Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Overcoming political polarization… but not through facts

A recent New York Times poll suggests that Americans are in a dark mood. 70% of people think the country is moving in the wrong direction, a number not seen since the peak of the Great Recession two years ago. Their frustration may stem from higher gas prices or continued unemployment, but at least some commentators believe that a key factor is popular frustration with a dysfunctional government that doesn’t seem able to address the issues the US is facing.

The near-shutdown of the US government a few weeks back helps illustrate the dysfunction. Web pioneer Philip Greenspun tries to put the fight over $38 billion in spending in perspective by dividing budget numbers by 100 million. With a little mathematical analogizing, the nation’s $3.82 trillion federal budget and $1.65 trillion debt turns into a family income of $21,700, annual spending of $38,200 and credit card debt increasing by $16,500 annually. At this scale, the debate over “the largest domestic spending cut in US history” turns into a spat over a $380 cable bill when, perhaps, we should be worrying about defaulting on the mortgage. (Or, perhaps, we should realize that Greenspun’s metaphor, useful for understanding scale, might not serve us well in considering debt and spending. Americans go deep into debt to purchase houses. Is our overspending analogous to a mortgage? The analogy would be more apt if we were spending on infrastructure or education, rather than on social security and medicare.)

Fareed Zakaria, often one of the more thoughtful commentators on America’s role in the world, offers little encouragement in a recent essay in Time. Titled “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us“, Zakaria warns that the US is starting to look a bit like Britain after World War II, suffering from a sclerosis tied to success. Content with our position in the world, he warns, we may have lost sight of the fact that other nations are investing more heavily in infrastructure, education and research and development, and that our comfortable economic leadership may be rapidly receding into the past. He observes that the US government is spending $4 on the elderly (who vote) for every $1 spent on those under 18 (who don’t), and wonders whether we’ve moved from attempting to win the future to protecting the past, a stance that’s likely to be futile in the long run.

Zakaria pins the blame squarely on our political culture, specifically on an allergy to compromise that apparently affects both Republicans and Democrats. Solutions to America’s problems involve raising taxes and cutting benefits, making government more efficient and investing in future-oriented programs, building infrastructure and sponsoring research and development. Our political discourse has become highly polarized, perhaps not to an unprecedented level (it’s wise to remember that our political history has a rich tradition of using duels to settle political disputes!), but to a degree that makes many of us uncomfortable and unwilling to engage in debates with those we disagree with. Attempts to discuss improving the tone of politics in the wake of the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords foundered, in part, because they were deemed to be partisan. Accused (unfairly, I think) of having provoked the shooting by placing a crosshairs over Giffords district in her campaign literature (an unwise and unkind, if unfortunately common, political tactic), Sarah Palin declared that criticism of her political incivility was a “blood libel”… a term so emotionally charged for many Jewish Americans that she helped further polarize political debate. We can’t talk about polarization because that conversation is, you guessed it, highly polarized.

Brooke Gladstone, co-host of the indispensable radio show On the Media, introduced her listeners to a useful set of ideas for understanding why polarization makes political discourse so difficult. Trying to tackle the question, “Does NPR have a liberal bias?’, she invoked media theorist Daniel Hallin. In 1986, Hallin introduced the idea that we can understand journalistic ideas in terms of three “spheres”, widely recognized, though rarely articulated. The “sphere of consensus” includes ideas that are so widely agreed upon that they are generally uncontroversial. As Brooke puts it, “Democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.” Then there’s the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, issues we are used to arguing over, like taxation policy, abortion, gun control and capitol punishment, where reasonable people can disagree, and where journalists generally focus their attention. Finally, there’s the “sphere of deviance”, where ideas are deemed unworthy of a hearing. Brooke offers the “pro-pedophilia” position as an example of the deviant sphere, but we might term a discussion that questioned the wisdom of democracy or the fairness of capitalism as deviant within most American media discourse. (NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has a very thoughtful exegesis of Hallin’s spheres, if you find the idea as compelling as I do.)

The issue we face in a highly polarized media environment is that we’re no longer in agreement on the boundaries of these spheres. Hallin, interviewed by Gladstone, notes that when he offered the three sphere model, he believed there was a single set of spheres journalists agreed upon. The argument was about whether the boundaries of the spheres were set in the right places, or whether they limited legitimate debate. (One major utility of Hallin’s tool as a critical method, Rosen points out, is that anyone whose views are found within the sphere of deviance will invariably perceive the press as an enemy, as their views can’t get a hearing.)

Now we face multiple, conflicting sets of spheres. In one, the question of whether President Obama was born in the United States is within the sphere of legitimate controversy; in another, that question is in the sphere of deviance. Those who see the question as deviant are offended that the press would legitimate these ideas by giving them attention and coverage; those who see the question as a legitimate controversy are upset it receives so little attention and coverage. It’s hard to discuss a question of bias when observers are using sufficiently different definitions of consensus, deviance and controversy. NPR’s coverage may be primarily focused on the sphere of legitimate consensus for some fraction of listeners, and well into the sphere of deviance for others.

It’s worth noting that one tactic for social change involves working to shift these spheres. Perhaps to embrace the radical notions we need consider to escape Zakaria’s sclerosis, we need to shift the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy and entertain notions that might have been revolutionary and deviant. But the divergence of spheres into two or more conflicting sets can make political debate frustrating. When we argue about Obama’s citizenship, one side presents what they perceive to be the relevant facts, while the other is frustrated the debate is even taking place.

I work with a number of progressive organizations that seek change in the US and around the world on topics like media reform, human rights, alternatives to incarceration and improved education. Faced with misinformation about issues they care about, either through poor reporting or the distortions of political opponents, most organizations conclude that what’s needed is more facts. The solution might be better reporting (Pro Publica), impartial factchecking (Factcheck.org) or the naming and shaming of those who knowingly spread falsehoods (Media Matters for America). While I strongly support the first two (and think the third works better when it’s less partisan and more funny), I don’t think facts will fix the problems we face from polarization.

A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that a belief that global warming was caused by human activity was closely correlated to political affiliation: 58% of Democrats believed human activity was causing global warming while only 27% of Republicans did. Democrats with more education were more likely to connect climate change to human activity – 75% of Democrats with college degrees see a connection, while only 52% of Democrats with less education do. The opposite is true with Republicans – the Pew report states, “Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.”

In general, more education – and, presumably, a better set of intellectual tools to seek out facts – correlates to a stronger belief in human factors leading to climate change. But once we separate survey respondents by ideology, the picture is more complicated. More education – more facts, perhaps – leads to polarization, not to persuasion. (I found this finding very helpful in understanding one of the most fascinating and baffling stories I’ve recently heard on This American Life. Wondering whether exposure to scientific research, carefully explained, could change the mind of a climate change skeptic, Ira Glass arranged a radio conversation between Dr. Roberta Johnson, the Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and a very smart teenage Glenn Beck fan. At the end of twenty minutes of what sounded to me like very persuasive arguments, the young woman explained that she wasn’t convinced – she wanted to hear both sides of the controversy, not the “argument” the earth science teacher was offering.)

A truly excellent article by Chris Mooney titled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science” offers some hope for deciphering this conundrum. Offering a tour of research in neuroscience and cognitive science, Mooney makes the case that our reasoning is heavily rooted in emotion and in our values. Phenomena like confirmation bias (a tendency to overweight information that agrees with our preconceptions) and disconfirmation bias (the tendency to discount information we disagree with) contribute to a pattern of “motivated reasoning”, where our emotions distort and shape our “rational” thinking. Mooney suggests that there’s deep neurological reasons for this behavior – we literally have a hair-trigger “fight or flight” reaction to types of information that challenge our belief systems.

As a result, confronting a highly polarized argument with facts frequently backfires. Presented with more information, Democrats find more reasons to support a conclusion that climate change has human causes, while Republicans find reasons to believe the opposite. (To Mooney’s credit, he doesn’t present climate change as his sole example of motivated reasoning, implicitly making a case that Republicans are more susceptible than Democrats – he uses the discredited autism/vaccines link as an example of a case of motivated reasoning that appears to disproportionately affect people on the left.)

While Mooney’s analysis (which I have to assume is the precursor to a book on this topic, which I suspect will be excellent) offers deep links into the scientific literature to understand the dimensions and implications of motivated reasoning, he doesn’t offer much detail for the activist seeking to persuade an opponent, or a citizen simply hoping for more civil, reasoned debate. But the closing words of his article offer a possible path forward: “You don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

It’s possible to read this advice from Mooney as an invitation to pick up a well-thumbed copy of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” Lakoff is right to point out that Republicans have often been better than Democrats at presenting their ideas in a way that appeals to moral frames. But his works focus so heavily on the language used rather than the underlying values that it’s easy to oversimplify his idea to a game of choosing the right words to persuade a different audience. When progressive activists try to go down this path, they study the language of right-wing punditry and conclude that we need our own media, including blowhard radio hosts and a left-wing Fox News. This strategy hasn’t worked very well – these outlets don’t mobilize the progressive base, nor do they convince opponents. (And they make most most progressives feel slightly icky.)

Taking the challenge Mooney presents of leading with values to give the facts a chance requires more than sprinkling business-friendly or family values fairy dust on progressive policies in the hopes that they’ll suddenly appear palatable. It requires the much harder work of understanding the values a conservative voter brings to the table and finding common ground between our issues and their values. It may mean seeking common ground on energy policy by exploring the ways in which wind turbines help farmers in the mountain West create an alternative revenue stream for their ranches, or seeking a reexamination of mandatory drug sentences laws based on a desire to cut state spending by trimming prison budgets.

Richard Cizik’s vision of “creation care“, a vision of environmentalism rooted in scriptural interpretation is more than a frame designed to persuade Evangelical Christians to take green issues seriously. Creation care isn’t “spin” created by a progressive thinktank designed to broaden the green movement’s base. It’s the result of the long, complex process of an influential Evangelical thinker wrestling with the factual evidence that suggests a human role in climate change and biblical injunctions to humans to act as stewards of God’s creation. And because Reverend Cizik is deeply rooted in the evangelical community, he’s able to find common ground, shared values and, eventually, new language that a secular environmentalist would have trouble utilizing in a way that didn’t ring false.

If the path that leads from polarization towards common ground is rooted in understanding values as well as facts, we’ve got a challenge – how do we start listening to the needs, wants and aspirations of people who view the world differently?

I think David Simon, the creator of the remarkable TV drama The Wire may have an answer. In an interview with Bill Moyers, he talks about the frustration he felt as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, trying to get readers – and fellow newspaper writers – to understand how damaging the “war on drugs” was to their city. “And I would think, ‘Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.’ When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats, and part of that’s the delivery system of television.”

The power of The Wire, a series with Dickensian intricacy and an emotional punch that makes it both hard to watch and hard to stop watching, doesn’t come from seeing ourselves in the characters on the screen. I’m as committed to the notion of a universal recognition of humanity as the next progressive (or next Evangelical, for that matter), but that’s not what makes Omar Little, the gay stick-up man who only robs drug dealers so unforgettable. He’s a rich, textured character, carefully crafted, with aspirations, dreams and values which we likely don’t share, but which Simon allows us to understand. Simon’s story helps us understand that many people believe that the US is creating a new caste system through a failed war on drugs… and that they may have a point.

As with questions of framing, narrative is harder than it looks. The Wire is being taught at prestigious US universities not just because it brings complex narrative to contemporary social issues. David Simon is a genius – the folks at the MacArthur Foundation say so – and most attempts to marry narrative and social criticism aren’t nearly as compelling. That’s a reason to study and learn from his success, not to reject the power of the method.

We can stumble in other ways with narrative, especially when we blur reality and fiction, as Greg Mortenson’s recent fall from grace suggests. Mortenson’s apparent need to embellish his actual good deeds with compelling storylines is a reminder that narratives are so powerful, we can reshape our memories through the stories we tell about what we’ve seen and done. And while an audience is willing to accept that a well-crafted fiction may more compelling that the reporting of facts, we’re unwilling to forgive the blurring of the two genres.

Is America on the wrong track? Are things getting better or worse? Has our political culture become so toxic that compromise is no longer possible? These aren’t questions we can answer through marshaling collections of facts. They’re questions that force us to tell stories about our values, to listen to the stories our fellow citizens are telling, and to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional society.

16 Responses to “Overcoming political polarization… but not through facts”

  1. Amy says:

    Thanks for this insightful post and its many links. I’m grateful to discover these terms “sphere of consensus” and “sphere of deviance”; I’ve been at a loss to describe just this phenomenon in my multiple communities of conversation.

  2. RayS says:

    Bottom line: People believe whatever makes them feel comfortable. Any information/view which differs makes them feel insecure and is shunned. This is true across the board – young/old, rich/poor, Dem/GOP, educated/ignorant. The first lesson of true education is to realize your idols have feet of clay. The second lesson is to realize you also have feet of clay. Only when you have enough self-confidence and humility to accept your own bias and ignorance can you even begin to evaluate the world.

  3. Mary says:

    I must admit that I agree that America is in decline. Some of the factors, perhaps most, are geopolitical and macroeconomic: the end of empire. But our domestic politics are also in a depressing state.

    One of the reasons I am interested in digital activism is that it looks at edge cases in which new communication infrastructure is changing political superstructure by giving people more power. But I know this is only part of the story. It is not enough that people have power. They must know their best interest.

  4. Dave says:

    Nice post Ethan. If you haven’t already I think you’d benefit from reading Sheldon Wolin’s “Democracy Inc.” He believes, I think correctly, that we live in what he describes as inverted totalitarianism. Below are some excerpts:

    “Inverted totalitarianism reverses things. It is all politics all of the time but a politics largely untempered by the political. Party squabbles are occasionally on public display, and there is a frantic and continuous politics among factions of the party, interest groups, competing corporate powers, and rival media concerns. And there is, of course, the culminating moment of national elections when the attention of the nation is required to make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives. What is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.”

    This is a seminal work that all concerned should read.

  5. Jeff says:

    Lead with values, not facts. Hmm, I’ve been trying to think of a way out of our abyss. I’m going to have to really think hard on this one. Thx.

  6. Nils Davis says:

    Ethan – I think you underestimate the explanatory and prescriptive power of Lakoff’s theories. (Although I take issue with the way he makes his arguments – his “framing” is way bad, imho.) When you tie his research on how people really make decisions to the research of e.g., Jonathan Haidt on moral frames and Dan Ariely on cognitive biases, you can start to see how the “polarization” arose. And it’s definitely partly a “right wing conspiracy”, or more accurately, a well-executed right-wing marketing program. That the left wing has responded to extremely poorly – pretty much iPod vs. Zune. Bottom-line – when it comes to the “middle” or the “undecideds”, the right wing owns the positioning – it’s simple and catchy “less government, less taxes, government and regulation are bad.” Unfortunately, it leads to strange demands like “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” But isn’t that a lot like “going broke by saving at CostCo,” which you don’t have to be right wing to do?

  7. Mark Follman says:

    Great, thought-provoking post, Ethan. Your mention of David Simon and the ‘war on drugs’ underscored something for me — maybe one path to effective narrative is to gather perspectives, whenever possible, from folks who’ve switched sides on a given issue. When reporting at length on Vancouver’s hard drug crisis a few years back, one compelling voice I came across was that of a conservative politician who had fought vigorously against harm-reduction policy but later embraced it. I blogged about this again just last week, as more evidence of the policy’s success has emerged:

    http://wp.me/prtei-RD

    It won’t always be possible to find this kind of example when striving to build an honest narrative around a political issue, but seems to me it’s one good way to try to seek that ‘elusive common ground’ you’re talking about.

  8. Ethan, while this very thoughtful, I suggest that you’ve still ended up in a kind of intellectual cul-de-sac where “values” becomes the intellectual task instead of “facts”. I think the problem is right here:

    “how do we start listening to the needs, wants and aspirations of people who view the world differently?”

    One of the instructive things about the US Civil War is that many liberal (for those times) thinkers tried to do exactly that with the issue of slavery. As in, they tried to understand the needs, wants and aspirations of the big plantation owners, and make everything from economic arguments to property reassurances rather than merely preaching that slavery was morally wrong. And It Did Not Work. There was simply too much wealth and power tied up in the slave system. And how do you compromise over whether someone is a slave or not? The country was *polarized* – to the point of a war which echoes to this day.

    Some values debates aren’t easily amenable to commonality, e.g. if the competing values are whether one is owned or not. And the modern version of that is plutocracy or not.

  9. david ropeik says:

    You suggest Chris Mooney may be headed for a book on the cognitive elements of why we hold such polarized views. His post scrapes the surface of what is already spelled out in much richer detail in “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”. the Theory of Cultural Cognition he writes about constitutes the first 15 pages of Ch. 4. I confess, The book is mine. So is this post at Scientific American, “Trains, nukes, marriage, and vaccines (and anything else): Why the facts don’t matter.” http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=trains-nukes-marriage-and-vaccines-2011-04-22
    And this at BigThink.com Nuclear Science, Fear, and ideology http://bigthink.com/ideas/31827
    Both speak to what various research has found about why we hold such polarized views despite the facts.

  10. Erica George says:

    Have you seen the work being done by the “moral foundations theory” research cohort led by Jonathan Haidt of University of Virginia? I’ve been loosely following it for a couple of years. It’s still a very evolving theory, but there’s some really thought-provoking work.

    Good places to start with many links, including to various articles and a 2008 TED talk:
    http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php
    http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/

    Basically, the idea is that there are five core zones of morality. Two relate to the protection and freedom of individuals: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. The other three relate to the protection and cohesion of groups: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.

    In surveying a lot of Americans, through the yourmorals.org site, they discovered that liberals tend to think about morality primarily in terms of the first two zones, while conservatives tend to focus on the second three zones. Everyone values all five, but the correlation between different emphasis and political self-identification was significant.

    (This isn’t to say that liberals then don’t care about the common good – that’s obviously not true – but that in perceiving the common good, liberals are more likely to be thinking about a society as a collection of individuals all needing protection and freedom, rather than thinking about the group itself as an entity needing protection possibly over and above the needs of its members. The researchers explain this all better.)

    You can use that lens to begin to understand, for example, how a conservative can believe that gay marriages threaten heterosexual marriages. A gay marriage violates conservative ideas about purity (including physical disgust at some kinds of gay sex) and the idea that het marriages are specially marked as sacred, the authority of established leaders and religious texts, and the presumptive correctness of the established in-group of heterosexual married people behaving heteronormatively along conservative gender lines, with authoritarian fathers etc. So to some conservatives, the very existence of a gay marriage is an active attack on the stability of the institution of straight marriage, as they understand it, because by allowing something that exists outside their established moral norm to exist at all, it threatens the normativeness of that norm, undermining its moral foundation. Again they explain this all much better.

    One of the several outgrowths of this research is http://www.civilpolitics.org, where they’re trying to apply these ways of thinking about moral arguments over political issues to better enable people to understand what values motivate others’ political opinions.

    In response to Seth above, I’d say that the Civil War example doesn’t actually try to make connections along *values* lines. “Whether someone is owned or not” isn’t a value, it’s an opinion that is influenced and shaped by values. The issue wasn’t that Abolitionists weren’t preaching that slavery was morally wrong. They were. It’s that they were presenting the moral wrongness of slavery in terms of the values that were important to them – in particular, individual freedoms. Slavery is wrong for many different reasons, and there are arguments against it in multiple zones of values. Some of those would possibly have been values that were held more strongly by the people who needed convincing.

    That’s where I see the potential power of the moral foundations model. On the gay marriage example, there has been some headway by promoting gay marriages in the context of the universal sacredness of love, or in the context of loyalty and fidelity. Once you can tip perspective away from focusing on sex acts some people are squeamish about and onto the love that draws two people to want to declare themselves life partners, you’ve flipped the values-based understanding of where gay marriage falls in terms of purity.

    I wouldn’t call this an easy answer, but a useful lens for thinking about politics, and particularly for attempting to understand how it’s possible that a decent person could hold opinions that feel foreign and even immoral. It’s helped me avoid going insane in talking to my Tea Party relatives, too.

  11. Ethan says:

    Thanks for the excellent comments, folks. A couple of reactions:

    Nils, I don’t deny that there’s been a decided effort on the right in the US to increase polarization. Where I think my progressive brethren go astray is in trying to combat these tactics by adopting them. I’m hoping an emphasis on finding common issues and common ground, perhaps by understanding each other’s narratives, could bring us out of the trap of worsening the discourse as a whole. I am certainly far from expert on Lakoff’s work and may be missing his insights in the space – what I’m offering is the (overly simplistic) take many on the activist left make of his work.

    DavidR, I don’t mean to suggest that Mooney is a key researcher in this space – I think he would acknowledge that the work he’s doing is surveying the literature and trying to make it accessible to a non-specialist audience. I look forward to reading your books.

    Seth, I agree that there are places where value gaps are likely unbridgeable, and I think slavery – America’s original sin – is probably one of them. What I’m trying to question is whether all values gaps are unbridgeable. For the future of an open society, I hope they are not.

    Erica, thanks for bringing Haidt into the conversation. I had the chance to write up his TED talk some years back: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/03/01/ted2008-liberals-conservatives-and-moral-humility/ His framings may provide some assistance in helping people unpack a values conversation. I wish he offered more poles than left/right, though – I think we’re starting to align around a much more complex, multipolar world than that dichotomy, and I wonder how his values thinking applies when we’re dealing with Evangelical environmentalists, socially progressive libertarians, etc.

  12. Erica – I think you’ve read my Civil War example as the reverse of what I meant. The point I was making is that nowadays, we just hear of Abolitionists as moralizers. But at the time, there was actually a whole spectrum of “bipartisan” and “moderate” argument that tried to bridge-the-divides and appeal via other than moralizing, to address the economic and labor concerns of plantation-owners. There was a similar complaint, roughly “Those extremists, they aren’t convincing anyone outside the choir by their preaching. They alienate the very people who must be reached. Instead, the solution is to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional Union”. And it failed, utterly.

    Ethan – So, I am not claiming that *all* gaps are unbridgeable. But I *am* saying there’s some gaps that aren’t, and the current issue of plutocracy is essentially one of those. If some people want a society of gentry and serfs, and others don’t, that’s not really compromisable. And trying to appeal to the values of would-be gentry isn’t going to work, at least for anyone outside their social class (i.e. you have to be someone like George Soros or Warren Buffett to even have a chance).
    One of my aphorisms is that there are very few problems where the solution is “more punditry”. I suggest the problem here is that you’re still looking for the *magic* *words* that are going to work, just moving from “marshaling collections of facts” to “tell stories about our values”. There’s all sorts of flaws with that, not the least of which is a set-up for endless attacks as being out-of-touch and not Real Americans.
    I am not asserting framing and appeals are always useless. Rather, sometimes one has much bigger problems where it won’t help at all.

  13. Nils Davis says:

    Ethan – I’d characterize the right’s “decided effort” as more for “marketing” versus “increase polarization.” (Giving them the benefit of the doubt.) However, it’s obviously had that effect.

    I’m not saying the left needs to make an effort to increase polarization – it’s that they need to do a better job of marketing their positions.

    The way the left does it now, using facts and logical arguments, turns out to not work very well for lots of people. This is Lakoff’s key recognition. And when the right calls the left “elites”, this is what they mean – people who use facts and logical arguments, rather than arguments that are more rooted in emotions, group membership, loyalty, concern for others, fairness, and the various dimensions that Haidt talks about. That is, that are cognitively appealing.

    A side note on the gay marriage thing that Erica mentions – did you see the recent announcement from Louis Marinelli? He was an outspoken leader in the anti-gay marriage movement. Two weeks ago he said on his blog that he had changed his mind, and now supports “civil gay marriage.” What happened? He made friends with some gay people and as a result he change his mind.

    A Haidt-like interpretation (but mine, not his) is that this put gay people in his “in-group”, and he recognized he was doing harm to members of his group. That led to cognitive dissonance, and he had to give up his previous position. (See louisjmarinelli.com for more.)

  14. Lawrence Chickering says:

    I have a very simple view of why there is so much conflict. It has very little to do with either conflicting “facts” or values. It is rooted in low social trust, which in turn is caused by a lack of personal engagement. Nils Davis cites an anti-gay activist who changes his mind. Why? Because “he made friends with some gay people.” Our political culture is ravaged by low trust. You can read the news for a month about debates on political issues and come away convinced the only thing anyone believes is “not the other”. Trust comes from personal engagement and communication across loyalties. With trust, people understand “facts” and values completely differently. Our entire social order is organized to connect people who agree about things and separate people who don’t. The polarization will continue — and may even intensify — until people start engaging each other. For *that* will be the moment when we start to see each other in terms of our common humanity.

    The challenge is not a rational one; it is emotional and spiritual. The challenge is as much for us as it is for “them”. I have learned this lesson from a variety of sources, but none is more powerful than in my work promoting education for girls in the most tribal regions of rural India: when girls who are out of school engage the men and ask them for a chance in life, everything changes — and in a matter of minutes.

    This is not rocket science . .

  15. johne says:

    The power of story-teeling can be shown with another example: Ayn Rand, a sort of anti-David Simon, who cast a spell over generations of otherwise intelligent people with with wooden characters, a strident tone and laughable plots.

  16. Liz Joyner says:

    In Tallahassee FL we started an organization 6 years ago you might be interested in looking at aimed at improving the civility of the political discourse: The Village Square, online here –

    http://www.tothevillagesquare.org

    Our model is to build relationships across the political divide inside of a community, face-to-face. Our board is 1/2 D, 1/2 R with many across-the-aisle friendships. We make our events social because it’s personal bonds that help people understand we share many values (we really do). We chose our approach because we firmly believe in your argument here: People don’t lead with their heads, they lead with their hearts. We’re interested in “franchising” the model – it’s working, it’s cheap and it’s actually fun.

    And PS we’re big big fans of Jon Haidt mentioned up the thread and were lucky enough to have his colleague in the organization CivilPolitics.org here a few weeks ago for a program (and Jon Skyped live with our audience). You can find a video of the program here: http://www.wiki.tothevillagesquare.org/display/events/Dinner+at+the+Square%2C+The+Psychology+of+Polarization+and+Demonization

    I also highly recommend you read Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” which further explains our problem with civility. We also had Bill visit us – video & links here:

    http://www.wiki.tothevillagesquare.org/display/events/Dinner+at+the+Square%2C+The+Big+Sort

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  4. This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ forced hand, a Patch recruiting push, and two sets of news maxims » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism - [...] And for your deep-thinking weekend-reading piece, Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughtful take on overcoming polarization by understanding each other’s …
  5. Joho the Blog » Berkman Buzz - [...] Ethan Zuckerman explores the roles facts and values play in polarization: link [...]
  6. More on Stories and Facts « Groundswell - [...] my last post, which itself was inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s post on overcoming polarization, I pondered whether stories could …

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