paralysis of the past dozen years have made our public life (the res-publica, as the Romans put it) dreary, tedious, dispiriting, degrading, demoralizing, and exceedingly frustrating?

National renewal begins with a new commitment to civility. The style of our national debates should be serious, at times pointed, but always respectful and civil. The whole spirit of the Enlightenment can be summed up in a statement attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire:

“Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.

We need to bring down the temperature of our national debates. We need to listen more carefully to each other. We need to try to understand not only what the opposition is saying, but the set of American principles that underlie what they say. We need to refine our debates so that they begin again to be evidence-based, rational, sensible, and helpful. Demagoguery is telling people what you think they want to hear even if you know what you are saying could never be instituted in law.

Demagoguery is playing on the fears, the darker energies, the prejudices, and the uncivil desires of the people. Demagoguery is deliberately saying things that you know actually degrade the possibility of true resolution of our problems. By those definitions, the United States in 2015 is awash in demagoguery.

Jefferson believed we would only be a republic if we had a well-educated and well-informed public – a nation of people who could see beyond narrow self-interest to the health and happiness of the entire commonwealth. Jefferson famously said that in our system the will of the majority ought always to prevail, but “that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Here’s what we desperately need. More civil public discourse. A willingness to compromise. The ability to see the virtue of the opposition, and to realize that they feel passionately about what is good for America. A willingness to read – books, articles, websites, the classics, the Founding Fathers – and to inform ourselves before trotting out the usual talking points (from Rush or Rachel or Sean or Glenn).

We need more Village Square events. I’m so excited to be coming to Tallahassee in the persona of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. I do the work that I do, portraying Jefferson (and other historical characters) across the country, and playing Jefferson 52 weeks per year on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, because I believe something vital is missing at the core of American life, and that Jefferson’s view of republican democracy is the answer to what has gone wrong in American life.

Not everything about Thomas Jefferson is admirable, but his understanding of how a republic works is as important today as it was when he first penned these thoughts two centuries ago.

If I can play a small role in restoring Jeffersonian values to our national discourse, I will say, to use one of Jefferson’s allusions, like the character in the Bible, nunc dimittis, now you may dismiss me, for my work is done.


Clay S. Jenkinson is a humanities scholar, Rhodes Scholar, author and social commentator. He has lectured about and portrayed Thomas Jefferson in 49 states over a period of 15 years, before U.S. Supreme Court justices, presidents, 18 state legislatures, and countless public, corporate, student and television audiences. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

The Village Square will host Jenkinson for a special live audience taping of the The Thomas Jefferson Hour at 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Goodwood Museum & Gardens. “Founding Ideals: A Conversation with President Thomas Jefferson” is a fundraiser for The Village Square. You may purchase tickets by clicking here. Questions? Email christine@tothevillagesquare.org or call 850-590-6646.

“Speaking Our Mind”: Two Ways to Do It

Jacob Z. Hess, Director, Village Square Utah

One thing that Trump supporters consistently say they like about him is that he is willing to “tell it like he is” – with “straight talk” reflecting someone who is simply (and refreshingly) not afraid to “speak his mind,” seemingly unhindered by cultural restraints.

It’s often taken for granted that in order for someone to do all these things, that person needs to be a little brash, aggressive and willing to ‘tell people to their face’ things that may be hard to hear.

On one level, this is all pretty understandable in an American culture that by many measures has become a walking-on-egg-shell environment leaving many to wonder if they can say what they think. From evolution and climate change to gay rights and vaccination, clear signals have been made warning those who might disagreement about the risk of open cultural heresy (e.g., talk of ‘punishing’ climate change deniers or ‘shaming’ those theologically resistant to an easy embrace of gay marriage).

You think Trump uses insulting labels for other groups?  Listen to the things that conservatives (like myself) read virtually every day in popular media referencing our beliefs: “irrational,” “extreme,” “fanatic,” “religiously-motivated” and “anti-science.” (We’re not alone, of course, in stereotyped epithets rolling-off-the-tongue, as my Marxist or Atheist or gay friends would attest).

All this is to say that even while I’m perplexed at Trump’s popularity, I empathize with those wondering whether there is space for them in America anymore. Many of us in the conservative camp (and other camps) are wondering that these days.

And in their wondering, some find their way to conclude that what is needed is FIGHTING BACK…speaking their mind, no matter what!

But here’s what people aren’t realizing:  There’s MORE THAN ONE way to ‘speak our mind’ and ‘tell it like it is’…

Compared to the insulting, aggressive parade on display in American politics these days, the dialogue and deliberation community offers a robust, profoundly beautiful alternative:  a place where people can share anything – including frustrations, anger, fear, struggles and uncertainties. A place where people can ‘tell it like it is’ – and guess what!?…have other people actually listen.

In dialogue, more than any other space, I have personally found a place to literally ‘speak my mind’ unhindered – a promised land where that attentiveness and listening actually happens IN BOTH DIRECTIONS!

And there’s another big difference:  In dialogue this all happens without disparaging the character, intellect or sincerity of those on the other side. In other words, you can still enjoy them, have affection for them – and see the goodness, beauty in them (despite their crazy ideas).

So to my fellow Americans-wondering-if-there-is-space-for-them, let’s recognize that there are at least two ways to ‘speak our mind’ and ‘say it like it is’ in American politics: one way where we might actually learn something from each other and another way where we SPEAK our mind all right…but without much of a chance people will take us seriously.

So what do we really want?


While recognizing the virtue of intellectual integrity and courage, let’s pay more attention to not only whether we speak our mind – but how we speak our mind….it’s that how that makes all the difference!

Race: An issue too wide to get our arms around

Screenshot 2016-03-19 15.04.44Byron Dobson, writing in the Tallahassee Democrat:

About an hour after attending an encouraging forum Thursday night on race relations, I skimmed through Facebook and was struck by reports of 78-year-old John McGraw punching a black protester as the man was being led out of a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C.

Apparently unapologetic about his actions, McGraw, who is white, is quoted in the New York Daily News saying, “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him!”

Talk about experiencing fleeting moments of hope and despair.

Read the entire article online in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Race: An issue too wide to get our arms around

Screenshot 2016-03-19 15.04.44Byron Dobson, writing in the Tallahassee Democrat:

About an hour after attending an encouraging forum Thursday night on race relations, I skimmed through Facebook and was struck by reports of 78-year-old John McGraw punching a black protester as the man was being led out of a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C.

Apparently unapologetic about his actions, McGraw, who is white, is quoted in the New York Daily News saying, “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him!”

Talk about experiencing fleeting moments of hope and despair.

Read the entire article online in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Community takes a spin through ‘civic speed dating’

Screenshot 2016-03-19 14.26.15Amanda Claire Curcio, writes in Tallahassee Democrat:

Come here often?

And with the most cliché of all pickup lines, the 2016 “Speed Date Your Local Leaders” began.

Local leaders went from table to table, sitting down with a handful of community members at each for 10-minute intervals. A bell chime signaled them to move and begin new conversations.

During the two-hour session of “civic speed dating,” held Thursday evening at St. John’s Episcopal Church, anything was up for discussion. Topics included having honest conversations about race, supporting micro-businesses, pets, the future of public schools and building more bicycle lanes and sidewalks.

Read the whole article online in the Tallahassee Democrat.

See photos of Speed Date online here.

Fareed Zakaria: Centrists under seige