Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yes - Discuss Politics and Religion at Thanksgiving Meals

Robert Jensen, a local U. of Texas professor, published an interesting editorial in the Austin newspaper on Thanksgiving morning that called for people to engage in civil conversations about politics and religion at their Thanksgiving meals. Besides making the conversation much more interesting and meaningful, he argues that we have a moral obligation to engage in such discussions as citizens of a democracy. I would add that we would all likely learn something in the process, both about the topics being discussed and about each other.

In my mind, the trick to keeping things civil is knowing what to discuss. Avoid political hot buttons such as Obama/Romney/Obamacare. Instead talk about bigger issues, such as what should be the role of the government in creating opportunities for people to thrive, or what is a good level of economic inequality in our society? In terms of religion, abortion might be a good hot button issue to avoid depending on the audience. Instead, discussions about the bigger issues can range from exploring what should be the roles and limits to religious involvement in politics (and visa-versa), to what people think is the nature of God (no right or wrong answers here).

To quote Jensen:

Remember this: Our affluent society produces an excess of everything except what we most desperately crave: meaning. Such meaning comes when in our everyday lives we talk with people - those we know and strangers on the bus - about the most basic questions that have unsettled humans forever: What does it mean to be a decent human being? How do we deal with the problems of power?
The full article is available at:

Monday, June 11, 2012

I've said it for a while now, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hanity have become totally irrelevant to the future direction of this country or creating any positive change within it. This thought below beautifully expresses what we need right now in this country instead. It's from a recent NY Times article by Steve Almond.
"My personal goal is simple: to go cold turkey on conservative wing nuts and instead take up the hard work of genuine political action. It’s time for all of us — liberal, conservative and otherwise — to define ourselves as Americans not by who we hate but by what we can do to strengthen our communities and country."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Verbal Jujitsu and Political Attacks

In a recent post in the NY Times comparing Obama's economic policies to those of other presidents, it was interesting to note the response in the very first comment. The writer felt compelled to point out that President George W. Bush is being unfairly blamed for the economic problems at occurred at the end of his term. The real cause of those problems, he claims, was the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act done under President Bill Clinton.

Putting aside the actual policy issues for a moment, it may be instructive to look at how people might emotionally react to this exchange. Progressives, for example, might feel the need to somehow jump to Bill Clinton's defense and deflect the criticism back to George Bush somehow. But his quickly turns the discussion away from the original worthwhile topic and focus on an emotional defense/criticism dynamic of various politicians. At that point, the civil discussion is in danger of going rapidly downhill.

Instead, a much better response would be to simply say "I'm not here to defend everything Bill Clinton did. I'm sure we can both agree that he made some mistakes, and that repealing the Glass-Steagall Act was probably one of them". Then turn back to discussing the economic issues and policies, looking for areas of common ground, or better yet looking for things where you can learn from each other. Think of this as verbal jujitsu - don't take an attack head on, deflect the force away and use it to your advantage to achieve your goals of maintaining a civil discussion.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How to change your attitude when you hear yourself being attacked

A friend of mine, Phil, was talking about disagreements in the workplace recently.  When someone disagreed with his views at work, his first reaction was often to feel he was being attacked by that other person.   He would view them as an idiot, and enemy, or both.  He knew this was wrong though.  He came up with the following process he used and recommended when he felt he was being attacked (and "felt" is the right word since he realized it was often just and emotional reaction):

Pause a moment, take a breath, and ask yourself the following two questions:

  1. What is the other person's likely motivation?
  2. What is the other person thinking?  What point are they trying to make?
This brief practice can quickly change your attitude in many situations. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

An Atheist Woman and Her Conservative Christian Parents

On another discussion board, a women recently wrote that she was an atheist, while her parents are conservative Christians. Their conversations with her often turn into a rapid fire set of questions and arguments challenging her atheism.  She wants to have a relationship with them, but feels that their desire to convert her is taking over.  How should she handle this?

For what it's worth, here's my response to her question.
Perhaps you need to start by asking what you want to accomplish.  Are you trying to "convert" them to atheism?  I suspect not. Are you trying to justify your position to them so that "they see the logic" in what you believe?  It's unlikely you will have much success at that.  It seems like the discussion degenerates into debates with each side trying to score points.  Again, that is unlikely to change anyone's mind or reduce the conflict.     
So what is it that you would like to have happen?  Do you want mainly a good relationship with your parents?  Then perhaps, as another person suggested, you simply respond to their arguments by saying "Thanks, I'll think about that" and move the discussion on.  The other part of the answer may be to change the conversation and look for common ground.  You can try talking to them about what is important to you -  family, friends, helping each other, wanting a better world, etc.   It's often a good idea to avoid talking about specific politicians in the process, since I suspect you will find strong disagreements there too.  Instead, talk about ideas, plans, and what's important to you that they are likely to share and be interested in. 

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else who had similar problems with parents or relatives an how you handled it, and whether that worked out well or was a disaster.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Purple America - An Interesting Organization With a New Leader

Press release:  "John Wilson has been named chairman of Purple America, an initiative to shift the American conversation to a more civil dialog through a deeper understanding of a set of values widely shared across America that form our nation’s common ground."

“Our nation has a critical need for a meaningful and civil discussion about America’s future built around the values that have shaped our history and our character,” says Wilson. “As our nation struggles to correct its course, I look forward to engaging Americans from all walks of life in this dialog, including the teachers who build our nation every day by touching the hearts and minds of our young people.” 

More useful information from the Purple America web site worth passing on:

Whether you are a teacher, a business leader or other communicator, or whether you consider yourself just an "average" American, you can be the change you want to see. Here's how:
1) Take the Purple America Pledge. It's your commitment to create win-win relationships by seeking common ground and conversation over conflict. 
2) Pass it on. Ask your family, friends, religious, political and other leaders to acknowledge that Americans are more alike than we are different by taking the Pledge and committing to respect the values that unite us. 
3) Take a stand. Advocate for conflict resolution through civility and common ground.  Use your voice, your pen, your vote,  your position and your purchase power to hold leaders accountable for creating progress and harmony or gridlock and acrimony. 
4) Honor a teacher, friend, colleague or leader. Celebrate someone who demonstrates a commitment to resolving conflict instead of inflaming it, or who inspires you through their devotion to sharing or cultivating the values of  EqualityFaithFamilyFreedomLove and RespectSelf-Expression,Doing the Right ThingCommunityGiving Backthe Good LifeOpportunity and Success. 
5) Explore this website for more information on the values that connect us, and get involved.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Start by Accepting Emotions

I was reading an interesting discussion on DemocraticUnderground the other day. The basic idea being proposed was that we can debate and question facts and ideas, we can praise or criticize actions, but when we judge another's feelings as wrong, the discussion generally turns a turn into a useless emotional skirmish.

In order to understand another person, we have to learn that sometimes we have to just understand and accept their feelings as a starting point.  That's what drives their beliefs and actions.  Without understand their feelings, attempts to "rationally" argue them out of a position is usually an exercise in frustration.  In most cases this means actually respecting their feelings.  You may see things differently, have different priorities, and have different emotions about any given situation, but you need to understand that the other person has valid feelings about the same situation that are different from yours, often just because they give different priorities to conflicting aspects of the situation.

Admittedly there are some cases where respect for another's feeling may be inappropriate - cases where emotions are driven by anger, prejudice, or an overwhelming desire for revenge.  In such cases having a civil conversation may be very difficult.   The best you can do is to establish a personal relationship with the other person with the hope of something changing in the future.  That requires you to at least understand and accept what the other person is feeling.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Here's an Example of What We Need More of - Group Honored for Fostering Civil Discussion

"The Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines announced April 27 that The Wallace Centers of Iowa is this year's winner of the foundation's "Better Together Award" for organizations. The award is given to one organization and one individual in the Des Moines area who are building social capital in the community... The Wallace Centers of Iowa received the award because of its efforts to continue the work of the Better Together—Creating Community through Civility speaker series. WCI hosted five Civility Dialogue Lunches that built on an earlier lecture in Des Moines by Dr. P.M. Forni, author of "Choosing Civility."   Link to the full story is here

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What causes people to become radical jihadists?

Here is a fascinating article on why young Muslims in Britain became radical jihadists, based on interviews with people who later renounced their radical Jihadist ways and were willing to talk to a reporter about their history.  Much of it dealt with the feeling of alienation and discrimination they felt as Muslims in Britain, a feeling that they didn't belong to the community there.   This was combined with the strong desire to have some identity, to become part of something bigger and more important than themselves.  The right recruiter at the right time tapped into these feelings.   Some of the more fascinating comments dealt with the political events that drove them deeper into more radical and potentially more violent jihadism:

You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this
Alternatively, there were things that shook their belief in radical jihadism:
When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

American Public Attitude Towards Toxic Political Discoursed

According to a Washington Post-ABC poll, 82% of Americans view our political discourse to be negative, and 78% approve of the reconciliatory tone set by President Obama after the Arizona shootings, including 71% of Republicans.  There are very few issues that get that amount of bipartisan support, something is happening here!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Walmart still does not allow employees to say ‘Merry Christmas’, priests were arrested for praying during a visit by President Obama, and it was just revealed that Death Panels will exist after all

All of these “facts” were told to me by various relatives during visits over the holidays. They are moderately conservative good people who mean well and were just attempting to inform the main family liberal (i.e. me) about things I may not have been aware of. Quick Internet searches later in the evening showed that none of these were actually true. I chose not to revisit the arguments with them afterwards in an attempt to correct their mistakes based on my research. That seemed secondary to what was important about the conversations.

I am a strong advocate of our need as a society to develop the ability to have reasonable civil conversations about everything important, including politics and religion. These relatives were reaching out to me in a civil manner with some thoughts about these issues. This was a chance for me to model what civil conversations were like, and to practice my ability to respond appropriately. So how did I respond?

Step one: in a perfectly calm voice say “Gee, I haven’t heard about that. Where did you hear that news?” Step two: encourage them to be skeptical about statements they hear that don’t seem quite right. I confess that my calm manner started slipping here. My wife informed me afterwards that my arguments came across as – “How could you possibly believe that such ridiculous things were true? Don’t you ever question things people say that don’t seem quite right?” The problem, outside of my tone, was that these things did seem perfectly right and believable to them. Such statements fit perfectly with how they viewed the world and they had little reason to doubt or question them.

After learning from these first interactions, I adjusted my approach a little the next day when I encountered the claim that medical death panels will be instituted after all. This time I did remain calm and lead them though a little skeptical analysis. “Gee, I haven’t heard about that. Where did you hear that news? Something about it doesn’t sound quite right to me since people are free to purchase any medical service they want to pay for. Hmmm… Maybe the news was that a panel of doctors would decide what procedures some insurance company would be willing to pay for. Does that sound like what might be happening?” We eventually agreed that this was indeed the case, and that this was different from the death panels that they originally feared.

Before leaving on the long trip home, I joked about the conversations and how we were doing well compared to some more dysfunctional families. I thanked them for being willing to open up and have such discussions, how I thought it was important for people to do so, and how I learned something whenever we had such talks. That last statement seemed to make a very good impression with them. Another set of holiday visits successfully navigated. No political opinions were changed, but communication channels were strengthened. That’s all you can hope to do in a short period of time.

I’m very interested in learning about other similar experiences, or in any thoughts people had about other approaches for handling such discussions.

(I originally posted this in the Tikkun Daily Blog)

True Liberals Object to Christmas Trees (?)

This is part two of a series about discussions with right-of-center relatives over the holidays.  When I was asked if I objected to the Christmas tree in their house, I said “of course not”.  I was told that I must not be a true liberal then, since true liberals find Christmas trees objectionable.   While my mind was spinning as I tried to come up with a civil response to this, a friend stepped in with the following comment:
“Gee, I know a large number of very liberal people, and not a single one of them finds the idea of Christmas trees objectionable.  I personally tend to find myself being very skeptical about sources when they make claims like this that are at odds with what I see around me.”
Perfect!  The response kept a civil tone, emphasized personal experiences, wasn't directly critical of the other person,  but instead used personal observations to express skepticism about a news source.  (In this case the “news source” was assumed to be a popular right wing radio show, so I’m probably being overly generous using the term “news source”).   This seems to be a great way in general to gently but firmly question over-generalizations and prejuduces at the start of a discussion.  The art of civil conversations then becomes finding a productive way to continue the discussion in an open and respectful manner.

(I originally posted this in the Tikkun Daily Blog)