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The Flying Pig Society: The art and science behind a Village Square program

Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016

The Model

Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (and our experience is that it draws an audience of about five). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy.

The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “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.”

The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goals that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.

This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues that are closest to their hearts.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

The Results

We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.

The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.

We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).

Processing the Results

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibly that despite our best efforts that in a given program we could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. Beyond chalking those instances up to “you win some, you lose some” we at the Village Square have come to believe strongly that there is a real shift that occurs through our continued efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus to build the ecosystem of relationships in our community – many program specifically are focused being on the same “team” in working to address community issues that has nothing to do with political partisanship. This focus leverages the bonds that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance requires it. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy well-traveled by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Jacob Hess: Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite

new yorker elephant donkeyThe Director of our newest Salt Lake City Village Square Director, Jacob Hess, has written a smart and thoughtful piece posted at the Huffington Post. Here’s a sneak peak:

In discussions of political polarization in America, it’s often widely assumed that ‘most Americans’ want to see the hostility change.

Do they? On the one hand, a 2013 American survey found 70% of respondents believing that incivility had reached crisis proportions in the country.

On the other hand, when these same Americans are offered a chance of hearing out their own political opposite in a generous and productive setting, we have observed a striking level of resistance.

One woman told us just yesterday, “I cannot even begin to imagine trying something like that…” Another person insisted, “Most people don’t want to sit and have a real conversation with their political opposite…They just don’t!”

Could that be true? That even though (most of us) are worried about political tensions, for different reasons (most of us) don’t feel able or willing or interested in doing anything about it?

Read Jacob’s entire article at Huffington Post.

Photo credit: New Yorker Magazine

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont

Here’s to the Town Hall. We are true believers. Town Hall Meeting Day gives us one more excuse to link to Maira Kalman’s NY Times “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog for “So Moved:” HERE. It is must read.

Popular Science shuts down its comment thread (and why this is very important)

Science ExpressH/T to the smart people over at CivilPolitics for this news:

Today Popular Science announced it is shutting down blog comments on most articles on it’s website. The reason? Studies have shown that comments on an article not only polarize readers (same old thing we see on every comment thread) but they also change the perception of the story itself. When your topic is science, you can quickly see that conflation of scientific results and what an angry person says on a blog thread is dangerous to one of the two (like mixing ice cream and horse manure – doesn’t do much to the horse manure, but it sure does damage the ice cream). From Popular Science:

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

Read the entire article online HERE.

And here’s a question to ponder: If we simultaneously shut off comment threads in every major publication in America, would civil discourse return to the town square? Sure, we’d all walk in mad, but we’d share a few munchies, a cup of coffee and a little bit of time with our neighbors. Might leave with a slightly different disposition…

(Photo credit)

Senator Olympia Snowe names Village Square as one of eight groups working for political common ground

fighting for common groundThis week The Christian Science Monitor launched a new commentary series “Common Ground, Common Good.” We love the name and the concept.

But most of all we love that they wrote about Senator Olympia Snowe in their inaugural column, who named the Village Square as one of eight groups helping to define a political center in America. Even cooler yet is that we’re the only locally-based organization of the eight. From The Christian Science Monitor:

In her book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” Olympia Snowe, the former senator from Maine, writes that the “fastest way” for citizens to push for compromise in Congress is to “support the efforts of existing national groups” that advocate bipartisanship. She recommends the following eight organizations, urging people to “browse their websites, visit them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.”

Read the list online HERE.


Photo credits: Senator Jay Rockefeller and Fighting for Common Ground book jacket.

Tallahassee Democrat: Author addresses deepening partisan divide

Tuesday’s dinner program is sold out, but you can still add your name to the waiting list HERE, hear Dr. Haidt speak at FSU HERE or listen to the program on WFSU 88.9 FM at 7pm on Friday, September 21 (or when it goes up online HERE).

From the Tallahassee Democrat:

Know anyone who reacts violently to political agendas of the “other side”?

They probably have a long list of reasons for their feelings: the other side is rude, selfish, has tunnel vision and is steering the nation to ruin.

Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., thinks those very attitudes are destructive to America.

He’ll be speaking Tuesday night on the morality that “binds and blinds” our nation’s biggest political parties. Haidt will follow the ticketed, seated dinner and speech, “Polarization, Demonization and Paralysis in American Politics,” with a free, broader talk, “The Righteous Mind,” at Florida State University’s Student Life Cinema. Read the entire article in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Pew says politics divides us more than race, religion, ethnicity

Dan Balz writes in yesterday’s Washington Post about a Pew Research Center survey showing that America is more divided now by political identity than by another other measure.

“Republicans and Democrats have long seen the world through different lenses. On some issues, the gaps between them are relatively small (the importance of political engagement, for example). On others they are wider. What Pew found is that in almost every measure, those gaps have increased over the past 25 years, and in some cases now seem to represent almost unbridgeable divisions.”

Read the article online HERE.

(It might not surprise you that we think this is another confirmation of why The Village Square is the correct model to address this challenge. In communities, where we are neighbors, seems like just about the only toehold.)

Mark Goodkin: We Need Symphonic Solutions

Up to now, the story of how liberals and conservatives engage in political discourse and problem solving has been marked by polarization, with questionable outcomes. Each side pushes its own agenda, thinking it has the answers to all the problems.

The question is whether this story has served us well? We face mounting problems, including the debt crisis, unemployment, environmental issues, energy dependency, food and water shortages, terrorism, war, and many others, which some have said will eventually lead to a perfect storm, if it hasn’t happened already. It becomes ever more doubtful that we can solve these problems within the context of our polarized, divisive mindset, which has lead to much of the present paralysis in Washington and has perhaps contributed to the problems.

The Energy Debate

Take for example the issue of energy. Both sides agree that we need to become energy independent. However, each side pushes for its own agenda, while disagreeing on an effective, long-range strategy to become energy independent.

In the energy debate, the main dividing line has been between the liberal concern for the environment and conservative concern for the economy.

Liberals want us to be weaned off of our dependency for petroleum, nuclear, coal, and other energy sources that pollute the environment and are limited in supply, to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources that support the environment, like solar, wind, and geothermal. They would like to see such a shift to cleaner energy sources done within a relatively short time frame.

They push for an increase in government funding and programs, which will support this endeavor, and are willing to tolerate higher energy prices and perhaps even some rationing as temporary measures during the transition.

On the other hand, conservatives want to exploit the conventional energy sources that already exist in our country. They feel that we can make a transition to energy independence much quicker if we invest in conventional energy, since it is already proven and economical. They argue that this approach will minimize the risk toward higher energy prices and rationing.

Conservatives believe that, perhaps some investment in alternative energy mightbe a good idea, but it will take years to develop it into a reliable and economical source to meet our growing energy needs. In fact, they argue, alternative energy will most likely never completely replace conventional sources, but supplement it.

Each side pushes forth its own agenda, without giving much thought to the other side’s merits or concerns. And if both sides did decide to work together, we learn from history that the likely outcome would be a middle of the road compromise, which lacked the necessary punch, while pleasing no one, except perhaps the special interests.

In fact, the debate on energy independence has been going on in one form or another, since at least the energy crisis of 1973. The ongoing debate reflects the story, previously mentioned, as to how each side pushes for its own agenda, without giving much, if any, consideration toward that of the other side. And in the end, with few exceptions, our problems never really get solved, but linger or incarnate into “new” problems. It’s apparent that this story has not served us well and is no match for the mounting issues we face.

What if we could change our story, the way in which we solve problems, from one of polarization and divisiveness to one of collaboration and synergy? In fact, is that possible? I believe it is.

Symphonic Solutions

I would like to introduce the idea of the Symphonic Solution. A Symphonic Solution is a meeting of the minds between liberals and conservatives on a particular issue. However, it does not limit its choices to the middle range of the political spectrum, as seen in middle of the road compromises, but is open to ideas across the entire board.

A musical symphony, or almost any melody for that matter, would be pretty blasé if its notes were limited to the middle range of the scale. A good symphony requires notes carefully taken along the entire musical scale.

A Symphonic Solution could be characterized as an effective plan, which takes into account the main values and concerns of both sides.

When both sides work together constructively for solutions and feel that their voices have been heard and accounted for, they will likely come up with more options, including innovative ones. Both sides also will more likely support the plan in the long run.

The old band-aid measures and watered down compromises that passed for solutions will give way to fresh, creative approaches, which result from a synergy of both sides working together.

It doesn’t mean there will be total agreement on every point. There will still be disagreements, which is natural in our diverse society.

So, returning to our example of the energy issue, how might the two sides work toward a Symphonic Solution for energy independence?

Such a solution would need to address the main values and concerns of both sides. It would have to take into account the liberal values and concerns for clean, renewable energy, which would have low impact on the environment, like pollution. The solution would also have to account for the conservative values and concerns for reliable energy sources, which are both cost effective and affordable.

Coming up with a Symphonic Solution for energy independence, or for that matter, any issue, will require innovative ideas, creativity, and a spirit of working together, and good will. We have a choice. We can continue with the current story of political polarization, paralysis, and ineffective solutions. Or we can change our story to collaboration, synergy, and effective solutions, which have a much better chance of meeting the challenges of mounting problems. The choice will take courage and require a shift in our thinking in how we work together to solve problems.


Mark Goodkin is publisher of Conversational Shift, a website devoted to helping people make the shift from polarized political discourse to one of civil discourse and synergistic solutions. He also publishes San Diego Coast Life, an online guide for locals and visitors to San Diego. He has been a website designer and content developer since 1998 and graphic artist since 1994. In the late 1980s, he worked as a publishing assistant for the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, in Washington DC. and assistant to the Senior Advisor to High Frontier, Inc., in Arlington VA. Mark Goodkin holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Design from the School of Visual Arts in Saint Paul, MN and in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego.

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)

Dr. Jonathan Haidt on Bill Moyers

Were there such a thing as Village Square homework (and there should be), this would be it. Conservatives, be sure to hang in for the whole the discussion; Dr. Haidt’s work is extremely validating of a conservative world view (and in a way that will help liberals understand you better, how much better does it get than that…) We believe Dr. Haidt is doing some of the most important work of our time. So get a bowl of popcorn and set aside 45 minutes. You won’t be sorry.

Liz Joyner: Reviving the town hall meeting

Published in the Tallahassee Democrat, February 15, 2012 There’s nothing more quintessentially American than a town hall meeting. It’s how the business of American community has gotten done from just about the moment the first disaffected European foot hit ground in the New World.

Even if you’ve never attended one, the town meeting is buried so deep in our country’s psyche that you can probably immediately call up its intimate details – rows of folding chairs, town council up front with only a school lunch table to define their status, a charmless but functional meeting room. Someone probably saw to it that there would be coffee and cookies. Overachievers might organize a potluck. Read all »

The Village Square on WFSU’s Perspectives

Did you miss us last week on WFSU’s weekly radio show Perspectives? The audio is in! You can find it online HERE. I loved host Tom Flanigan’s intro so much I somehow talked him into giving me his notes. So here’s Tom: “Politics and religion have always been hot topics and often not discussed in polite company. But today, you often can’t even talk politics in impolite company. The volume level of the discussion often exceeds that of an atomic blast. Is there any hope for civility in public discourse? Can government officials lower the talk temperature by being more open and honest with the public? Can’t we all just get along? That what we’ll be talking about on this morning’s Perspectives and we’ll be eagerly awaiting your calls and emails, too.” (Again, listen to the program online HERE.)

Steve Seibert: Our history of humility

seibert_steveHow do we find common ground in these contentious times of partisan gridlock? I respectfully offer the following principles to help us bridge the great divides of our time.

• One: Seek to understand the moral positions of others.

Americans are a diverse people with fundamentally different moral foundations. Recent psychological studies show we are born with a predisposition for being conservative or liberal, and no amount of yelling at each other on a cable network will change that.

Some of us hold as sacred the care for victims of oppression; some are dedicated to preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community; others are most concerned with the protection of individual liberty. Most of us share a concern about all these values, but feel more intensely about some than others. Read all »