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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.  

“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!

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

Police-Community Relations in Salt Lake City: A Dialogue Report-out

On Monday, January 11th, nearly 50 people gathered at the University of Utah’s Neighborhood Partners-Hartland Center on the west side of Salt Lake City to explore police/community relations in the community.

IMG_20160111_190433642Alongside 6 members of the Salt Lake City police force, there were 41 community members – 88% of whom were non-white.  At least 10 nationalities were represented in the room – including participants from Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Burma, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Republic of Congo.  The group also included three leaders of Village Square, Utah – Ross Collier, Casherie Bright and myself, Jacob Hess – alongside our wonderful community partner from Utah Humanities, Jodi Graham.

Salt Lake City Chief of Police Mike Brown attended, with a deputy officer and a number of other people on the squad, including a victim’s advocate. Dr. David Parker, head of a community advisory group for the department also participated – with Dr. David Derezotes, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Utah, acting as moderator.  Dr. Dave invited Village Square Utah to partner with them in this event – and help spread the word about it to the local community.

During the first part as people were arriving, participants mingled over brownies, cookies and chips (for the wicked among us) and fruit (for the righteous).  After everyone was seated, Dr. David invited everyone to introduce themselves briefly, with the police guests asked to tell us “what they would first buy after winning the lottery.”  David then began by asking the police representatives to comment on some questions of particular interest in the audience (which included social work students at the U) – domestic violence and child abuse laws.  IMG_20160111_190648271

In an audience that also included many refugees and immigrants, one of the predominant themes across the conversation was a fear of the community members at the consequences of interacting with police.  Two different fathers expressed concern, given significant cultural differences, that their children would call authorities simply because parents were not giving them everything they wanted (fearful of an over-reactive arrest).  Police representatives detailed what arrest was – and clarified that not anything led to an arrest.  Even so, the fear was still quite palpable.  One man said, “even if I have a problem, I’m not sure I want to go to police, because I’m worried they will misunderstand and I will get in trouble.”

Having moved recently from Pennsylvania, Dr. Parker acknowledged differences in Utah laws – and how it made him nervous not to understand them:  “I understand 99% of rules and still feel new. Thinking of many of you here, if I didn’t know the rules, I would be nervous.”  He asked the group, “How can people better learn the rules?”

This prompted some productive conversation and quite a bit of laughter as different participants shared scenarios from their families – and one African woman telling one of the police officers, “you are under arrest!”

Several people spoke of creating opportunities (like that evening’s conversation) to cultivate relationships where people were not intimidated – what one man described as “something besides just police and community.”  David Parker illustrated by describing the turkey bowl they do every Thanksgiving – bringing together community and police in one part of Salt Lake City.

The police chief, Mike Brown, acknowledged that even while police vehicles and technology had progressed in leaps and bounds over recent decades, they hadn’t seem the same growth in community relations:  “we haven’t done a good enough job investing in the community.  The [police-community] trust is flat with Caucasian – and has dropped with minority groups.”

Brown added, “there are two things police hate: change and the way things are.”  He went on to say that for a group that is required to respond almost immediately to very high conflict situations, it’s true they can get rigid.  He admitted that police sometimes can act like, “warriors in the community instead of guardians.”

He also spoke of a training in Washington D.C. that made it very clear how much we all operate out of biases: “I’ve got my biases – and we all do.  The important thing is being aware of them.”

Although the conversation stretched beyond the allotted 90 minutes, we only scratched the surface.  There were more questions than we had time to address.

One participant commented after the conversation that she was “bothered by no mention of local police tragedies” and talk that only mentioned other locations like Ferguson, “rather than acknowledging that harm has happened here and the steps the force is taking to prevent and reprimand abuse of power.”  She also hoped to see more discussion about a “legitimate community fear of police and how to systematically improve” as well as conversation about “how to help community feel safer and actual crime rates, community policing, etc.”

While appreciating the police chief’s humility, I was also curious about whether they got frustrated in today’s media environment where very often the police are unilaterally portrayed as “the bad guy.”  Although some of the changes to police tactics have been hailed for improved safety, I wanted to ask the squad whether they perceived some of the changes happening across the nation as making communities less safe (e.g., police fearful to engage – in a way that encourages crime).  [My gut tells me that both are happening – good changes that are improving safety, alongside other changes that might have an ironic effect…curious at others’ perceptions?]

Despite innate limitations, there were definite positives about even just the evening’s simple conversation.  David Parker concluded with a hope that “everyone leaves today with slightly different attitude about everyone in the room – including those who are always wearing a different color” (motioning over to the blue-clad law enforcement officers in the room).

The evening ended with Chief Burbank gave out his phone number to everyone in the room.

If you’d like to support involved in more of these conversations in the future, contact us or add your thoughts in the comments below. This is not just a one-time event – but something Dr. David(s) hope will be a continuing and unfolding process over the months ahead.  To find out more – contact David Derezotes at David.Derezotes@socwk.utah.edu or David Parker at d4avid@gmail.com

If you’d like to do something sooner than later, there’s no need to wait!  Here is some guidance on conversation you can do in your own neighborhood and home.

Honoring a Founding Mother of American’s Dialogue Renaissance

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco

Twenty seven years ago, after watching a televised debate evolve from “disrespectful to angry to chaotic,” Laura Chasin asked a brilliant question.  Posed to her family therapist colleagues at the Family Institute of Cambridge, Laura asked in essence:  “Could the same methods that help families have safe, constructive conversations in counseling sessions also help people talk with each other in situations where there are deep differences in identity, beliefs, and values?”


Drawing on the wisdom generated in years of therapy practice, Laura founded the Public Conversations Project in 1989 – a creative effort to foster “constructive conversation where there is conflict driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values.”

It was only a few years later, in 1994, that two murders occurred outside of Boston area abortion clinics.  At the request of Massachusetts governor, Laura joined Susan Podziba to bring together pro-choice and pro-life leaders for confidential conversations.  Originally planned for a handful of meetings over a short time, these secret talks ended up lasting six years and 150 hours of meetings. Although these leaders remained “firmly committed to their stance on abortion,” the respect, understanding and friendships that formed led to each side taking action to “reduce the violence in the rhetoric used by their organizations and to protect against recurring violence.” A 2001 feature on the project in the Boston Globe called “Talking with the Enemy“received thousands of letters and emails from around the world expressing support and hope because of their efforts.

As Parisa Parsa described her, Laura moved “bravely into uncharted territories with a unique curiosity about every person she met” – evincing a “generosity of spirit and true grace” which “opened up space for the minds and hearts of others in any gathering.” Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation called “a pillar of the dialogue & deliberation field.”

Laura passed away unexpectedly last week, Tuesday November 17th.

As cited in PCP’s original announcement, Laura was graduate of Bryn Mawr College, with masters degrees in Government from Harvard and social work from Simmons College, Laura’s interests spanned political science, social work, psychodrama, family systems therapy, dialogue, and transpartisanship.  In later years, Laura completed extensive post-graduate training in marital and family therapy in conjunction with a private psychotherapy practice.

Over the years, Laura has led Public Conversations to become a national leader in facilitated dialogue on a wide range of divisive issues, including same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion, diversity, guns, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  PCP has worked on dozens of issues on four continents – and even extending its teaching into the virtual world. They have received awards by the New York State Mediators Association, the American Association of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, the American Family Therapy Association, and the American Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution. Recently, Laura and her husband Dick were honored by the New York State Dispute Resolution Association.

In the field of dialogue and deliberation, Laura is widely known and deeply respected for a foundational guide to dialogue that she produced with Founding Associate Maggie Herzig, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from The Public Conversations Project.

Laura previously served on the boards of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Spelman College. She has also served on the boards of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Conflict Management Group, and the Institute for Faith and Politics, and on the steering committee of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. Deeply passionate about the transpartisan movement, Laura also worked closely with No Labels and other organizations that encourage collaboration across the aisle.

Since first encountering Public Conversations Project myself at a National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation event nearly ten years ago, I have been inspired and motived by their work. Seven years ago, Laura offered specific encouragement to me in my interest bringing together people across secular and spiritual divides. Public Conversations Project has been a friend and supporter of our work at Living Room Conversations as well.

And just two months ago, Phil Neisser and I were invited to participate in Public Conversations’ annual celebration of dialogue called “Nourish”.  Prior to the event, I received a note from Laura, “Now that I have both your emails, the prospect of seeing you both tomorrow has become delightfully real. I took advantage of my role to seat myself right in the middle of you for dinner so we can have had some conversation before we need to appear before the group.”

In addition to inspiring us, Laura loved us truly.  In a day when many individuals who make little to no contribution to the world are showcased in death, a peace-making giant such as Laura Chasin should be truly celebrated.  This woman, as Parisa summarized, “lived with a vision of transforming fractured relationships, communities, and politics through the intentional, careful work of communication.”


May our fractured, wounded, divided society take a deep breathe today, and take away a little hope from the astounding example of Laura Chasin.

Author – Jacob Hess, Living Room Conversations Partner, Director, Village Square Salt Lake City. 

World Congress of Families as an Opportunity for Dialogue

by: Jacob Hess, Living Room Conversations & Kendall Wilcox, Empathy First Initiative. 

To those who support the World Congress of Families as it arrives in  Salt Lake City, Utah next week, it may seem strange and even malicious to witness such relentless opposition to the conference.  And to those who find the messages promoted by the World Congress of Families to be hostile, any pushback from WCF supporters may seem callous and threatening to their very existence.

Although legitimate concerns have been raised by all sides, the atmosphere has come to  resemble more of a political campaign than a constructive conversation, with offensive and defensive maneuvers – and exceedingly scarce levels of curiosity and inquiry.    

As two friends who hold different views on the World Congress of Families, we share a strong belief that the WCF in Salt Lake City could be a great opportunity to have meaningful, productive conversations about significant things that get lost in the rancor – even seemingly simple questions such as, ‘What does it actually mean to be anti-gay?’   

We often use this term and other similar words (“bigoted” or “hateful”) as if we all have a common understanding of what they mean. As illustrated by the WCF debate, clearly this is not the case – with very different meanings of “anti-gay” and “hate” at play.

If that’s true, it might be helpful to map out the various ways these words are being used.  In partnership with Living Room Conversations and various members of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, we are finalizing this fall a Red Blue Dictionary in time for the 2016 Presidential Election season that will help clarify these kinds of different meanings across many contested words.

In the case of “anti-gay,” the word is most commonly used to describe anything that condemns or critiques homosexuality.  For instance, one commentator recently stated: “Let’s just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”

By contrast, one gay journalist, Brandon Ambrosino, wrote in response, “I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay.” He went on to quote another gay colleague who said, “if it’s ‘anti-gay’ to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word ‘homophobic’ is exhausted on…polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them?”  

We think that’s an important question – especially in light of a tendency (on both sides) to over-apply hot-button words like “hateful” or “perverted.”  Gay journalist Jonathan Rausch has similarly cautioned about, “throwing around charges of bigotry promiscuously.”  

By contrast, a more bounded sense of the word “anti-gay” emphasizes the presence of tangible animus or hostility. From this vantage point, someone might disagree about gay marriage and other aspects of gay rights without being anti-gay.  

But is that fair?  Many object to this narrowing of the term ‘anti-gay’ – seeing any opposition or questioning of gay rights as an inherent expression of hostility.  As they put it, ‘how would you feel if someone questioned the legitimacy of your family and opposed your civil right to legal recognition of your most intimate relationship?’  

Supporters of WCF, of course, would describe their efforts quite differently – describing the desire and effort to share a message about man-woman marriage as an innate expression of faith – one that can and should be done without overt hostility toward the LGBT community.

This can be difficult to believe for those in the LGBT community who experience the term “natural family” as inherently prejudicial toward their lives and families.  From this place, it’s not hard to understand why they view efforts to share this message around the world as harmful.  

So what to do at such an impasse?  Call us crazy – but we still have a thing for serious listening – like we recently did by co-hosting a Living Room Conversation earlier this summer.

It wasn’t easy.  But it totally beats the alternative!  Chronic resentment sucks the life out of so many of us.  By sitting with the embodiment of ideas that make-us-mad, by encountering that very person face to face and hearing their truth (and sharing our own), we are together pressed in more productive directions, such as exploring questions like:  

  • What are the appropriate cautions to take when ‘pro-traditional marriage’ groups are involved in parts of the world where violence against the gay community is common?  
  • To what degree (or not) might the gay community more proactively support the freedom of religious conservatives to disagree with them?  
  • Is there any common ground between liberal and conservative groups on limits to free speech – or on criteria of “hate speech” that we can all accept?  

Our purpose here is not to resolve or settle these big questions – and certainly not to settle once and for all the “true meaning” of a given term like “anti-gay.”  

But we do believe these kinds of questions deserve our attention and our best thinking.  If a reasonable conversation with ‘the other side’ feels impossible, then we throw out this challenge – using the World Congress of Families as a starting point.  

For those in support of the World Congress of Families, stretch your willingness to seek understanding by spending some time reading this account of how gay individuals were brutalized by a community, while asking yourself, “is there anything here that helps me better understand the gay community’s concerns?”

And for those concerned about the World Congress of Families, stretch your own willingness to seek understanding by reading the WCF’s own responses to what they experience as unfair and exaggerated critiques, while asking yourself, “is there anything here that helps me better understand where they are coming from?”     

Then when you run into that person on the other side, you’ll be ready.  Not with talking points…but with honest questions:  “Hey – can you help me understand…”

We’ll be rooting for you!   


Jacob Hess is a liberal-loving conservative guy – proud to be a partner of Living Room Conversations and enjoying the opportunity to direct Village Square, Salt Lake City.  He co-facilitated the nation’s first college course on liberal-conservative dialogue at the University of Illinois – publishing research on class outcomes and the larger contrast in socio-political narratives. He later co-authored You’re Not As Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) with Phil Neisser and a discourse analysis on romance entitled, Once Upon a Time, He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore. Coming out of recent dialogue work with Tracy Hollister and other colleagues at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, Jacob is currently launching a blog to help promote more understanding between religious conservatives and the gay community.  

Kendall Wilcox is a gay Mormon filmmaker who once produced media content for the World Congress of Families and is currently producing the documentary Far Between about what it means to be LGBTQI/SSA and Mormon as well as the upcoming documentary The Kitchen Case: Utah’s Battle Over Same Sex Marriage. Kendall has helped create several platforms for dialogue along the divisive issue of sexual orientation and the Mormon Church with such efforts as the Empathy First Initiative, Mormons Building Bridges, Circles of Empathy, and the ongoing partnership with the Utah Pride Center called Utah LGBTQ Stories. Kendall is also a co-organizer of the Utah Commission on LGBT Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Kendall will be attending the WCF, inviting fellow attendees to engage in dialogue and will be live-tweeting the experience.

Jonathan Haidt on why we should “think asteroids”

When Dr. Haidt was in Florida this month, he spoke at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at University of Florida. They did this videotaped interview that features an important concept he shared with us: if we want to succeed in these conversations, we need to think common threats more than common ground. We need to think asteroids.

Mary Ann Lindley: “Americana at its most beguiling”

Tallahassee Democrat: “A story so bizarre it’s got to be true,” is the billing given for this Tuesday’s Florida Recount Reunion that The Village Square is hosting downtown. It’s been — how could it be? — a full decade since that historically indecisive presidential election brought the world to our feet here in the Florida capital. Quite literally, for 37 days, the foot of the Capitol and Supreme Court building on Duval Street took on the appearance of a camp site with breezy white tents shielding camera equipment and TV Read all »

Restoring Sanity Rally Signage

One of the pre-made signs Jon Stewart is suggesting for his “Restoring Sanity” rally…

Liz Joyner: “600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs” (and still we’re uninformed)

monkees 3

Fresh from one of my unique moments of agreement with Glenn Beck yesterday as he riffed righteously on the unmitigated hypocrisy of Senate Democrats, I tuned into Rachel Maddow who was riffing righteously on the unmitigated hypocrisy of Senate Republicans.

They were both completely right.

Or completely half-right. Which makes them both completely wrong.

Beck gigged Democrats who are wailing about the Republicans’ use of the filibuster threat to kill health care when just a few short years ago there was talk of the “tyranny” of the Republican majority wanting to stop a Democratic minority’s right to filibuster.

Maddow set her sights on the Republicans who were arguing for the procedural validity of reconciliation during the Bush administration when they were kings of the hill, now squawking like stuck pigs as the Democrats may use it too.

So half the TV watching audience was treated to the half of reality they liked, other half of the story be darned.

Roger Cohen shed light on the dynamic at work in The New York Times as he described a societal rise of narcissism:

Community – a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions – has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.

These trends are common to all globalized modern democracies, ranging from those that prize individualism, like the United States, to those, like France, where social solidarity is a paramount value.

Beck and Maddow are simply different choices in our national -la-carte life, and as we pick out what we love to eat, we seem to not recognize we’re eating ourselves to death.

Are we really an America with so little moral compass that we don’t give a flip about staggering acts of hypocrisy unless it’s a staggering act of hypocrisy by someone we dislike?

In their moments of slightly higher statesmanship, Republicans argue that a 51% majority shouldn’t get 100% of what they want and that our system was structured around minority rights. When Democrats are cogent, they argue that a minority shouldn’t essentially have the power to stop all governance by procedural foot-dragging.

Of course, they’re both correct.

The piece they are both missing is where our system demands that they step outside their neat and self-righteous hermetically sealed realities and deal with each other. I mean roll up the ole sleeves and really get in there and work out solutions.

Cohen agrees normal human contact is in short supply, as he recalled a recent stint of jury duty:

Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.

There’s only one way this is going to turn out well for us as a country and it will be if we willingly walk away from our self congratulatory self-absorption and feel similarly obliged in our political life to work our our differences in order to get the job done. And we’re going to have to expect our elected representatives to do the same, or we should fire them.

The alternative, according to Cohen: “Or we can turn away from each other and, like Narcissus, perish in the contemplation of our own reflections.”

Yesterday Obama and the Republicans met on health care, but I haven’t quite had the courage to turn on the television to see how it turned out.

Should I?
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of The Village Square. You can contact her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

(Photo credit)

Why the Village Square and Glenn Beck have just about everything and absolutely nothing in common

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By Liz Joyner

Perhaps you didn’t know that Glenn Beck is a big fat copy cat and he’s copying me.

I wrote the essay The Square to launch The Village Square more than 3 years before Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project. In it, like Beck, we harkened back to the days after 9/11 as something we might want to emulate.

Like Beck, we have built our concept on the guiding wisdom (and sometimes the manners advice) of our founding fathers.

Finally, we’ve both launched (or in my case am trying to launch) populist movements, although I have to admit that our event attendance (and my salary) is just a wee bit lower than Beck’s. But we both seem to believe in the power of the common man, of “We the People.” (We even have a project called We the People that got us a Knight Foundation grant.)

We’re practically twins!

Except I believe Glenn Beck is currently one of the people most responsible for breaking down civil and civic discourse that The Village Square has been working to restore.

Unlike many others who agree with me about the damage that Beck is doing, I watch Beck’s show and listen to him on the radio. It has led me to some stunning head-exploding moments of weirdness where I agree so fully with an isolated statement he makes or even his basic premise, but his conclusion leads me to wail in abject agony on the floor (literally). People regularly ask me why I am torturing myself.

I do it for you.

So, humbly presented for your consideration is everything I’ve learned about Glenn Beck (and The Village Square):

1. Glenn Beck isn’t always wrong. There are parts of his perspective that would make a constructive contribution to our public debate. (The Village Square isn’t always right.)

2. People I really love really like Glenn Beck. (Weird, but true.)

3. Glenn Beck is smack in the middle of The Big Sort – the grouping of like-minded people resulting in group think to the point of denying factual reality. He needs a good friend or two who thinks his philosophy is nutty and will tell him so, forcing him to moderate just a bit. (Half of The Village Square board thinks the other half is nutty and vice versa.)

4. Glenn Beck’s show is a manifestation of many of the things wrong with our society, both sides of the aisle. We’ve gotten lazy physically and mentally and when we turn on the TV we want drama, intrigue, and self righteous fury all inside of a warm bubble bath of agreement. The show gives us what we’re asking for and don’t be all smug if you’re on the other side of the partisan fury cause you’re asking for it too*. (The Village Square seeks out disagreement as being a fundamental building-block of good decision making and democracy as our founders intended. We should note here that far fewer people are asking for this.)

5. Glenn Beck’s thinking is sloppy. Facts presented, when they are actually factual, lead inevitably to the conclusion he intended to draw from the very beginning. Facts that don’t support his view are simply disregarded. (The Village Square sees good facts as fundamental to drawing good conclusions. Sloppy thinking inevitably leads to bad results as the chickens of the factual distortion come home to roost and your action simply misses the mark…or far worse. Squawk. Squawk.)

6. Glenn Beck’s face is next to a definition of cherry-picking in the dictionary. Sometime he has to throw out half of a whole sentence to make his case because the other half a sentence blows it out of the water. (The Village Square so abhors cherry picking we draw dinner door prizes out of a bowl of 200 numbered cherries to make the point.)

7. Glenn Beck’s show is an emotion looking for facts to support it. (Our primary emotion is abject horror and despair at the quality of the civic dialogue.)

8. We need to remember that it’s not Glenn Beck’s job to govern. He’s even performed the public service of repeatedly reminding us of that, but we seem to not be listening. (OK, so it’s not The Village Square’s job to govern either.)

9. Glenn Beck needs to put down his Swami hat because he cannot read minds or infer intentions from the evil “they” he’s always, well, reading the minds and inferring the intentions of. (The Village Square doesn’t have enough money in the budget for a Swami hat.)

10. Glenn Beck plays a major role in the ramping up of the partisan fury in our national dialog. His nearly day long overreaction every day provokes an equal overreaction on the other side of the aisle against him and a spiraling cycle that may lead – and has led – to a lot of things that are very bad for our country. (Alas, The Village Square doesn’t play a major role in anything nationally. Really people, what is wrong with you?)

11. Glenn Beck seems to be serving an audience who doesn’t even want to hear the other side of the argument thank-you-very-much. By comparison, I might add, the Fox News rubric is to find someone who can make the very weakest case liberals have therefore torpedoing the liberal argument altogether. Icing on the cake if they’re ugly. (The Village Square‘s specifically finds the best argument from each side of the aisle because we want to – uh – solve the problem?)

12. Among a certain percentage of the American population, Beck’s antics are absolutely poisoning the cogent conservative argument that needs to be made YESTERDAY in order to competently solve the current mess we’re in. (Uh, has anyone noticed what Democrats do when they’re all on their own?) While conservatives may get a short term bump from the momentum he creates, it’s like using LSD to study for an exam… not a good long term strategy.

13. While we’re on drug analogies, Glenn Beck sells cocaine masquerading as cod liver oil. (The Village Square sells cod liver oil with a bit of a candy coating to help it go down a smidge better.)

14. I believe that the success of shows like Glenn Beck too often plays to the worst in human nature. (We go for the best, although we understand that the worst is there.)

Given the obvious advantages to our approach over Mr. Beck’s to the business of running a country, I’ve been sitting by the phone waiting for a major network to offer The Village Square our own hour and planning what schtick I can use to replace the blackboard and the red phone.

America’s got a choice to make. My hope springs eternal.

Stay tuned next week to our companion blog post: “Why The Village Square and Keith Olbermann have everything and absolutely nothing in common.”

Steven Pearlstein: The myth of Washington bipartisanship and the art of true compromise

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

The only way a democratic system like ours can work is if the majority party acknowledges that winning an election means winning the right to set the agenda and put the first proposal on the table, though not the right to get everything it wants. By the same logic, if members of the minority party want to influence that policy, they have to understand that it will require them to accept some things they don’t like to get some things they do.

All this is rather elementary stuff, but trust me when I say that until recently, you’d have trouble finding anyone who seemed to understand it. For years, the reigning philosophy from both sides has been “It’s our way or the highway.” It has reached the point where people don’t know how to hammer out a compromise even when they might be so inclined, as we saw during the charade put on by the “gang of six” trying to negotiate a health-care compromise in the Senate. That dynamic is unlikely to change until the voters get so disgusted that they are willing to indiscriminately turn out all incumbents, irrespective of party and ideology. Perhaps we have finally reached that tipping point.