Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category
Political lies used to imply that there was a truth…. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They are content with what Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, calls “truthiness”: ideas which “feel right” or “should be true.”
—“The Post-Truth World: Yes, I’d Lie to You,” The Economist, September 10, 2016, p. 18 (emphasis mine)
My social medium of choice, Facebook, has been a disturbing place of late—even more than usual. A particular meme formula is appearing more frequently as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election. It goes like this:
- Photo of something outrageous (especially if it casts the candidate you don’t like in a negative light)
- Headline so outlandish it’s guaranteed to get attention
- Name of the source
People share these things in a blink. They’re so juicy that you can barely resist clicking through. If you stop to read the source line, though, you might detect a fly in the ointment: it usually reads something like (and these examples are made up) downwithfilthycapitalists.org or freedomfrommuslims.edu. Many of these sources excel in making up news, distorting it to their own ends, or at least disseminating stories without any regard for their truth value.
In the post-truth culture described by The Economist, where we don’t care about the facts, that makes perfect sense. But it presents a massive problem: there is no way—no way whatever—that we can run a society on that basis.
So we need to care like citizens and think like journalists.
The caring-like-citizens part is fairly straightforward. We realize that without a consensus on the facts behind an issue—or at least the orientation to care about the facts—we cannot begin to dialogue about the wicked societal problems that are far too big for one person, or one interest group, to overcome. Caring about an issue and the truth associated with it, then, becomes an act of good citizenship.
Now, thinking like journalists. Good journalists take nothing for granted. They check and double-check their sources—on everything. As the old saw goes, “If your mother says she loves you, verify it.”
Time was when good journalists, and the reputable media that employed them, were plentiful enough to ferret out truth from nonsense for us in many cases. That’s not as true anymore, thanks to budget cuts, failing newspapers, etc. So now we have to be our own journalists, or at least our own fact checkers.
How? There are at least three ways we can do it, and I’ll describe them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with one thought: when I say “we need to care like citizens and think like journalists,” I mean everyone. Me. You. Your neighbor down the street. We need all hands on deck to work through our thorniest problems, which means that collectively we must put the post-truth trend behind us. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
What does it mean to make America great again?
As much as anything else in Donald Trump’s campaign, his supporters seem to glom onto this one big idea, or parts thereof. So it’s worth looking at. And if you look at it hard enough, you realize each word raises questions, such as:
Which vision of America are we talking about? Listening to Trump supporters, I think many of them are focusing on the America that, once upon a time, held out the promise of a secure, prosperous life. As the story goes, you could get out of high school, get a job at the plant, work there for 40 years, and save enough to provide a great life for your family—a nuclear family, in a neighborhood, where everyone knew everyone else and lent a hand in times of need. That’s a compelling story. No wonder people want to get it back again.
But there are other Americas. There’s the America in which success came only to white people of European origin. There’s the America whose interventions in global affairs have wreaked havoc as much as they’ve borne fruit. There’s also the America I cherish: the America of vast natural beauty, a bedrock belief in liberty, and the inspiring (if sometimes annoying) can-do spirit. Which are we talking about?
What on earth do we mean by great? Look again at the visions of America described above (and add your own). Which were great? Was there ever a time when America was nothing but great (as the slogan seems to imply)?
Meanwhile, the word again implies that America was great at one time; which era would that have been? Would it be the America of the 1950s: a massive engine of economic opportunity and systemic racism? Do we mean the America of the 1940s, with its spirit of self-sacrifice and horrifying (though necessary) world war? What about the 1920s, with its sunny optimism and Prohibition?
Of all the words in this slogan, I see this one as the most seductive—and the most dangerous. Make implies that we can return to a great America (however the hell you’re defining it) simply by force of will. That ignores the global, impersonal mega-forces that have changed the world beyond recognition: the massive flight to cities, which changes social norms; the yawning gap between the skills of many U.S. workers and the skills demanded by the fast-changing marketplace; the constant drive for businesses to streamline workforces and cut costs; the continuing impact of automation and the rise of artificial intelligence, which eliminates jobs; etc. Etc.
Notice something about this. None of these trends is anyone’s fault. All of these trends are far beyond the ability of one person, or group, or even nation to change. Seen in this light, make looks like a mirage.
As a siren song, make America great again is compelling: many Americans have lost a lot amid the world’s changes. But as a prescription for action, it sputters. I would rather we seek a way forward in the world as it is than try—and fail—to return to what was.
Last week we started evaluating Donald Trump’s stated positions in light of facts and sober analysis (at least the best I could find). As it turns out, his immigration policy is way too big for one post, so for the time being, let’s look at one of its cornerstones: building a wall on the Mexican border—in part to stop all those dangerous Mexican criminals from entering the U.S.
(Warning: there is math involved, and math is not my strong suit. If it’s yours, and you spot a flaw in my calculations below, please speak up.)
Trump’s statement claims that “for many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country.” He supports his claim with this statement:
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that there were a shocking 3 million arrests attached to the incarcerated alien population, including tens of thousands of violent beatings, rapes and murders.
For starters, the figure is wrong. The GAO study estimates 1.7 million arrests for 2.9 million offenses (apparently you can be arrested for multiple offenses at the same time, a fact I have no intention of verifying firsthand). It also attributes these offenses to 249,000 alleged offenders—or, as the GAO calls them, “criminal aliens”—for an average of about 7 arrests per offender.
Sounds like a bad lot, and it probably is. But wait. The “incarcerated alien population” doesn’t include just Mexicans. Neither does it say anything about the behavior of undocumented Mexican immigrants in general. We need more “facts and sober analysis.”
As it turns out, data on Mexican criminal aliens are hard to come by, but we can make some educated guesses. Start by assuming, just for the moment, that all 249,000 alleged offenders in the above paragraph are undocumented Mexicans. The Pew Research Center estimates that 6.2 million undocumented Mexicans lived in the U.S. during 2011. That would put the number of all “criminal aliens” at 4% of all undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. If Mexicans make up half of all undocumented immigrants, and we apply that to our percentage, we’re down to 2%.
By comparison the total number of U.S. residents arrested in 2011, according to the FBI, was about 9.5 million—or 1% of the U.S. population. Not exactly a significant difference.
The Lessons We Might Draw from This
Everyone would agree that keeping criminals from other countries out of the U.S. is a good thing. But in terms of crime, at least, Trump’s solution sounds like massive overkill.
More troubling is this: Trump hangs essentially his whole case on this statistic—and it clearly doesn’t say what he says it does. Worse, the fallacy of his “shocking 3 million” claim, together with his wild profusion of other claims, lend weight to the charge that Trump just makes it up as he goes along, pulling statistics out of the air, without heed for accuracy.
Yes, I know. Candidates have used isolated statistics to prove dubious points since…well, probably since there have been candidates and statistics. But Trump has raised this game to another level, apparently citing random statistics as support for extreme, even dangerous, positions. That means he deserves special scrutiny.
Put another way, we have to find out to what extent the emperor has no clothes. Do all his positions rest on erroneous or obsolete facts? We’ll see.
Today we bring you a public service courtesy of The Dialogue Venture.
The most disturbing aspect of the U.S. presidential campaign, for me, is how unhinged from reality it has become. Truth and nuance are casualties of most campaigns, but this year I see a widespread assumption that opinions matter and truth does not. The obligation to back up one’s rhetoric with facts and sober analysis is gone.
When things get unhinged, you fix the hinge. So let’s try.
For starters, I strolled over to the website of the man most blamed for unhinging the campaign, one Donald J. Trump—specifically, to his Positions page. The first thing that struck me was the number of issues on which he’s articulated positions here: five. Just five. All of them are issues worth exploring: immigration, the Second Amendment, others. But the gaps are, well, huge: nothing on the economy in general, foreign policy, race….
Putting that aside, I dove into his China policy. As a cornerstone of that policy, he promises that “on day one of the Trump administration the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China as a currency manipulator” (underlining in the original). This action, says the policy statement, will “force China to the negotiating table and open the door to a fair—and far better—trading relationship.”
How much of that makes sense? Let’s look at some facts and sober analysis to find out.
- We’ve done this before, and it didn’t work. The U.S. Treasury slapped China (as well as Japan and Taiwan) with the currency manipulator tag in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Foreign Policy’s Joshua A. Keating reported, all three shaped up: they “made ’substantial reforms to their foreign exchange regimes’ after the negotiations, and were removed from the list after their ‘currencies appreciated and external trade balances declined significantly.’ However, the U.S. trade deficit with China…has increased every year since 1988. Evidently, the labeling in the early 1990s didn’t do the trick.”
- It’s not clear whether China is still manipulating its currency. You manipulate currency to keep its exchange rate But from 2005 to 2013, China’s currency (the renminbi) rose 35 percent. No one really knows whether the renminbi is still undervalued. Even if it is, that’s not entirely bad: it allows U.S. consumers to buy Chinese goods at cheap prices, among other things.
- Mitt Romney made the same promise in 2012. Trump may think himself forceful and leader-like by making this pledge, but he’s not original.
Based on all this, it seems Trump aims to provoke China—perhaps the world’s second-greatest military and economic power—over an issue that may have gone away some years ago.
Why did I do this research? Because it’s nearly impossible to dialogue, let alone collaborate on policymaking, without a common understanding of the facts. When we disagree on facts, we do well to dig deeper and sort them out. When we ignore facts entirely, we can move in directions that may be not only irrelevant, but catastrophic.
I’m going to try doing this with his other positions. Perhaps I’ll find that some of them are solid and thoughtful. I hope so. Based on Trump’s public record so far, I doubt it. But let’s see.
Last night, BBC’s World News America led with yet another story on the suffering in Syria. I was reluctant to watch it—not because I don’t care about that horrendous conflict, but because it was yet another story.
How much news from Syria, or from anywhere, do we need? How much can we take? Is there a point at which we “get the point” and can skip the following stories with impunity? How many of the “following stories”?
Let’s start with basic attitudes toward news. For me, the news is required reading/viewing. I try to write with nuance about some difficult and complex issues, and there’s no way to do that without a great deal of input, both hard news and diverse analysis. For others, news might guide them in how to vote, which charities to support, or where to roll up their sleeves and help out.
My understanding of my faith also plays a role. It tells me that every human being bears the image of God, and that God cares deeply, massively, for those who suffer. So I’m called to care deeply for them too. The way I can connect with their stories, their situations, is (in part) through the news.
News is everywhere these days. We have 24/7 news stations. A myriad of websites are always available, always telling stories. Some of us throwbacks still get the newspaper every day.
The problem is, the macro-level stories and issues take time to develop—usually months or years. So these news media, needing something to fill the space, tell slight variations of the same story from one day to the next.
It’s a barrage.
And with each day’s news, the decision comes up again—especially in stories that involve suffering. Watch too many of these, and we risk becoming desensitized. There’s a limit to how much we can take. It’s why a lot of people either check out entirely or (as I’ve done) go on news fasts.
On the other hand, maybe the next story provides an insight I never had before. Or the story on suffering in Syria tells (as it often does) of this mother in that city who has lost x children in the conflict. If I miss the story, I lose the insight, or I fail to connect with this particular divine image bearer.
Of course, this isn’t just true of news from faraway lands. How many stories about our local homeless folks do we need to hear before the same difficult decision—to watch or not to watch this segment, on this night—faces us?
Ultimately, we make the decision story by story, day by day. And I don’t think it gets easier. Have you found a good way to absorb news stories without going to overload? How much news do you need?
My opinion on government gun policy is starting to shift. That shift fills me with dread—and the reason, I think, may say a lot about why dialogue is such a hard sell.
Let’s start with my own biases. Temperamentally, I am as close to pacifist as you can get without actually being pacifist. Guns hold no appeal for me whatever (beyond the curiosity I have about pretty much everything). I grew up on Bambi. For most of my life, then, my thoughts on gun control were pretty much a default on the pro side.
But recent events have nudged me into more reflection. My experiments with gun dialogue (last month and in 2012) put me in contact with gun owners and their stories about why they value their guns, the enjoyment of pursuits associated with guns, the security they feel in owning a gun and knowing how to use it. Moreover, after pondering the Second Amendment, I can see how the standard gun owner’s interpretation may have some merit.
Bottom line: I can still support commonsense measures like background checks and waiting periods. But now, whenever cries to reduce gun ownership permeate the public square, I can’t quite join in—as much as my Bambi instinct still wants me to.
But this post is not about guns. It’s about why the shift scares me.
There are several reasons, but one towers above them all: some of the most important people in my social network—dear friends, immediate relatives, colleagues who might influence the course of my career—are vociferously anti-gun. I can think of a family member whose wisdom and love I would not do without…a colleague whose family has suffered several murders due to gun violence…a Catholic writer who shares many of my sensibilities but whose wrath grows with each mass shooting.
Will they abandon me now that I’m expressing a different opinion, even if just slightly different?
You might argue that it’s unlikely, and you’d probably be right. But in our current culture, friends and colleagues do part ways over disagreements like this. Consider the “harmonious” traditional family that fractures when a daughter comes out as gay, or good neighbors who find themselves on opposing sides when a casino comes to town. The notion that “if they abandon you over this, they weren’t real friends (or colleagues, or loved ones) anyway” is far too simplistic.
Now consider that I feel this dread strongly enough to hold my tongue around certain people—and I’m a dialogue person. How can I expect folks who are unfamiliar with dialogue to enter in when the risk is so high: when they might lose not only their basic convictions, but even their friends? How can those of us who care deeply about dialogue demonstrate that, in fact, the reward is worth the risk?
Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.
How did you come to those opinions?
The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.
With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.
By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.
Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.
So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.
The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.
What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.
Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.
Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.
Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.
It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?
Several days after our latest experiment in gun dialogue, I find myself both more hopeful and less hopeful. Fortunately, more hopeful is winning.
Last week I posed a few basic ideas that, just maybe, every person on every side of the gun debate could agree on. If we could agree, we’d have some common ground, which often inspires at least the tolerance—and sometimes the empathy—required to explore thornier issues.
The ensuing dialogue (mostly on my Facebook feed) was robust, rarely on topic, and wildly fruitful. Here are some things that I heard, thought, was surprised by, etc.:
People listened to each other. There was some “Yes I hear you but [more of my position here]” going on—which doesn’t qualify as listening—but many folks at least tried to take in the views from commenters on the other side.
The resulting exchanges were enlightening. At one point, two folks debated the definition of militia (a key word in the Second Amendment) and what relevance it might have for today’s United States. I honestly had never considered that issue in any depth.
At another point, a gun owner objected to last week’s attempts at legislation (defeated in the Senate) to inhibit sales of guns to people on government terrorist watch lists. Her objection was that the criteria for inclusion on these watch lists is not transparent. Another commenter, who favored the legislation, suggested adding a paragraph to make the criteria transparent. If these two folks could figure out a solution across their very significant divides, why couldn’t the Senate?
There is a deep, widespread sense of fear among many people in the U.S. Millions of Americans believe that their government wants to confiscate their guns. Millions of Americans are now afraid of Muslims. It is very tempting, for those of us who gravitate toward the center or left of the political spectrum, to dismiss these leanings out of hand. I suggest we sit with them a while, listen to them more intently, see how we might address them.
This is not—not—to condone xenophobia. In the midst of the Facebook dialogue, I actually had to delete a post that advocated “banning Muslims” instead of “banning guns.” I will not have my Facebook feed associated with hatred.
But maybe there’s a distinction between fear and hatred that’s worth examining. I wonder if we can make space for people to explore and express their fears, groundless or not, while confronting the all-too-easy transition from fear to hostility to hatred. I wonder if that space might actually prevent the transition from occurring.
The problem of mass violence is much, much deeper than I’d thought. The more I read on this issue, the more I wonder whether any serious approach to reducing the number of mass shootings has to involve rethinking our society on a profound level. Maybe we have to, for instance, look at our very American propensity to violence. Maybe we have to consider how our long history of individualism has eroded the very community that might deter prospective shooters. Perhaps we have to ask why so many people feel so deeply alienated. And while I hate to sound grim, I don’t think U.S. society—or any society—is up to the task. Still…
Maybe we can take steps anyway. God bless my friends: when I expressed my despair in the above paragraph, they were quick to remind me of some very basic truths. We can’t change society, but we can change ourselves. Love is the answer. (Sound simplistic? If you’ve ever tried to live it, you know it’s not.) Maybe our task now is to imagine the baby steps we can take toward a more peaceful world.
This was, of course, one conversation on one blog/Facebook feed at one point in time. But if our little agglomeration of people can have this conversation, why not others? Why not people with the power to take the baby steps, and larger ones too? Why not?
When it comes to guns, what can we all agree on?
You may think this a fool’s question, especially if you’ve spent any time with the media (print, broadcast, social, or otherwise) in the past 48 hours. We have relived, yet again, a pattern that is not only tragic but disheartening. A horrific shooting takes place. Law enforcement tries to parse out exactly what happened. In the meantime, partisans on both ends of the gun debate begin to broadcast—loudly, in take-no-prisoners language—their well-worn arguments.
Many of us stay off Facebook for a few days.
Back in 2012, after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we ran a little experiment about the gun issue in this space as well as on Facebook. I asked people to respond to some honest, open questions in order to explore and express their own beliefs about guns. (If you weren’t part of the original conversation, take a look at the questions and see how you’d answer them.)
The stories we shared and heard were remarkable. One person wrote about the relatives she has lost to gun violence. Another spoke in almost spiritual terms about the joy of hunting.
Oddly, we came close to agreement on a couple of things. Background checks were good. Waiting periods were good. Best of all, we left the clichés behind and actually started to talk with one another.
Today, in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, I want to try another little experiment. Let’s see if we can lay out a few things on which we all agree. It’s not as foolish as it looks; it just means we have to go back to basics. Waaaay back. Can we, for instance, agree to the following:
- These shootings are horrible. Obvious? Of course. But stay with it awhile. Allow yourself to feel that sense of horror and sadness that comes with each news flash. Then, when you’ve done that, know this: the person on the other side of the gun debate feels it too.
- We should keep weapons away from people who plan to use them in mass shootings. This makes yesterday’s Senate votes nearly incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for those votes, however, is this statement as self-evident as I think it is?
- It can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to tell a future mass shooter from anyone else. Taken together, these folks do what they do from a dizzying array of motives. Workplace dissatisfaction. Mental illness. A deep sense of exclusion from society’s benefits. Terrorism. No one-size-fits-all solution will fit all.
- It takes time to figure out what happened. How often, after a tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino, do we hear a police chief answer questions with “that is still under investigation”? It can take days, even weeks, to nail down the whats and whys. That makes jumping to conclusions—and, more important, acting on those conclusions—perilous.
What do you think? Can we agree on all these?
If we can, several good things can happen. Our common reactions to the horror can foster empathy: they remind us that our adversaries are, first and foremost, human. Common ground inspires hope that maybe we can work together to find more common ground—or at least places where we can compromise. If people in power take these steps, they might just find enough space to collaborate on solutions and take action.
And action to prevent another shooting is what we so desperately need. I’m betting we can all agree on that.
I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.
The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.
The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.
In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?
I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.
I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.
Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.
Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.
So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?
Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.
Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.