Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Media’ Category
I changed my morning routine recently, and it made me wonder if this is how polarization happens.
For years, my wife and I have set our alarm to one particular radio station. In between the usual traffic, weather, and sports, the hosts comment on the news of the day as well as daffy human interest stories and trends from around the world. These folks are funny and delightful and their banter makes for a light start to the day.
Over the past year or so, though, their comments have taken on a harder edge. The parent company airs a full slate of right-wing talk radio, so it came as no surprise that our morning hosts leaned conservative. In the run-up to the election, however, I heard their commentary as increasingly shrill and cutting. I would get out of bed with a knot in my stomach.
One day I couldn’t deal with it anymore. So I reset our alarm to National Public Radio.
Since then I’ve been happier with the morning wakeup, and doggone it if I’m not smarter when I get out of bed now. Still, two things unsettle me.
First, I have stopped listening to a station I disagree with on many points—in favor of a station I agree with on many points. This sort of “flight to allies” happens a lot in U.S. culture, and it serves to harden the divides between us. When we get our news and analysis from one source, with one worldview, it becomes more difficult to think outside that worldview. It is easy to assume that our perspective is simply “the way it is.” Moreover, we see people on the “other side” through the filter of the source’s perspective, which more often than not provides a distorted picture of them.
Second, what motivated me to change stations? Was it the worldview of the hosts, or the way they communicated it? I believe it was the latter. Unfortunately, many of their political arguments started and ended with the stock phrases of “their side”—as well as a certain tone of hostility and indignation with the “other side.” This, too, happens a lot in U.S. culture: think of the level of thought and discourse on partisan talk radio or, for that matter, through much of the presidential election.
Now consider this story as a microcosm. If you multiply it by the number of instances where we “turn the dial” away from those who disagree with us, then multiply by the 300 million people in the U.S., it’s easy to see how these small individual choices contribute to our polarized culture. If you multiply the stock phrases of these two radio hosts by the hours of airtime devoted to similar phrases on angry talk radio throughout the U.S., it’s easy to see that this limited public vocabulary makes our divides harder and harder to bridge.
Am I reading this right? Is this one way in which polarization happens? What do you think?
Every now and then I run across an article so compelling that I have to share it with you. This past week, there were two. Both speak to the rich, substantive dialogue we could—and, I would say, should—be having in this U.S. election year.
First, the ever-perceptive Thomas Friedman spins a succinct narrative of the United States’ last 30 years. In a nutshell, the country had a history of educating its people to the level of the latest technology and innovation—thus equipping them for emerging high-skilled jobs—but stopped doing so around the 1980s. As a national workforce, therefore, we lack the skills to compete with other countries around the globe, many of which have surpassed the U.S. in such basic but essential capabilities as reading and math.
The second article, by Scott Shane of The New York Times, touches on a related topic, discussing the dismal U.S. rankings on issues from child poverty to student achievement to obesity. A national dialogue on these and other problems might go a long way toward promoting the health and vigor of U.S. society. Yet Shane posits that the culture of American exceptionalism prevents us from even reflecting on these issues, let alone discussing them in the public square.
Friedman and Shane touch on some of the most pressing challenges in the U.S. today. They are more than worthy of dialogue on a substantial scale. For example, one would expect that the people seeking to lead the country would address the problems that plague the country. It is said that such a strategy would be political suicide, for the reasons Shane describes, and he is probably right.
The question is: does it have to be this way?
This pattern has probably been around since the first election. My sense, though, is that we’re hearing more of it than usual. See if you agree.
Imagine that I have decided to vote for Barack Obama and you have decided to vote for Mitt Romney. We’re having coffee one day, and you say something critical about Obama. At this point, I have several options. I can mull over what you just said, determine whether it has merit in my opinion, and respond to you directly. That comes closest to dialogue.
I could also defend the president against the criticism you made. Though that leans more toward debate or conversation than dialogue, it could lead to a healthy, vigorous exchange of views. We might both gain some insight from it.
A third option seems to be the most popular these days. In response to your criticism of Obama, I respond instantly with a criticism of Romney. My point may not even cover the same topic as your point. Perhaps you criticized Obamacare and I disparage Romney’s vast wealth. In essence, we stop talking with each other, or even to each other, and start talking past each other.
OK, so this third option does come with the territory of politics. But at times, it seems to be all I hear—not only from folks like us, but from the candidates themselves. While they have certainly spent time laying out their basic positions (the viability of these positions, and the unspoken details, are quite another matter), there just seems to be a higher percentage of trash talk in the air.
And that leads me to wonder: do we have so little to say in favor of our own candidates that we have no choice but to trash the other candidate?
There may be something to this. Both candidates, as we discussed last week, have substantial flaws. Many Republicans have found it difficult to generate enthusiasm for Romney. Many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama. This is too bad, because (as we also discussed last week) both candidates have considerable qualifications. We could do—and have done—much worse.
The issue with the high percentage of other-candidate-trashing, from what I can see, is that it saps our energy, heightens our cynicism, and sharpens our divides, leaving us with few personal resources to do the hard work of democracy (i.e., to participate actively in improving our civic and community life). A civil delineation of differences, on the other hand, can enlighten us. And a description of a candidate’s strengths and accomplishments might even inspire us to think that, maybe, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if said candidate got into office.
Are you hearing this too? More than the usual percentage of trash talk? I’d love to hear your perspective, so feel free to share it here (or on Facebook).
Dear Reader, the last few weeks have been a blur—and a great deal of it had to do with getting the book on press. As of last week, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart is off to the printers. We’re looking at a publication date sometime around mid-November (if you want to beat the holiday rush, feel free to pre-order now). The pre-press chaos has taken me away from this space, unfortunately, but things should be relatively steady now that I can’t change the book anymore. So, on to this week’s topic…
When the notorious video of Mitt Romney’s fundraiser first came out, it seemed like an interesting case study of how to think through a breaking news story in a dialogic fashion. Let’s follow the developments as they unfolded—in the news and in my brain—and consider what the results might say to us.
(One disclosure will help make sense of this case. After much paying of attention to the candidates, I plan to support Obama over Romney in the upcoming U.S. election. At bottom, I think both are good and honorable people; it just so happens that I tend to agree more with Obama’s way of thinking than Romney’s. My position matters here only because it aligns me with the 47%.)
I first heard of the candidate’s remarks in a news story. My gut reaction was to be personally insulted: I do not see myself as a victim, I have a strong sense of personal responsibility, etc. How dare he.
Quickly my dialogic self chimed in: You know how often these quotes are taken out of context—or even outright misrepresented by the other side. Do not make an assessment until you’ve seen the source.
So I looked at the source*—while also paying attention to any explanation Romney might make. Both, I figured, would provide context and nuance.
No such luck. As you know by now, he said what he said. The day after the news broke, Romney admitted that he spoke inelegantly, but he did not try to defend it.
So now I’m still insulted, but at least I have the full picture. End of story, right?
Not really. One valuable tool in the dialogue toolbox is to ask the unasked question. Often, after a few news cycles, the same questions and data keep showing up, and no new ground is covered. In this case, after a few days of reports on who does and does not pay income tax, what the political fallout would be, etc., one of these unasked questions came to mind:
Is it really ethical to bring a hidden camera into a private fundraiser?
I’d still be stewing over that, except that unasked question led quickly to another unasked question:
Why do we allow private fundraisers for presidential candidates anyway?
In general, I’m a big fan of preserving the privacy of people in the public eye. But as I see it, the point of U.S. presidential campaigns (and one good argument for how damned long they are) is to get us fully acquainted with the candidates—the way they think about the world, their stands on issues, their character flaws, all of it—so we can make a serious and informed decision. How can we do that when candidates are hiding key elements of their thinking, only to be trotted out for private fundraisers?
- Gut reaction: insulted and outraged.
- Dialogic reaction: insulted and outraged, but with a more complete understanding of the event, and added thinking on two deeper issues regarding the structure of our political process.
If we stay at the gut level, we get to carry around our outrage but have little to add to the general conversation (the outrage has received its fair share of attention already). If we delve deeper into the issue, asking questions of it in a dialogic way, we come up with more questions and insights that might make a difference, however small, in the general conversation. If enough of us explore and raise enough of these questions and insights, who knows what kind of change we might effect?*If I had completely followed my dialogic self’s advice, I would have watched the entire video. I have not had the time to do so, and perhaps that is a failing on my part. Here, I am relying on Romney’s reaction; if the full video had included anything to mitigate the effect of the 47% comments, he would have brought that up loud and clear.
Sometimes, in this U.S. election season, you have a dig through a certain amount of misleading verbiage to get a better handle on the story.
This came to mind last week when a startling tidbit appeared on Facebook: Fox News had called Paul Ryan a liar. To be sure, other media were making similar accusations shortly after the Republican vice-presidential candidate gave his acceptance speech to the national convention. But a conservative news organization slamming a conservative candidate?
I pay close attention to this sort of thing. When a person or organization goes against the party line, it sometimes reveals a penetrating insight about the truth of the matter. So if both The New York Times and Fox News (traditionally perceived as liberal and conservative, respectively) were accusing Ryan of lying, perhaps he was. That could be a serious charge.
Was it accurate?
I clicked through the Facebook link to the story. There it was in living color: “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
Wow. So Fox News did say that.
Not so fast. At the bottom of the article was a brief bio of the author—Sally Kohn, described as “a Fox News contributor and writer”—and a link. One click brought me to her website, another to her bio. A close reading revealed that her writing, her experience, and her activities run the gamut of the political spectrum, with an emphasis toward causes and media traditionally perceived as liberal.
So the Facebook post was inaccurate on two counts. First, Fox News didn’t write about Paul Ryan’s speech; Sally Kohn of Fox News did. Second, Sally Kohn does not appear to toe the conservative party line. Her view of Ryan’s address is less remarkable when you consider that.
What’s my point? I am not by any means impugning Sally Kohn’s writing or integrity. Nor am I making any judgment on Paul Ryan’s speech (I haven’t watched it yet). What I am emphasizing is the importance of getting the full story, ideally reading it in several sources on different points of the political spectrum. In my book (now available for pre-order), I call this the “balanced media diet”: if we get our news from, say, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or The National Review and Mother Jones, or The Economist and the International Socialist Review—or, even better, all six—we’ll have a far broader knowledge base from which to test the veracity of any given news item.
Most likely, we’ll also be more inclined to dialogue. One (sometimes painful) effect of a balanced media diet is that we come face to face with the legitimate viewpoints of the “other side.” We can understand how its adherents might come to the assumptions they cherish and the conclusions they put forth. We begin to see that our view is not necessarily the One True View, or even one of two opposing views, but rather one among many. Our thinking gets more nuanced. When this happens, we are more open to dialogue with our adversaries—because it’s harder to think of them as adversaries any longer.
Have you found news items that aren’t what they first appear to be? Have you read a publication from the other side of an issue and found it more enlightening than infuriating? I’d love to hear your experiences along these lines.
In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…
It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.
Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.
“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”
There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”
Why should we have to keep conversation civil?
Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.
Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.
This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.
When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.
As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.
And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.
I invite you to join me in celebrating some good news—and pondering what it might start.
If you’ve explored the other parts of this site, you know I’ve been working on a book. It covers many of the themes we explore right here—particularly the ancient “work of the soul” that can make dialogue not just what we do, but who we are. You can read an excerpt here.
Soon you can read the whole thing.
This fall, SkyLight Paths Publishing will release Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart. While the book is primarily directed at Christians (in the end, I found I could be most effective when writing to the tradition I know), I believe its lessons can apply across the spectrum of faith. It discusses strengths of character that most faith traditions uphold, suggestions for spiritual practices to cultivate those strengths, and a whole boatload of practical suggestions that anyone can use.
And I hope “anyone”—OK, everyone—will read Why Can’t We Talk? Why? Because it would greatly enrich what I see as one of the most exciting aspects of this development: the book not as an end in itself, but as a small starting point to much larger conversation. Yesterday a colleague of mine expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the book. She’s a Hindu, and I am dying to hear her perspective, because I know it will add to the general stew of ideas. The more people who read the book, the more voices we can get in the room for this conversation. Who knows? We might be able to move the needle on dialogue where it matters: from interpersonal relationships to the halls of Congress.
I will keep you abreast of important developments as they arise. In the meantime, feel free to tell everyone you know, and post your thoughts here (or on my Facebook page or Twitter feed). There’s no time like the present to start the conversation.
I had a moment of cynicism this past Sunday, and the lessons apply directly to dialogue.
As the rain from Irene poured onto our yard, we kept waiting for it to come into our basement. Every hour we walked downstairs and checked. Dry. Dry. Dry. Finally, at 11:30, we saw the first film of water on the basement floor. Much wet/dry vacuuming ensued, but the water level never went above a coating.
Meanwhile, on every TV channel, meteorologists shook their heads and reported that Irene was every bit as disastrous as predicted. At one point I turned to my wife and asked, “Is it possible they’re hyping this just a bit?”
In the past few days, this experience reminded me of a basic truth about dialogue as a way of life: the way of dialogue suspends judgment. It is so easy to seize on one factoid or limited perspective or shred of truth—especially if it comes from our own experience—and leap to a fully formed opinion about the whole situation.
I would submit that our culture supports this jumping to conclusions in several ways. The overwhelming volume of media—24/7, always on, always “breaking news”—almost demands that we process and evaluate information instantly just to keep up. Partly to accommodate the media, many pundits, elected leaders, and talk radio hosts reduce complex issues to sound bites, and it becomes easy to assume that the sound bite is the sum total of the issue.
Moreover, the cynicism that pervades much of postmodern life can color our judgment. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen our local meteorologists make a big deal of a weather event that didn’t live up to the hype. Because of that, I found it easy to assume that hype had become standard operating procedure for boosting ratings. I did not stop to consider just how difficult weather forecasting can be, how many variables are involved, or how swiftly conditions can change.
Living as people of dialogue—people oriented toward openness, toward listening, toward a passion for seeking out the reality of a situation, toward the importance of others’ perspectives—calls us to remain open to as many inputs as possible, and consider them with respect, before (and even after) coming to judgment. It’s why getting our news from “the other side” as well as “our side” is so important. It’s why the consultancy for which I work (The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc.) urges clients to include a broad cross-section of people in the discussion of an issue: hearing inputs from many perspectives leads to a more complete view of the issue, which in turn makes for more thoughtful analysis and better decisions.
What would happen if we took this open, reflective, think-before-you-judge approach on the federal debt, or on immigration, or even with our kids when they do something questionable? Could it work? What do you think?
If Michael Kitchens’ research is any indication, the answer to both questions is: not many. An assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, Kitchens conducted a study that investigated whether people’s religious backgrounds influenced their choice of media on religion. He and his students asked 213 participants to rate their preference for one of three fictitious research summaries: one with positive information about religion, one with negative information about religion, and one neutral.
You can guess what the study found. Religious people preferred the positive summary. Non-religious people preferred the negative summary.
In an article on his research, Kitchens extrapolates from these findings to the political realm. It makes sense, he writes, that “people’s political identity fuels the need to seek information that confirms” their beliefs. This, he reasons, has given rise to a fractured media landscape in which “media sources continue to validate people’s preconceived notions and worldviews.”
I think he’s spot-on here. What surprises me, though, is his bleak outlook for the future: he says that “harmony is unattainable” and the best course of action is to learn how to conduct “a reasonable debate about ideas.”
But how do we even get to the debate if we are so suspicious of the “other side”? That suspicion comes from the same cycle that Kitchens is on about. As we take in the news media that agree with us, we inevitably hear criticisms of those who disagree. In today’s toxic public square, those criticisms are particularly nasty: we hear our adversaries’ motives questioned, their patriotism impugned, their truthfulness cast into doubt. So how can we approach them with anything that appears like listening?
What if, however, we took one simple step long before the debate: what if we all read or viewed media that disagree with us?
What if we all committed to reading one newsmagazine, watching one news program, or visiting one blog whose worldview is completely different from ours? We could do this not just across political lines, but across other divides too: divides of gender, color, sexual orientation, and yes, religion.
Here’s what I’ve seen happen: once we take in this media from proponents of the “other side,” we realize that their thinking has some rationality behind it, that their motives have more integrity than we’re led to believe, that maybe a few of their points make sense—even if we still disagree with them. This opens our minds a bit. The next time we approach these people or their ideas, we might be just a bit more inclined to listen, and our minds open wider.
Now I’m not talking about the ranting media—particularly the talk radio programs whose sole purpose is to inflame passions and get ratings. I’m talking about thoughtful columnists and pundits who believe something different. This is why I read David Brooks and Kathleen Parker as well as Cynthia Tucker. Maybe I need to suck it up and read George Will, too.
What about you? If you could read one columnist or magazine or blog from the “other side,” which would you pick? Share it here. It might just be a resource no one else has thought about.
Remember all those long-ago TV ads that trumpeted the vast promise of the Internet to bring us all together? Apparently, quite the opposite is taking place.
So says a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Gregory Rodriguez. A senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Rodriguez writes that “despite all the newfangled ways we’ve developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we’re increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.”
Why? Rodriguez quotes a fascinating insight from Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. With the explosion of diversity in today’s world, Bishop writes, people increasingly have to create their own identities. That’s a lot easier when you draw on support from people like you.
I see this as a good thing. In Western culture, at least, we no longer have a social consensus to tell us who we are (or aren’t). Thank God for that, especially since the consensus defined “normal” in very restrictive ways. But as someone with his own eccentric identity, I have seen how isolating the resultant “who am I?” quest can be. Support from like-minded people is a breath of fresh air, and the Internet has made it easier to find them.
The problem is not that we hang out with like-minded people. The problem comes when we only hang out with like-minded people (or only read their like-minded thinking).
By doing that, we drastically limit the number of worldviews we encounter. Our views can easily become more rigid and dogmatic. We might think the answers to problems are simple when they’re not. Moreover, we start to believe things about people not of our worldview—and those things are often inaccurate.
That may be why, for instance, some LGBT people see all evangelical Christians as homophobic, or why some Anglos see all Mexicans as unpatriotic, or why some Americans fear all Muslims as potential terrorists. And it makes dialogue difficult.
But what if we expanded the spectrum of places we hang out online? It can do wonders for clearing away preconceptions. As our exploration unfolds, we may realize that “all people in x group” don’t have the same perspective, because this blogger in x group has a different perspective. More often than not, we discover that her perspective is well thought out. Maybe we can find ways to at least respect those opinions, if not actually bridge our divides.
Rodriguez quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the value of spending time with “them” and their perspectives. To help reach consensus as an Arizona legislator, she’d invite the warring sides over to her house for home-cooked Mexican food and beer. They’d sit around and shoot the bull. In time, they became friends. This can happen virtually too (OK, minus the edibles).
Will this kind of crossover solve all our problems? Of course not. Differences in opinion and debates over policy will never go away, and neither should they: they can contribute to the forging of better solutions. But we can’t even begin to solve our problems if we’re not talking. And we can’t talk productively unless we see and hear others, especially our “adversaries,” for who they really are. If that means reading MoveOn.org as well as nationalreview.com, or The Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, then that’s what we have to do.