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Dehumanizing comments like these are canaries in the coal mine of our civic life.

Two New Hampshire Democrats – one elected, one running for election – are in deep kimchi over their posted comments while discussing the death of former Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens in a place crash:

“Well a dead Palin wd be even more dangerous than a live one…she is all about her myth & if she was dead she cldn’t commit any more gaffes,” Horrigan wrote.

Horrigan was commenting on another post by a Democrat running for the state house, party activist Keith David Halloran, who found himself in hot water Wednesday after writing about the crash: “Just wish Sarah and Levy [sic] were on board.”

Any Democrats who think all the incivility flows right to left should reconsider. When you can no longer see people through the lens of humanity, you’re a bridge too far.

Wise words we’d do well to consider

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, on Face the Nation yesterday, said that too many of our political controversies today are a result of “too many Americans looking for excuses to justify their rage.” He explained:

It works because we’re a big country. We’ve got over 300 million people – if you’re an internet site or a cable network and if you set out to find an excuse, some incident to emphasize you can find one in America and run it over and over again It could be a picture at a tea party rally of a single sign or a video that had to do with the new black panthers and it makes it look like it’s a crisis of race when in fact, these are incidents in America. It exaggerates…

Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives

As promised at last night’s dinner. It’s long but well worth the watch, so prop your feet up, grab a cold one and listen up (conservatives hang in, in the long run you’ll get where he’s going.)

We don’t even want to share a green room.

Bob Schieffer’s commentary on yesterday’s Face the Nation:

(CBS) The smart, powerful, sometimes cranky Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee David Obey has announced he is quitting Congress after four decades because he is “bone tired.”

We came to Washington the same year, 1969, and his announcement reminded me what a different world it was back then when Members didn’t go home every weekend to raise money and actually stayed in Washington and got to know one another.

I can remember social occasions back then when Democrats and Republicans who fought by day, actually enjoyed each other’s company after hours.

No more. They say such awful things about each other today, they’re uneasy socializing and generally don’t.

Not long ago, for example, a staffer for a Congressional leader actually asked if we could provide a private waiting room for his boss who was appearing on “Face the Nation” because the boss didn’t want to share a room with someone from the other party.

In the old days when an old warhorse like Obey retired, members of the other party frequently said something nice (if innocuous). But in Obey’s case, the Republican National Committee spokesman took a final shot, saying it was “understandable that the architect of the President’s failed stimulus package has decided to call it quits.”

And Obey managed a parting shot as well & not at Republicans but at his own party, at the Senate his own party controls.

He said one reason he was leaving was he decided there was more to life “than explaining the ridiculous rules of the Senate to angry, frustrated constituents.”

In 1969, a House Member wouldn’t have said that, either – but he might have thought it!

Donald Miller: Five Principles of Civil Dialogue

This is just so good, I can’t think of a single thing to edit out of it. Donald Miller writes on faith issues and he could possibly be a one-person Village Square all by himself: Donald Miller “has appeared at such diverse events as The Democratic National Convention and the Veritas Forum at Harvard.” (For those of you keeping track, this must be credited to (who else but) Internet Surf Queen Lea.)

Back when I was hanging out at Reed College, I was pleased to be in an environment where truth mattered more than ego, or rather where people didn’t associate their identity with their ideas. What I mean is, finding truth was more important than being right. And because finding truth was more important than being right, students were able to learn.

At Reed, discussing a philosophical or even scientific idea around a conference table did not look like a debate. Rather, it looked like a group of students attempting to put together a jig-saw puzzle. If a piece didn’t happen to fit, that was par for the course. You simply set it aside and worked together to make progress.

When we begin to associate our ideas with our identities (I am good because I am right) we lose the ability to be objective. And rather than learning to learn, we simply learn to defend.

To be certain, there are basic truths we must defend, but we don’t defend these ideas from our egos. Dr. Henry Cloud says that truth must go hand in hand with grace in order to be effective. There must be truth, but there must also be acceptance, regardless of whether somebody disagrees. This methodology frees the person to make an objective decision. When we become angry or condescending we take the truth and wrap it in a toxic-candy shell and get frustrated when people don’t like it. Truth wrapped in grace is more easily digested.

So my question is, do you take it personally when somebody disagrees with you? Here are some things I try to remember when engaging in a conversation in which there are differing opinions:

1. Truth is not My Truth, it’s Just Truth: My ideas were not really my invention. Even if I was the first person to consider an idea, it’s still something I stumbled upon. I shouldn’t take it personally when somebody doesn’t agree. They aren’t rejecting me, they are rejecting an idea.

2. Methodology is Part of the Message: When I get defensive and then condescending, what I associate my ideas with an offensive subtext, and that association is very strong to the hearer. Imagine having a conversation with somebody who has terrible breath, standing there and smelling their putrid hot air as they talk. It’s the same with your attitude toward somebody when you’re discussing an idea.

3. Without a Loving Heart, I am Like a Clanging Cymbal: If I don’t genuinely care about the people I’m talking to, I’ll be received like a guy standing there clanging cymbals together. The Bible makes a strong connection between a persons heart and their tongue. We tend to think we talk with our tongues alone, but the Bible says we talk with our tongues and our hearts. Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

4. The Other Person has Sovereignty: Even if I think the other person is completely wrong, they have a right to their beliefs. I can simply state what I believe and do so in kindness and that’s really it. If I’m trying to bully somebody into my way of seeing things, I’m not respecting the sovereignty of the person I am talking with.

5. I Could be Wrong: What we most want from the person we are talking to is for them to see things from our perspective and agree. That being said, though, are you willing to see things from their perspective? If not, try listening to their perspective then repeating it back to them. Ask them if you got it right, and if you did, say you will think about it. Then present your idea, too, and ask them if they understand your position. To be honest, they may not be as open as you, but once the conversation is over, I assure you they will have a new respect for you, and believe me, they will consider your ideas more respectfully. And besides, the truth is they could be right.

Obama does Village Square

President Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan:

… the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes – these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.

But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” – that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a “left-wing nut”?

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what do we do? As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. (Applause.) But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.

Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, ‘Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.

AP: “We’re a national people who increasingly get their information from people who already agree with us.”

… “Facts become fungible. Compromise becomes cowardice.”

Ron Fournier writes:

Charlie Crist’s departure from the Republican Party is not just a Florida story; it’s an American story – a tale of two parties driven by their ideologues, squeezing out moderate candidates, alienating independent voters and isolating the place in U.S. politics where most things get done: the middle…

No matter who wins a three-way race in Florida, the factors that drove Crist from the GOP are a microcosm of broader political and social changes contributing to polarization.

“We have a deadlocked democracy,” said Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and three-time presidential candidate. “Both parties, held hostage by their extremes, are incapable of tackling the issues that threaten this country.”

My Purple Post: A tale of two tea parties, the dangers of two Americas

tea party 4_15_2010Patriotic, salt-of-the-earth. Or misinformed and angry?

On tax day we took our politically diverse Teen Square meeting on a road trip – a few city blocks down the road anyway – to the Tallahassee tea party “We the People” event. We asked this group of every flavor of political orientation and demographic to take a Rorschach test of sorts: What did they see when they looked at the tea party and how might they have seen something different had they brought with them a different set of political opinions to see it through?

We looked for the wholesome family-oriented tea party. We looked for the kooky, angry tea party.

Of course, as you would with any large group of people, we found them both.

Pre-Village-Square, the chance that I would attend a tea party was near zero. I am offended by the characterizations of President Obama. While I relate to fiscal conservatism, I think too many tea partiers have long ago left planet earth in their assessment of our president’s bio and motivations.

But texture disappears in looking at anything from afar while it is immediately apparent when you take a closer look. Had I gone to the event to confirm my bias, it would have been a stretch. This tea party on this day seemed conscious of how they looked to the outside observer, the mood was more picnic than fury, the signs communicated a perspective far more than they offended and even the opinion was more diverse than you’d expect.

Agree or disagree with the politics of the tea party, you have to give it to them on at least one point: It’s hard to argue that we don’t have a national fiscal crisis.

I was approached with literature for a city commission candidate running against a friend of mine. He told me his candidate was giving the liars on the commission hell. I told him that he wasn’t correct that his candidate was running against someone I personally know is honest and honorable. The man sincerely apologized. I hope he at least considered our conversation as he approached the next group of voters. These are the conversations that never happen when we spin entirely in our own ideological circles.

I caught Fox News discussions touting new polling indicating that tea party supporters are, on the average wealthier and more well-educated than the average American.

Then I flipped the channel to MSNBC to hear Lawrence O’Donnell (Keith Olbermann’s stand-in) describe the very same poll:

“A remarkable poll gives us a solid picture of just who the tea party movement is. They are older, they are whiter than America. They earned more money and are better educated. That’s right, they’re the elite, well-off intellectuals of sorts who are out of step with the real America and they are very deeply confused.”

So the national food fight continues, the twisting and contorting of complexity to fit this or that predetermined black and white version of reality. I have a hard time envisioning how this will end in a way that doesn’t truly damage the country we all claim to love. If “We the People” continue to lap it up, maybe we deserve what we get.

As for me, I’m going to keep taking road trips.

Seth Godin: There is no tribe of normal

From Seth Godin’s blog: People don’t coalesce into active and committed tribes around the status quo.

“The only vibrant tribes in our communities are the ones closer the edges, or those trying to make change. The center is large, but it’s not connected.

If you’re trying to build a tribe, a community or a movement, and you want it to be safe and beyond reproach at the same time, you will fail.

Heretical thoughts, delivered in a way that capture the attention of the minority–that’s the path that works.”

(Photo credit: David Spinks And thanks again to Lea who really needs to just start writing this blog since she finds all the good quotes.)

Liz Joyner: The therapy bill will be high

us vs them laThese days journalism is in a bit of a death match with human nature… and journalism is losing.

Maybe it’s not quite a newsflash but journalists are imperfectly human and they do ere. Some are even biased. More than a few of us have found good sport in this, yammering on about bias in (check all that apply):

_______The New York Times
_______Fox News
_______Talk radio
_______”Mainstream” media or as Sarah Palin recently dubbed it the “Lamestream” media)

But then I’m not thinking human imperfection of journalists at all, I’m thinking much closer to home.

Amidst plenty of third-grade finger-wagging about just who the biased sources really are – You! No You! Nooo YOU!! – is way too little “if Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you” perspective, you know the kind that grown-ups usually provide on the playground.

Far from objective, turns out our perceptions of bias are actually a result of a complex, primordial and really quite fascinating stew of both psychology and sociology. To get schooled in the sociology, Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” is a one-stop-shop of ah hah moments. See Purple Interviews with Bishop here. On the psychology front, media bias is the ultimate inkblot test, and as a society, we’re in need of more than a few 50-minute-hours of couch time.

So here’s a primer on just three of the many, many ways we human beings fold, bend, spindle and mutilate factual reality (oh do tell me what the heck spindling is). Bad news for the smug: This means you too, not just the people you think have bad taste in t-shirt slogans, yard art and presidential candidates.

Confirmation bias: A phenomena well documented in research, we like the information that supports our view of things, facts be damned. We do all sorts of backflips to confirm what we think is true: We pick new info if we don’t like what we hear, we impugn the integrity of people who tell us what we don’t want to hear, and we even completely forget what we’d prefer to forget. Presto, chango, it’s gone-o…

Biased assimilation: Apparently when it comes to the human psyche, what’s good for the goose is distinctly not good for the gander. A 1979 study gave opponents and proponents of the death penalty contradictory studies on the effectiveness of capital punishment. Rather than creating agreement that the state of the information is inconclusive, each group uncritically accepted the information that supported their view while they subjected the study articulating the alternative view to a harsh critique.

The hostile media effect: A landmark 1984 study of the perception of media coverage of the 1982 Beirut massacre by pro-Arab and pro-Israeli observers demonstrated a strong tendency for partisans to perceive the very same news reports as biased against them – in exactly opposite directions – leading both sides to infer that the personal views of the journalists was opposite of their own.

“Partisans… are bound to believe that the preponderance of reliable, pertinent evidence favors their viewpoint. Accordingly, to the extent that the small sample of evidence and argument featured in a media presentation seems unrepresentative of this larger “population” of information, perceivers will charge bias in the presentation and will be likely to infer hostility and bias on the part of those responsible for it… In cases in which both groups believe that actual program content favored neither side, for example, both groups are apt to protest such “unwarranted” objectivity.”

The most fascinating part of the hostile media effect study is that it isn’t a phenomena created from lack of information or as political partisans would so charmingly characterize in each other as stupidity. Rather the people with the most knowledge perceived the most bias: “These people had the most basis for finding discrepancies in the coverage that was provided and the information that could have been provided.” Maybe it’s just normal that if you understand something in depth, you find the brief survey presented in a news article as inadequate. But biased? Maybe notsomuch.

Perhaps the next time you find yourself blathering on about media bias, you might want to briefly pause to look in the mirror. You’d be looking at someone who owns a part of the problem.

Good things can begin – and always have begun – there.

(Want more than three ways our thinking messes us up? Find a veritable cornucopia here.)


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

Liz Joyner: A Special Comment regarding amphibians (and human beings)

frog boiling

As promised, a companion piece to Why Glenn Beck is Stalking Me:

When Keith Olbermann hit the airwaves back in 2003, you could hear a collective sigh of relief among liberal-leaning America, long frustrated by their lack of voice in America’s media.

Conservatives who haven’t passed out reading my first paragraph should know that liberals sincerely believe that the media leans right. Limbaugh’s pinko “government-run media” is to a liberal the “corporate media” and comes with all the baggage and bias the name implies. (Parenthetically, the competing versions of media bias are explained in studies demonstrating a hostile media effect: The same story was simultaneously perceived as biased by both opposing camps, likely because they understood the subtleties of their own position and felt it inadequately represented… as subtleties usually are.)

As a center-left-leaner and a 2004 Howard Dean fan (a man with the nerve to tell us really early on that the Emperor of Iraq was buck naked, early enough to have avoided the whole affair were we listening I might add), I believe that in the years after 9-11 the American marketplace of ideas was pretty broken. Our collective trauma evolved into a very human need to march in lockstep with patriotic sounding bad decision-making.

So Olbermann was a breath of fresh air. I immediately bonded. My friends bonded. Veritable left-leaning lovefest ensues.

We were in. Keith Olbermann is chicken soup for the liberal soul. He was in our tribe.

I can only imagine that this is exactly how conservatives felt with the rise of talk radio inside of a culture that had moved dramatically leftward inside of a decade in the 60’s and mostly stayed there, likely leaving crew-cut heads spinning with culture shock. (University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt’s work tells us that conservatives are temperamentally more averse to change than liberals. That makes the 60’s quadruple crazy if you lean right, only double if you’re left.)

Trouble is that once in the Keith Olbermann (or talk radio) chicken soup for the liberal (or conservative) soul, we can barely notice the inevitable result of like-minded amen chorus groupiness. We were frogs in water brought gradually to a boil.

Ironically, Keith Olbermann is a frog too. And – while I’m having to force my fingers to type this measure of charity for a broadcaster I find hateful and factually wrong almost 4 times a sentence – maybe so was Rush Limbaugh? Could they both be victims of the sound of their own echo chambers?

Once in, the slight shifts toward unanimity are barely perceptible. Hyperbole forgiven. Insulting name-calling gets guilty snickers and knowing glances. Quirky family member forgiven. And then you look up a few years later and you can barely believe that someone you know and thought you liked – who might be a conservative “frog” to your liberal one – could see reality so differently than you do. And even if you were too polite to say it (which if you read blog comment threads, growing numbers of us are not), you might have thought that they’re dumb.

Lather, rinse, repeat… and you can see how we’re where we are now.

I admit that I still really like Keith Olbermann. He often makes a lot of sense to me. But my new Village Square center of gravity often leaves me uncomfortably having to forgive a bit more than I’d prefer. And it has me stretching to understand people who aren’t in my tribe. My message isn’t that Olbermann is bad/evil/at fault. It’s that he – like us – is human. As is everyone outside of my tribe for whom I have tended to not offer any forgiveness at all.

Keith Olbermann + a bunch of liberal viewers and liberal guests + 10 or 15 more years might just = right wing talk radio, the liberal edition. And if you think there is something about conservatives that makes them jump the shark when liberals can somehow magically avoid it, I’d like to suggest that you might want to hop out of the water.

I believe it’s getting hotter.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can email her compliments and critiques at liz@tothevillagesquare.org. Can’t be civil? Won’t be read.

(Photo credit.)