The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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When Mom & Dad are fighting

I’m not sure whether our political moment really is more polarized than it has been in the past. But boy, does it feel corrosive. Mothers are crying at the prospect of the President might speak to their children. People are sniffing everywhere for hints of racism.

I’ve been wondering quite a bit recently how democratic dialogue is supposed to occur in a situation like this. We can’t talk to each other. How on earth are we supposed to handle self-governance?

Because I think in media, I’ve been craving a documentary project on this topic. I want to hear people of all political stripes address the topic of how we practice democracy when everyone assumes everyone else is acting in bad faith. Here’s how this looks in my head:

It’s a website. A wall of videos, and an assignment: Find a collaborator, someone whose political views contradict your own. You’re given a set of questions that might help foster a productive conversation. You and your collaborator interview each other about this topic – our polarization – and how we fight it. The full video of both interviews is posted. Creative Commons, natch. Anyone who’d like can edit their own version.


Tim Carmody says…

I have an idea about this – not the project per se, but the phenomenon you describe/lament – which is that political unspeakability goes in waves, where we become more polarized by whatever it is that we’re paying attention to at any given moment. Five years ago, a typical liberal and a typical conservative probably could have had a civil discussion of health care, but not Iraq or Guantanamo. Likewise, even if they couldn’t get anywhere today talking about health care, they could probably talk about, say, Afghanistan.

It’s almost as if live possibilities are the current of partisan politics. If something isn’t happening or potentially happening right now, the electricity just isn’t there. The lesson is that if you’re going to have a conversation with a political/ideological opposite, it’s better to have it be about something that relatively few people are talking about right now. These are better conversations anyways, because you actually have to think about them, not just wave your flag.

Matt — you’re down with me stealing this idea, right?


Of course!

This is an awesome idea, so don’t take my sinusoidal comment as criticism, more my chewing it over. I think that out in the non-media world, where people have to deal with angry, bitter, ad hominem laden conflict about far less nationally portentious issues, lots of community groups and activists work on getting exactly this sort of dialog going—and my anecdotal memory is that video is exactly the sort of thing you want to avoid to get the conversation primed. Conflict resolution tends to very much rely on in person, loosely recorded, primitive conversation. Once in conflict mode, people are much more likely to talk for the camera than with the person–at least that’s my understanding.

Once the empathy and the conversation and the understanding has been “had,” so to speak, recording it as a joint presentation seems utterly invaluable–capitalizing on that desire one has after any great conversation to take the feeling of consensus and interaction and toast it.

I think there might be danger in thinking that the videos themselves, however, can carry the conversation forward alone. You can encapsulate that feeling, you can commemorate it, but my hunch is you can’t pass it on more than a few degrees in the medium of video. The videos will serve instead, as a kind of seal and bookmark–a reminder to the participant that the conversation happened, and an easy way for them to refer to it in future conversations–the true best medium.

Which gets at my usual gripe with this new media stuff I love so much. At some level it’s only as good as the physical world stuff it makes happen. If these videos are tools that peacebuilders on the ground can use to make their work more efficient or to draw in resources, awesome. But if people end up lost in video land who would otherwise have been in churches and social clubs and softball teams and volunteer groups, spreading ideas and smashing stereotypes through the power of their own person, forcing their friends to reconsider angrily held stereotypes, working on conflict resolution–well, that’s no good. In the last couple of years that I’ve been mostly “off the grid” (except, always, for Snarkmarket!) I feel like I’ve gotten a much stronger taste of both this kind of tart political conflict (the coastal crust of California blue is so very thin) and the slow stew of mental change that can happen when you do stuff with people you disagree with.

There is power in getting this idea off the ground in a fun, simple, grand way–make it so viral and trendy that, like a flash fire, it sweeps over a large swathe of the population and they get sucked into the idea of it regardless of their own subcultures’ network. Barring that, though, I think there are several “ins” for expressing it, or rather, hooks for reeling new people into actually making the videos. Three come to mind now:

1) Make it a popular format for students to make videos. It needs a fun, witty aesthetic that emphasizes the drama and delight that can come from consensus instead of conflict. (Crazy side thought—what if we had a whole school of story writing built around the philosophy that consensus could be the source of just as much drama as conflict?!) I don’t have direct experience with them, but I’ve heard good things about these guys and they might have an interesting take on the idea.

2) Help organizations that already do this, at some level–usually internationally–and help them get active domestically (again). I’m thinking of the Center for Nonviolent Communication and the Search For Common Ground which has its own YouTube channel, Twitter feed, blog and Facebook group.

3)Identify groups that are most likely to have a bipartisan membership yet be superpassionate about their common interest—preferably a cause—and draft them into self-identifying and making the videos at some group conference or meeting. For example, I bet there’s an academic field that is more bipartisan than other academic fields. Let’s assume its physics for the sake of imagination. You show up at the APS meeting and say that the first 20 physicists who agrees to participate in a 30 minute dialog with someone of an opposing view point will earn $50 for his or her favorite academic charity. There’s already a sense of shared camraderie (“man, these humanities types are craaaaaazy”) to build off of.

Okay, I clearly need lunch. But good idea!

So many good ideas and insights there I don’t even know where to start. I know a great guy at the Public Conversations Project; I’m pointing him this at this thread.

Really interesting idea, and intriguing comments. I’m going to be incorporating a couple of new phrases into my lexicon: “political unspeakability” (thank you, Tim); and “smashing stereotypes through the power of their own person” (thank you, Saheli). Both resonate deeply with our work.

Our group, the Public Conversations Project, has been getting partisans together for dialogue on “unspeakable” topics for 20 years. The core of the work is creating an opportunity for an encounter with a person, not a charicature or stereotype. Having encounters like these on video -a la Matt’s idea- could be a terrific resource. I think, though, keeping Saheli’s reservations in mind (which I share), I’d want to add a dimension: maybe a “before and after” some coaching or training. As we’ve all noticed, it’s hard to have tough conversations in constructive ways. But people often assume that we should just naturally be able to wade into the turbulent waters of conflict, meet in the middle and walk up the far shore holding hands. There are forces outside us that mitigate against this. Media pull for polarization. Pressure from our allies to conform to a party line. Portrayals of our opponents as devious, not-to-be-trusted, less-than-human enemies. And then there are the pressures from the inside. Fear. Anger. Humiliation. It’s very difficult for most of us to bring our best selves when we are triggered into strong emotion by real or perceived threats.

We may be born with the tools for speaking and listening ( mouths and ears), but it takes skill and work to overcome the pressures from within and the pressures from without when the hot buttons are pushed and all we want to do is scream. I think of when I was younger and was learning carpentry. Maybe because I was a guy, my boss expected me to know what to do with wood, saw, hammer and nails. The truth was, I was better in the kitchen. I think the idea was, even if I didn’t have the raw knowledge, if I just “tried hard enough” I’d be able to perform as I should. Nope. Oh, I could cut the boards, but not straight. I could hit the nail with the hammer, but not in any way that resulted in two boards being fastened together. My boss shouting at me to “try harder” only made things worse. I needed some coaching to be able to use the tools to their best advantage. People in conflict need it too.

A lot of what we at PCP do with partisans in conflicts about abortion, religion, sexual orientation, politics, etc., is to offer ideas and coaching in a setting that supports some experimentation in seeing “the other” as a fully human being and being able to communicate one’s deepest passions while also hearing those of the other.

So, to add a bit to Matt’s original idea and Saheli and Tim’s expansions: What if a third party videotaped an initial discussion between two partisans. This session is followed by some coaching. Another conversation takes place on tape, and each is interviewed about her/his experience and advice for others. When it’s posted, people could watch the first session, make their own suggestions and try to predict what might happen in round two. In watching the second conversation and debrief, they’d learn more about the actual experience of the participants, and what made a difference for them.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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