Fire came one sunny September morning to America nine years ago tomorrow. It was bright and blinding and so unexpected that even these many years later we can barely look directly at it.
When radical Islamists chose to set fire to America, the consequences – human nature being what it is – were probably to some extent predetermined: There would be more fire.
Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong writes in The Battle for God that extremism of one ilk exists because extremism of the other does. Extreme action on one side provokes an equal and opposite extreme reaction on the other. And so it goes, with many flavors of homegrown extremism having taken center stage since the 9/11 attack. Tomorrow’s installment of extremism, straight from central casting, was to be a ceremonial Quran burning. (At this writing it’s been suspended but it is not yet clear if “suspended” really means canceled in what has inexplicably become a Muslim/Christian he said/he said. You can’t make this stuff up.)
In the days after 9/11, in one of the innumerable searching conversations happening in the American family, my brother (a military man well acquainted with “fire”) imagined how he wanted America’s reaction to play out: We’d capture Bin Laden alive, then bring him back to New York City, get him a good lawyer and put him on trial. Then, in the darkest and least civilized corners of the world, that America would ensure such a man a fair trial in our abiding commitment to the rule of law would shine a light so bright that the forces in the world that build would irrevocably trump the forces that destroy.
My brother was describing water.
That conversation – and more generally the tragedy of 9/11 – were no small part the genesis of what would eventually become our Tallahassee Florida go at dousing the fire with water by building The Village Square.
But fire is flammable and demands attention and 50 members of a congregation a couple hours south of us has been getting international news coverage by pouring gasoline on it (by using water, The Village Square is lucky if we get covered in local briefs). Fire is hot, fire sells newspapers.
When asked to speak about The Village Square, I’ve been known to lament that we’d be a national mass movement by now if our events involved statements of outrageous fury instead of thoughtful moderation. It’s simply the elemental difference between fire and water. This week Terry Jones and his Gainesville church have proven my theory as even the Vatican weighed in on their intemperance.
Other efforts at extinguishing fire with water get equally short shrift compared to the fire starters, such as this group of national religious leaders who got a big yawn from the media as they tried to advance moderation in the face of the planned event in Gainesville.
America is – at her best – the perfect solution to fire, both at home and elsewhere in the world. Our founders were students of human nature and prescribed an effective system to balance extremism. It’s tragic when we can’t rise to the call of our birthright because we’re stuck in an equal and opposite reaction to the horrible extremism of that day nine years ago. We may not quite know it, but we are in a unique position to shine that light my brother described all around the world in multitudes of ways that dampen the fires. Maybe welcoming a mosque near ground zero is just such a moment when a country with a really Big Idea shines a really big light?
My daughter is a junior at the University of Florida. She says there is a rumor going around campus that the football game being played tomorrow in Gainesville (91,000 people in “The Swamp”) is the target of a bomb threat. News yesterday was that the FBI says there are credible retaliatory threats. And so it goes: Extremism begets extremism.
General Petraeus knows fire and water and equal and opposite reactions. He said of the plan to burn Qurans: “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib that they would in a sense be indelible.”
Indelible is a good word for what people do with fire.
Please note that we are waiting for a statement of support for The Village Square from the Vatican.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director and co-founder of The Village Square.
This excellent article is by management consultant Margaret Seidler writing in Charleston Regional Business Journal. She writes about the need to see conflict as the management of polarity two necessary opposites:
What I know from my professional work in managing complexity and conflict in organizations is that when people get polarized on big, on-going issues, eventually all involved will suffer. It might not be today or tomorrow, but I can predict with great certainty that it will happen.[Look] at the stark consequences for a society whose citizens get polarized to the point of deadlock. Here we get winners and losers; lose sight of the big picture; stop listening to the other “side”; get defensive; limit possibilities for solutions because we are so focused on being “right”; bring about anger, resentment – even hatred. Just bear witness to the threats that Congress has received in the wake of the passage of health care reform legislation.
Seidler goes on to confirm a Village Square-ism: It’s about valuing the contributions opposing ideas have to solving problems and keeping those opposing forces alive and bumping up against each other. Or as founder James Madison put it “the constant clashing of opinion.”
With these consequences in mind, we explored the phenomenon of polarity (interdependent pairs that need each other over time). To demonstrate that we all know and experience polarity, I used the example of one pair we manage every day: inhale and exhale. It is easy to recognize the each part of this polarity pair gives us something vital and needed. And although each is very different, we must get the best of both in order to live, not die. This polarity is readily understandable because the need to gain the best from each becomes apparent in a matter of seconds.
You can find more from Margaret Seidler at www.mypowersurge.com
(Photo credit: One Tree Hill Studios)
Joe Keohane writes a powerful piece on how our entrenched political opinion resists fact that contradicts it. Here’s a snip of an article that’s just so good that it’s going straight into the Village Square library, but we’d strongly recommend you head straight to Boston.com and read the whole piece.
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong, says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon – known as “backfire” – is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
Read the rest of the article HERE.
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.
Village Square Co-Chair, Tallahassee Community College President Bill Law, named St. Petersburg College president:
The post-Carl Kuttler era began Tuesday when the St. Petersburg College board of trustees chose William D. Law Jr. as the school’s next president. The selection of Law, the 61-year-old president of Tallahassee Community College, was touted as a safe choice in a climate of tightening financial times that could propel the school past months of negative publicity that followed Kuttler’s surprise resignation last year. “(Law) is tried and true,” said trustee W. Richard Johnston. “He’s geared in his career to handle an institution like this.”
Today, that three-headed monster facilitates an artificial view of America – one in which every issue boils down to a left/right, liberal/conservative, Republican/Democratic standoff. Americans are now conditioned to choose a side and stick with it. Elected officials and candidates, all too eager to play the media game, emulate that behavior. The lack of decorum carries over from the split screen to the House floor. The cameras and microphones, of course, capture it all. And the cycle starts all over again.
Those who stoke the fires get rewarded with higher ratings fueled by the allegiance of a small but monolithic band of listeners or viewers. Concurrently, elected representatives who parrot what they hear and see experience a parallel growth in campaign contributions. In the days immediately after his “You lie!” outburst, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was flooded with more than $1 million in contributions. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., meanwhile, raised $850,000 in the final quarter of 2009 alone after his “die quickly” characterization of the GOP health-care proposal. In short, the common sense of the majority is engulfed by the fervor of a minority fringe. Any sober, substantive messages are cast as weak and unprincipled, and are drowned out by those who insist upon casting each political conflict in revolutionary terms.
That’s the real damage done when people with a microphone at their lips or on their lapels whip the knuckleheads into a frenzy. There’s less time for temperance. Critical thinking is diminished. The actions of a manic few are recorded, projected, and whispered down the lane for anyone with a radio, television, or Internet connection. The debate is cheapened, and, ultimately, the safety of our elected officials is threatened.
If you haven’t already, pick up a hard copy of today’s Democrat to see the cartoon.
(Photo credit Janice Ann Ford & thanks to Christine for pointing us to the article.)
Michael Smerconish, Philadelphia Talk Radio show host, who just made what seems to have been a tormented decision to change his political affiliation from Republican to Independent, talked to Chris Matthews last night on Hardball:
“We live in a world of media fiction. Where talk radio and your business everything gets presented in black/white red state/blue state left/right terms. And I don’t think that’s the way the real world is. It’s not the way I carry about my life as exemplified by people I meet on a day to day basis. It only exists in the world in which you and I work. And I, frankly, have had enough of it. I frankly think that stirring the pot at the ends of the political spectrum as been terrible for the country and I want no more of it.”
“People in the middle need a voice. We’re underrepresented in the world of talk radio and on cable stations because the bookers they only look for those who they can introduce as a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. That’s not the bulk of America right now. What about the folks in the middle?”
Smerconish wrote about his decision to register as an Independent: “Collegiality is nonexistent today, and any outreach across an aisle is castigated as weakness by the talking heads who constantly stir a pot of discontent.”
“With news that Michelle Obama would make her first appearance on Fox News, some were upset that she was appearing on Fox and some were upset with me for hosting her. How very sad. I’ve got disagreements with the president on a number of policies but I don’t have a desire to have his plans and policies fail. My goal is to see them change. If the administration proposes something that I agree with, I should say so. And if it’s a policy that needs to be revised then I should be specific as to how, not merely dismiss it because it was presented by someone across the political aisle. Political aisles are fine, but political islands are not.” –Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
Remember the fracas surrounding the town hall meetings on health care? The founders of The Village Square do. Their efforts to bring together diametrically opposed ideological groups has earned a $72,000 slice of $24 million offered through the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. The money will be used to support programs that help concerned individuals follow Albert Einstein’s charge: “To the village square we must carry the facts … from there must come America’s voice.” Read all »
Tallahassee, Fla., – The Community Foundation of North Florida, in partnership with The Village Square, recently received a $72,000 challenge grant to revitalize the dialogue among the city’s diverse residents around community issues. The project entitled “We the People” will create a 21st Century virtual and face-to-face public square by offering unique town hall forums, in addition to constructive online engagement through a community problem-solving Wiki. The project’s goal is to renew Read all »
In a study titled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification” published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, sociologists from four major research institutions looked into the high level of persistent belief in America that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The study results:
“Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as ‘motivated reasoning,’ which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe…The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information. The argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs.”
The researchers describe the observed pattern of motivated reasoning is a “serious challenge to democratic theory and practice that results when citizens with incorrect information cannot form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others.”
So, to recap… We’ve broken ourselves into feuding teams which are no longer making governing decisions based on reality but on what we want to pretend is true?
(Postscript: If you’re liberal and feeling smug right about now, then think again. You do it too.)