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Inspiration for non-violent discourse

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As a member of the Village Square leadership team in Utah, I wanted to post a brief thought on this Martin Luther King holiday.

In December I came across a fascinating editorial about A.J. Muste by David Blankenhorn entitled “The life of A.J. Muste and trying to be a better Christian.” It’s worth reading how this white immigrant became an inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King and how Muste’s life can inspire us to compassionately seek to understand and engage with those who disagree with us.

Here’s just a taste from this article:

Part of Muste’s genius is that he never succumbed to the belief that he spoke [complete] truth and that his opponents spoke [complete] error. He said: “You always assume there is some element of truth in the position of the other person, and you respect your opponent for hanging on to an idea as long as he believes it to be true. On the other hand, you must try very hard to see what truth actually does exist in his idea, and seize on it to make him realize what you consider to be a larger truth.”

Jay Griffith
Village Square Salt Lake City, Team Member



Civil Politics is talking about Tuesday night’s dinner in Tallahassee

From Civil Politics:

One of the most general and robust findings in social psychology is the power of situations to shape behavior. For example, if you are in a situation where you are competing with others, you will tend to dislike them, whereas when you are cooperating with them, you will tend to like them. This is relatively intuitive, yet we often fail to appreciate this in practice, and then we end up amazed when arbitrary groups put in competition end up in deep conflict. If artificially created competitions can inflame divisions (e.g. sports fandom usually pits very similar people against each other), perhaps we can also manufacture cooperation to reduce division.

Read the whole post here.



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)