During the nation’s first liberal-conservative dialogue course for undergraduates, one observation stood out in our evaluation:  some students appeared to be simply unable to grasp or comprehend that people could disagree with them and still be rational. The level of absolute certainty about their own understanding seemed so great that someone else’s deviating from their own interpretation was almost too much, too hard to swallow…In turn, this sub-set of students really could not grasp the point of dialogue.  After all, if you already know it all (or know it perfectly), why would you ever need to hear out anyone else?

This core insight has prompted plans around two ideas – both in development for release this fall, both aiming to help ‘pave the way’ for more dialogue readiness:

(1) Top Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree about X (or Y or Z).  This series of documents will aggregate and present key questions about which people disagree on a particular topic (e.g., same sex relationships, immigration, policing, climate change, vaccination, etc.  The intention will be to ‘map out’ in a fair and simple way the key questions about which significant socio-political disagreement exists – and tracking the basic positions that are then taken.

In all the heat surrounding some of these ideas, the truth is that it can become exceedingly difficult to discern what the actual disagreements are (vs. perceived differences) –  just as it can be challenging to grasp what positions your political opposites are actually taking (vs. mere soundbites or stereotyped sketches of those positions). That lack of clarity is precisely what these targeted lists will be targeting.  Accompanying these documents will be a parallel series of Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Agree about X (or Y or Z).   If you’d like to suggest a topic or get involved in either of these writing and development projects, send us a note!  And stay tuned…

(2) Red Blue Dictionary.  This idea has been separately conceived of by different dialogue leaders over the last decade.  With a diverse team of 15 other dialogue experts, we’re finally coming together to make it happen (wihoo!) Our goal is to have a draft ready by fall of 2015.  Excerpts from the introduction are provided below.  (Special thanks to Living Room Conversations for providing the funds to make this writing project happen so far.  If you’d like to support this project in some way, let Jacob know at jacob@old.utah.tothevillagesquare.org).

Excerpts from Introduction:  

In a statistical comparison of citizens from twelve countries, only 23% of Americans report having regular conversations with people who disagree with them politically – the least of any country surveyed.[1]

Reasons for avoidance are diverse – from the fear of hurting feelings to the ‘better options’ everywhere we look (how can you beat WWF mud-wrestling?) Others have concluded that they simply already know the answers: ‘Why would you want to talk to someone who is doesn’t get it?’ 

And so we hang out with the people who are right (read: think like us):  Socializing with them, worshipping with them, reading books by them and receiving awards from them. Increasingly, we’re even deciding to live next to them.[2]

Like the bird species Darwin found divided by a mountain range on the Galapagos Islands, the combination of these isolating conditions over time, may lead to the evolution of increasingly divergent language and customs between socio-political communities. With each passing year, there is less shared understanding, a smaller collective story and bigger gaps in what is meant by the “same” words.

Red Blue Language

In the United States, of course, we often assume “shared language” is a given. After all, don’t we all speak English?!

Well…yes and no! As political segregation widens, the same words continue to be taken up in very different usages and agendas. Over time, these “same” words can come to have remarkably different meanings – from one group to another group and across contexts.

Depending on the diverging meanings of these words, the practical effect on lives, choices and policies can be profound. Thomas Schwandt, the author of a text that partly inspired our own, writes: “We are language beings…we are not the ones in charge of language; language is in charge of us.  How one makes sense of this characteristic of our being human matters a great deal.”[3]

Red Blue Translation

In this book, we explore various meanings of approximately 160 selected words in the U.S. political vocabulary – a collection of terms and phrases that partially shape our understanding of the landscape of American politics as we know it today….

Understanding nuance. Ultimately, we hope to offer a mini-“map” of the different positions on the term.  F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

While in some cases, we name one concept and its critics and proponents (“welfare state”), more often than not, we are highlighting distinct conceptual senses of the same terms – tied to the contrasting evaluations and interpretive frameworks of the opposing parties.

In doing so, our hope is that each entry’s ‘word-map’ opens up a little dialogical space and invites individuals and groups representing different perspectives on a word to consider the nuance of others’ views on the same. Our measure of success will be how well this text and its different entries resonate with a politically diverse audience.

This Red Blue Dictionary may be used in a variety of ways. Individuals may use it as a personal reference in navigating the political waters in the U.S.  Participants in dialogue may also use the dictionary to prepare for a session – helping familiarize themselves with how someone else might use a word. We are hopeful that the text may be useful in high school and college classes for similar reasons.

Wherever it is used, we hope our exploration in a way that stimulates further exploration and dialogue. As Schwandt writes about his dictionary, our aim is to compare interpretations in such a way that further exploration is stimulated and not foreclosed” – inviting continued examination of our political world and investigation of the various assumptions that foreground it. In this way, Schwandt adds, “we are conversation partners with other speakers and with texts, partners engaged in a joint search for meaning.”[1]

Helping us talk. To be sure, words can invoke different and profoundly powerful narratives.  Words can be aggressive and used as power plays  – and send a strong message that a particular view cannot be questioned (‘global warming deniers’).

Words can divide us – separating us into labeled groups with ’one of us/other.’ Equally so, they can also overstate  uniformity. Words can also convey ‘we’re better than you’ – ‘I’m progressive’ or ‘we are the moral majority.’

The solution to these challenges, however, may not be to say ‘don’t use this word or that’ – an approach that too often invokes fear, sensitivity and defensiveness.  Alternatively, by bringing more awareness to how exactly terms are being various used, we are better able to move through, explore and go into words:  “what does this mean for you?  What is the impact of that word for you?  How can we use this term to better understand and communicate?  If I cannot use that term, what is a more helpful one?  Synonyms anyone? ”

The purpose, then, of drawing more thoughtful attention to various meanings of words is not to walk on egg-shells and give people additional worry about “offending for a word”[1] – but instead, providing vocabulary definitions that help translate between different communities.

We often highlight at the end of an entry, different illustrations of dialogue taking place between proponents of various viewpoints on the term.  We do so as a way to offer interested readers examples of productive exploration between those holding different views and to reflect the purposes for which we offer this exploration of meaning ourselves.

In this way, we hope our book acts as a “gateway drug” to the magical world of dialogue. At the very least, it may function as primer to help make people feel empowered to start a conversation. Where and when these conversations are the hardest, perhaps the text may help prepare the ground (and the participants) for a more powerful and transformative experience.

By unsettling the easy assurance that we know enough, perhaps this text will invite a greater openness to engage with more authenticity. At that point, we may come to see these same disagreements in a profoundly different way – not as reasons for fear or concern, but as rich opportunities with regard for various perspectives. As Parker Palmer writes, “how did we forget that our differences are among our most valuable assets.”[2]

[1] Isaiah 29:21, Holy Bible, King James Version.

[2] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 2.

[1] Ibid (p. xxix).


[1] Diana C. Mutz, Hearing the Other Side:  Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort:  Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008).

[3] Thomas Schwandt, Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, (2007, p. xxix).