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Civil Politics: More Information does not necessarily lead to Civility

logo-civil-politicsFrom CivilPolitics.org:

A recent article by Ezra Klein at Vox.com eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason. The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.

Read the entire CivilPolitics post online here.

Read the Ezra Klein piece here.



Jonathan Haidt in the Tallahassee Democrat: It helps if you can see the other side’s asteroids

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 9.29.35 AMThe asteroids are coming! The asteroids are coming!

OK, I don’t mean literal asteroids made of rock and metal. I mean big problems that polarize us and therefore paralyze us.

If you’re on the left, you probably have extremely acute vision for threats such as global warming and rising inequality. You’ve tried to draw attention to the rising levels of carbon dioxide, the rising average global surface temperature and the rising seas. You’ve also grown increasingly disturbed by the percentage of the national income taken home by the richest 1 percent. In fact, I’ll bet you spotted those two asteroids back in the 1990s, when it would have been so much easier to deflect them, and you’re angry that conservatives are still deep in denial. What’s wrong with those conservatives?

On the other hand, if you’re on the right, you’ve probably been tracking our nation’s entitlement spending and the rise of nonmarital births for a long time now. You’ve been ringing alarms about those two asteroids since the 1970s, but liberals have treated you like Chicken Little, completely unconcerned. Caring is spending, they seem to believe. All forms of family are equally good for kids, they assert in spite of the evidence. What’s wrong with those liberals? Read the whole piece online at Tallahassee.com.



Matthew Dowd | Nuclear option, tribalism and Founding Fathers

Thomas Jefferson doorstopMatthew Dowd today on This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

“We also must keep in mind that the Founding Fathers warned against day in and day out, including President Washington, about the power of political parties. And the power of parties to tear apart the government and create this dysfunction. We are at a point now where the political parties and people line up in these tribes and it’s very difficult. As I say, you can’t have the same rules in chess oh we’re going to be fine and all that, as you have in mixed martial arts which is where the situation is today in Washington.

“Where we are today George, where we are today is the president in 2008 and 2007 ran on the idea that he was going to bring the country together, bring Washington together. We’re going to get past the partisan gridlock. We’re going to get past the vitriol. And now we’re at a point where the rules have to change in the Senate because it’s become so polarized, so vitriolic that we can’t get it done.”



Starting today, keep an eye on the sky (the Air Force won’t be…)

Sequestration Asteroid From Fox News:

“The Air Force says it can no longer afford to scan the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could doom the planet, all because of the sequester cuts Washington forced on itself when it failed to rein in the exploding national deficit. Called the Air Force Space Surveillance System, it’s “critical” to defense, the Air Force has said. By October 1, they’ll have to pull the plug.”

Apparently the extraterrestrial threats include about 1,000 asteroids large enough to “potentially unleash global catastrophic devastation to the planet upon impact.”

Kind of a big deal, yes? this bit of asteroid news you probably shouldn’t expect much of a reaction from our elected officials. Last spring, when one asteroid actually did hit earth and one closely missed us on the same day, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) asked NASA chief Charles Bolden what NASA would do if a large asteroid was expected to collide with earth in three weeks.

“The answer to you is, ‘if it’s coming in three weeks, pray.’ The reason I can’t do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put it off.”

So break out the space suits, America, and give Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck a heads up. Looks like we’re on our own again.



Join the Asteroids Club: Possibly too true to be funny

asteroids social media cartoon

Cartoon courtesy of XKCD.com

Learn about our Asteroids Club season online HERE.



Robert Putnam: “The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem.”

Robert Putnam, in the New York Times:

‘As successive graduating P.C.H.S. classes entered an ever worsening local economy, the social fabric of the 1950s and 1960s was gradually shredded. Juvenile-delinquency rates began to skyrocket in the 1980s and were triple the national average by 2010. Not surprisingly, given falling wages and loosening norms, single-parent households in Ottawa County doubled from 10 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2010, while the divorce rate more than quadrupled. In Port Clinton itself, the epicenter of the local economic collapse in the 1980s, the rate of births out of wedlock quadrupled between 1978 and 1990, topping out at about 40 percent, nearly twice the race-adjusted national average (itself rising rapidly).’

‘…The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” ‘

Read the whole article online HERE.

Check out our upcoming program looking at rising inequality HERE. And you can check out the whole dinner season HERE.



“Plutocrats:” America’s egalitarian roots

From Chrystia Freeland’s “Plutocrats:”

‘The master and his apprentice worked side by side. The latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions. When these apprentices rose to be masters there was little or no change in their way of life. There was, substantially, social equality – and even political equality – for those engaged in industrial pursuits had little or no voice in the state. Before the industrial revolution, we were all pretty equal. But that changed with the first gilded age.

‘ “Today,” according to Andrew Carnegie, “we assemble thousands of operatives in the factory and in the mine of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom he is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid castes are formed and as usual mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust.

‘That shift was particularly profound in America, one reason that even today the national mythology doesn’t entirely accept the existence of those rigid castes of industrial society.’



TED.com: Jonathan Haidt’s “How common threats can make common (political) ground”



Jon Meachem on a little secret we stumbled upon

“[President Thomas Jefferson] used the table – the art of cuisine, of entertaining… those Virginia rites of hospitality that he grew up with – to move opinion in his direction. It doesn’t mean that it created a bipartisan Valhalla. But life is lived on the margins in politics and every once in a while, when you need a vote – you’re more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from someone with whom you’ve broken bread and who knows what your eyes look like and what your voice sounds like than you are from some distant remote figure.” – Jon Meachem, author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”



Why the Village Square will be hosting an “Asteroids Club”

Since the beginning of our organization six years ago, we have been in endless pursuit of the best ways to draw people together in meaningful, real and civil conversation. We’ve had great success. Our Dinner at the Square series is almost always sold out, drawing about 175 people every time. Take-out Tuesday programs, including our hyperlocal forum Our Town have been standing-room only. And Faith, Food, Friday has been a unique (and we think profound) addition to our community fabric that we’re really proud to be associated with.

But there has always been something missing – a forum that grabs a hold of intractable challenging issues that are the source of enduring divisiveness and makes real progress on the issue. That challenge has truly flummoxed us. It’s a hard thing to do without making civility a casualty of the effort. Enter The Asteroids Club, a concept I first heard of after Jon Haidt and Steve Seibert were in the same car together for six hours (imagine a brew of deep and out-of-the-box thinking that gets so electric that it’s virtually pinging off the car doors).

The Asteroids Club has all the trappings of the things we know already works: People engaging who are politically diverse but have an existing and enduring relationships, a few rules that keep the forum safe for disagreement, breaking bread together and a commitment to not taking things too seriously – to laugh whenever possible.

But it adds critical concepts that we have since learned, largely through our study of Jon’s work (oh ok, our groupie-like devotion to his work) confirmed 100% by the direct experiences with the challenges we’ve faced. The Asteroids Club speaks to the intuitive “elephant” that is the source of the vast majority of human decision-making rather than the rational “rider” who functions more like the elephant’s press secretary, offering post-hoc rationalizations rather than true objective reasoning. Almost every forum that ever existed invites riders, not elephants. The Asteroids Club makes its central theme the reciprocity that is one of the lovely aspects of basic human nature – “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.” Finally, the concept clearly expresses that ultimately it is common threat more than common ground that really brings human beings together. And boy do we have real common threats.

We’re so excited about the Asteroids Club, we told Jon we’d help it come to fruition. You can find our first Asteroids Club event online here. You can even use our user-editable We the Wiki website to easily create a webpage for your own public Asteroids Club event. Find directions for creating your event page at the bottom of this page. Feel free to call us and we’ll help you set up your page inside 15 minutes! Find us at (850) 264-8785 or asteroidsclub@tothevillagesquare.org.



Common Threats? We have them.

It’s really a curious state of affairs that we seem to be so incapable of finding common ground in today’s divisive political slugfest. The uber-partisans remind me a lot of two toddlers fighting intensely over possession of a plastic toy as their tussling moves them ever closer to a busy roadway. No matter how oblivious they are to it, that busy roadway exists and the cars are whizzing by. The toddlers are not really attending to the higher priority problem because of how intent they are about the toy. And these two young lads (let’s face it, they’re probably boys) factually have incredible common ground, their fate is likely the same and may even rest in each others’ hands. Ironic since they haven’t the vaguest idea this is true, trapped as they are in their zero sum game of winning that darn toy. And their failure to see it may well seal their fate.

I make the comparison not just because after spending six years trying to heal the partisan divide, it makes me feel good to call partisan leadership children (and it does make me feel really good). The comparison works because boy do we have real problems, enduring problems, problems that are growing bigger by the day, problems we are applying precious little sustained effort to solve. Like the poor unsuspecting kiddos near the highway, we’re too busy attending to the transient and intense squabble.

The other dynamic is that we’re spending all our time talking – at an ever-increasing decibel level – about the common threat that we see, while threat warnings that come from the opposite side of the aisle barely register as a blip. It’s time to harness “the power of and” – a concept we broke out early on when we noticed the either-or thinking run amok. Both threats can be – and probably are – true. When about 50% of a society it deeply concerned about a coming threat, isn’t it worth our time to at least really listen?

Enter The Asteroid Club, a concept we’re finding genius. America’s looming problems may as well be asteroids, as they are hurtling at us through time, heading straight toward an impact that looks certain to about half of us on planet earth. Pick your asteroid, whether it’s climate change, entitlement spending affecting the deficit and financial stability, the growing divide between rich and poor, or the dissolution of the family. There is substantial data to suggest that each (probably among others) is a legitimate asteroid and they’re heading our way.

Our common threats IS our common ground. And we’d better get busy noticing the asteroids. At the Village Square, we’re going to.

— Liz Joyner



Giving new meaning to the old adage “the elephant in the room”

Six years ago a group of liberal and conservative Tallahassee leaders – who somehow enjoyed enduring across-the-aisle friendships despite enduring political disagreement – started an audacious civic experiment. They were frustrated by the divisiveness of the political dialogue nationally and its increasingly negative impact on local decision-making. And they were nervy enough to think they could fix it.

“The experiment” is now called The Village Square, named after Albert Einstein’s reflection on America’s first nuclear energy debate: “To the village square, we must carry the facts… from there must come America’s voice.”

In the good company of Mr. Einstein, we were doing some Grade A wishful thinking when we decided to elevate facts as central to our mission. Facts, after all (and especially in the internet age), are ripe for motivated cherry picking and human beings are nothing if not motivated cherry pickers.

Using the central metaphor in Civil Politics’ founder Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, with a founding charter on facts, The Village Square had decided to talk to “riders” on their “elephants.”

Jon writes:

“The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant… The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

An encyclopedic volume of facts can drive any particular complex issue – hard for mere mortals (with children, bosses and a mortgage) to absorb. So instead, people make decisions intuitively (and based on others around them), then settle on a set of “facts” that support the decision they’ve already made. “The Righteous Mind” offers overwhelming scientific support for the driving force of “post-hoc” rationalization in our mental processes.

I now suspect our original conservative and liberal friends were unconsciously deluding ourselves that The Village Square would convince our wayward friends on the opposite side of the aisle of the ultimate correctness of our own political views. That didn’t happen.

Instead, in the process of rolling up our sleeves together in common work, we had accidentally put ourselves in the company of a very different group of elephants than our usual herd. That is what has changed everything – including (ironically) allowing us to be naturally affected by a broader range of facts.

Now when our “elephants” lean in the direction our minds choose instinctively – we choose a different direction than we might have without these new and unique relationships. Using Jon Haidt’s construct, in the process of aiming our efforts at what doesn’t work – talking to the rider – The Village Square stumbled on what does work: We changed the path of the elephant.

Jon on Bill Moyers earlier this month:

“…If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Do we still talk to riders? Sure we do. Riders matter, as servants of the elephant. Riders need good ideas to talk to other people, and try to influence them. But the ingredient essential to our success has always been that we speak to elephants.

More soon on how you get 4 ton pachyderms into a room…

(Photo credit: Cody Simms)



Differences in liberal vs. conservative brain stucture found

A British study released Thursday in Current Biology further supports theories that there far more to political difference than just who we vote for. It’s already been shown that there are differing levels of brain activity in the amygdala and upper brain cortex in liberals and conservatives, but apparently there is also a difference in the size of each part of the brain. Conservatives have more brain mass in their amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex which is associated with managing uncertainty and conflict. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the political bent affected the size of the brain region or if the brain differences started the whole shebang. It continues to be our assertion that it’s understanding where people are coming from – differences in brain and all – that makes all the difference in having a constructive civic dialogue with them. Read all »