Discussion, not debate
November 25, 2007 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Disturbed by the state of political discourse in the US, but don't know what's to be done about it, at least on a personal level.

I seek methods of coaching people away from entrenched bullet-points and toward a more solutions-based cooperative framework. At the risk of sounding like a flower child, I would like to be an agent of change in my world in terms of helping people understand that our differing beliefs cannot overcome our shared humanity. For instance, a co-worker who describes everyone to the left of certain DINO's as "ultra-liberal" is obviously an intelligent guy, as is my friend the vegan Bush-loathing libertarian, but their current "those [fill in the blank] people are WRONGWRONGWRONG" mindset makes discussion difficult.

I realize that developing debate skills as well as dealing with friends and family with differing beliefs have been discussed here before, but these don't touch on exactly what I'm looking for. During discussions I attempt to stress that I can hear someone out retain my respect for them, hoping that will endgender the same attitude. But I think there are more useful approaches that I am missing, and I'd rather not give in to my nagging fear that this idea is doomed to failure. Are there useful tools or ideas I can use to foster healthy discourse, that lead to neither a fight nor a surrender?

Many thanks to Jessamyn for helping shape my first AskMe.
posted by waraw to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's a big question, but I think the linchpin is the idea that there is a fight or a surrender involved in what you want. Politics, religion, etc. are not zero-sum games (though current US discourse would have you believe otherwise) and it may be helpful to think of these conversations as an exchange of information rather than finding out who is winnar. To defuse an oppositional mindset you need to be able to fill in the details (which are always missing) that blur the divide between them and the thing they consider to be WRONGWRONG.
posted by rhizome at 2:17 PM on November 25, 2007

Are there useful tools or ideas I can use to foster healthy discourse, that lead to neither a fight nor a surrender?

No. Your premise, while commendable, is deeply flawed.

End focused discourse, with the goal of changing policy, can not be a zero-sum exercise. Someone always looses.

Is it possible to change people's minds, to get them to see their error or to see things your way? Perhaps, sometimes, maybe... but usually no. Perhaps among a group of like minded thinkers you can reach an accord regarding some minutia of policy which affects your neighborhood, or town... but on broad issues where fundamental differences in thinking are in question it is impossible. It takes generations for people's thinking to change on big subjects. No amount of calm, well-reasoned, friendly discourse ever made a difference in issues such as abortion, civil rights, jim crow, or whatever...
posted by wfrgms at 2:22 PM on November 25, 2007

People entrenched on one side or the other are rarely swayed and may have come to their position because it is convenient for them to just stick with one opinion. I don't think very many people are interested in intelligent political discussion and you will probably find yourself very frustrated with the task. If you want to feel like you can impact the world, start small, start micro. I honestly would steer clear of someone who came at me with the idea of helping me foster healthy discourse. Sounds judgmental and pompous and I'd probably conclude you were pushing your own agenda somehow. Now, if you told me about some volunteer project you did in your community, I'd be interested and think you had a genuine desire to make a difference, not just talk about it.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:29 PM on November 25, 2007

A standard exercise in team workshops is for people to do a role playing game where they are asked to play the role of the opponent. If people are willing to do that it helps in fostering understanding for the others point of view.
posted by jouke at 3:13 PM on November 25, 2007

Here's an interesting site I heard about recently.

DemocracyLab is an interactive online think tank. We’re an experiment in direct democracy, powered by open source software, and built on the idea that technology can empower us to harness freedom of speech and the power of the vote to solve today’s most challenging problems.

When fully developed, democracyLab will use participants’ posts and votes to build a dynamic map of political thought designed to facilitate consensus building and collaborative problem solving. The result will be an engaging public forum where the best thinking rises to the top, creating a community-driven alternative to traditional politics.

posted by ottereroticist at 3:31 PM on November 25, 2007

There is a problem, but more civil discourse isn't what's lacking: We can be as civil as possible, but if I'm against the war and someone politely listens to me, it doesn't stop the war one iota.

What's lacking is meaningful political participation. So many of us have bought into the idea that the sole way we actually participate is for an annual five minutes in a ballot box (which clearly changes very very little) which leads to a terrible frustration and tension when engaging in political discussions. If people had a way to actually act (e.g., against the war), they would be able to A) release the tension, and B) offer a possible solution to the people they are debating. Until that happens, you're going to get a lot of anger and resentment out of a lot of people.

And, frankly, good. Because some of this stuff isn't like "what's better, strawberries or blueberries?" One side is essentially wrong and the other side is more or less right (though often not correct enough). And until we have a little more justice in the world and little less cruel exploitation, I'm all for throwing the polite out the window and getting to the hell-raising.
posted by history is a weapon at 4:17 PM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

One way to head off the "WRONGWRONGWRONG" nonsense is to stick to the facts as much as possible. This is very difficult, because few people can cite passages from relevant and statistically valid studies off the top of their head, but it really helps. Another technique is to start asking questions of the person who starts to get heated, and keep asking questions without interrupting until they feel like they've gotten to make their point. If you're good, you can lead them into a contradiction or other untenable position without making any statements of your own.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:45 PM on November 25, 2007

The only way people can get away from hateful, talking points-based "debate" is to stop watching cable news shows, stop listening to talk radio, and stop reading Daily Kos/Michelle Malkin-style blogs. They're both toxic and intoxicating. Many seemingly intelligent people fall under their spell. They like having their fears stoked, their prejudices voiced, their hatred validated. They are so self-righteous and the debate is completely misleading because policy is never thoughtfully or thoroughly discussed.

The problem is that many of those people don't even read newspapers or follow real news because they have been taught that the news media is biased, either to the right or left. That's an issue for another day; but the point is, partisan rhetoricians have scored a coup by getting people to stop following the news for themselves and instead rely on listening to them tell people what to think.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:49 PM on November 25, 2007

"if I'm against the war and someone politely listens to me, it doesn't stop the war one iota."

All due respect, but I think the attitude embodied in this post is exactly what's wrong with politics today.

You're working from the premise that you're correct, and you need to bring people around to your way of thinking...

I've always found it helpful to identify goals. In re: the war, in many cases people on diametrically opposite sides of the debate are there not because one group is "wrong" or "stupid", but because they have different goals and priorities.

Starting with a discussion of goals is a good one. If you can agree on a goal, it's much easier to nail down a discussion on the best way to achieve it. If you can't, at least you're debating something closer to the heart of the issue.

...it also helps get people off of party talking points, because our politicians are mortified of "goals", they want to get right to the "action".
posted by toomuchpete at 5:13 PM on November 25, 2007

toomuchpete, I quite agree with you that the method you lay out is a good idea, but the other stuff, not so much. Firstly, even starting with this crazy idea that you're right about what you're talking about doesn't mean that you can't use good methods like yours whilst being honest. Secondly, you haven't actually said what is incorrect about the argument that 'history is a weapon' made. You just said you didn't like it, in a florid way. I think he/she makes a point that deserves more rational consideration.
posted by topynate at 5:32 PM on November 25, 2007

Um, so to consider it, a main difficulty is that so many things have to be done via gatekeepers. I think that people have a love of bureaucracy - not when they are confronted by it, but when it reduces the number of individuals they have to satisfy. The whys aren't so important though - if it's obvious that to change the law, or stop a war, or what have you, there is a small group of people who must necessarily be swayed. In the near-term, these facts are not amenable to change.

The gatekeeper/hierarchy phenomenon is precisely the reason for the popularity of DailyKos, etc. - self-affirmation is very nice, but getting together in a large group of likeminded people really can make a difference to what the gatekeepers do. Is DK not, in fact, a solutions-based cooperative framework?

Now, if you want such a framework that contains both you and those with whom you profoundly disagree, you should be prepared for an extremely volatile union. To stabilize these loose coalitions I think you do need a common goal. To return to the War, this is a perfect opportunity for left-wing Evangelicals and the San Francisco Syndicalist Affinity Group (M-L)* to work together. They just need to cool it on the abortion thing while they do that, and the outcome is positive-sum. How to get those two groups talking is a real problem, but in my opinion an entirely soluble one.

*Not a real group, to my knowledge.
posted by topynate at 6:02 PM on November 25, 2007

Best answer: You might enjoy reading up on the Compassionate Listening Project and their methods.

I completely agree with you about the "core humanity" thing. A co-worker had great success building bridges with political opponents when she was pregnant, and we've been taught to actually ask and care about these people on the opposite sides as people, things like their health and their families (and actually care about that). It diffuses things. I'm not sure how you can use this in a situation where you're not one of the two "opponents," but it does seem like focusing on core aspects of being human is a start.

The friend of mine that sometimes pulls me away from talking points does so by listening and really agreeing with whatever is disturbing me, but then (since I feel so thoroughly heard at that point), I'm more receptive if she says, "but they do make one good point, which is ___." Maybe less directly, but what about trying to focus people on core emotions, a la -- [them] "Bush and Guantanamo are EVIL." [you] "They really are. It is so sad to hear about all that torture {...listen listen listen...} I sometimes wonder what could make the average person support that. {...listen listen...} Maybe they're scared? Maybe they know the world is changing but don't know how to deal with it? Maybe they're worried about a son or daughter over in Iraq?"

But I agree with 45moore45's caution that if changing how other people think and speak is your main mission, you might annoy them and frustrate yourself. Maybe you could try to find a less missionary goal, such as simply having nuanced discussions about policy ("if we pulled out of Iraq right now, what do you think would happen with all the internal groups fighting?"), really understanding the core emotions behind people's sound bites ("how did you get interested in animal rights?" "why do you think this gets you so upset?"), or something like that?
posted by salvia at 10:10 PM on November 25, 2007

I think it's possible to change people's attitudes over the course of a year or so. I have seen my parents' change, and I've seen my co-workers who moved from a backward rural environment to a liberal city change. I think it's hard to change people's value systems, and you should respect that. People also respond negatively when you're actively reforming them. The best is when you catch them trying to reform you, and you plainly and boringly state your own well-researched, well-thought-out, well-versed worldview that the person gives up and just melts via learned helplessness. Eventually they give up trying to change you, and then accept you for who you are, and by implication, learn to accept your worldview.
posted by philosophistry at 6:40 AM on November 26, 2007

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