Dialogue, Polarization, & the Future of the American Experiment

Jan
05
Learn from the experts how to heal polarization by crossing lines of difference into real dialogue.
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Jan 5, 2022 6:00 PM
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About this event

For nearly 250 years, America has served as a test case for a social experiment that few could have ever conceived of — a constitutional federal republic. However, when one considers our history of massacres, slavery, civil war, and battles waged over voting rights, among other injustices, one can easily find reason to be doubtful of this experiment’s success. Given current levels of political polarization, it can seem naïve to think of America as a “done deal”. But, before we acquiesce to a failed experiment, let’s consider the role of dialogue in shaping our American experiment and how it might be able to help this experiment succeed.

The Democracy Group and Ideos Institute present a panel discussion with Kamy Akhavan, Executive Director of USC’s Center for the Political Future; Richard Davies, renowned journalist; John Gamba, technology entrepreneur, and a participant in the Ideos led dialogue that inspired the documentary, Dialogue Lab: America; and Dr. Carah Ong Whaley, Associate Director for the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement.

  1. How to cross ideological, political, cultural, and even spiritual divides and find common ground
  2. How to have real dialogues with others to create change
  3. How to pursue a better future for our nation
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Carah Ong Whaley

Democracy Matters

Carah works in partnership with students, faculty, staff and community partners to embed civic learning and democratic engagement across campus through curricular and co-curricular programming. Carah has developed innovative pedagogy melding scholarship and experiential learning to teach courses on civic engagement, campaigns and elections, and state and local politics. At the heart of her research interests is a desire to understand and illuminate how the interactions of political actors and institutions structure public access and participation in policy- and decision-making processes. Carah holds a PhD in American Government and an MA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia.

Richard Davies

How Do We Fix It?

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant and narrator. During three decades with ABC News, Richard was a news reporter, newscaster, show host and business correspondent. Richard reported from four continents and 35 U.S. states. He covered the 2008 Wall Street financial crash; the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany; 1984 - 2016 Presidential elections; OPEC oil conferences; the run-up to the First Gulf War (on assignment for six weeks in Jordan); the assassination of Anwar Sadat; and the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. Richard is located in Gilford, CT.

Kamy Akhavan

The Bully Pulpit

Kamy Akhavan, former CEO of ProCon.org, the nation's leading source of nonpartisan research on controversial issues, now leads the Center for the Political Future (CPF) at the University of Southern California. As the Executive Director, Kamy oversees the operations of all Center components including the Unruh Institute of Politics, the Fellows Program, the USC Dornsife Poll, and community and global engagement. With more than 20 years of experience in bridging divides at national levels, Kamy’s work has served more than 200 million people, including students at more than 12,000 schools in all 50 states and 100 countries.

John Gamba

Technology Entrepreneur

National Day of Dialogue

Through a coalition of organizations, led by Ideos Institute, the National Day of Dialogue is a series of virtual events, social media campaigns, and bridging resources on January 5, 2022. It is also the premiere date for the documentary film, Dialogue Lab: America, launching a powerful movement of empathy and action in pursuit of a better future for our nation.

The Democracy Group

The Democracy Group is a network of podcasts united around the goal of helping listeners understand what’s broken in our democracy, and how people are working together to fix it. We see the network as a public service dedicated to creating a more informed, civically engaged electorate.

The Democracy Group is organized and funded by The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, which produces the Democracy Works podcast in partnership with WPSU, central Pennsylvania’s NPR station.

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Dialogue, Polarization, & the Future of the American Experiment

January 5, 2022

For nearly 250 years, America has served as a test case for a social experiment that few could have ever conceived of — a constitutional federal republic. However, when one considers our history of massacres, slavery, civil war, and battles waged over voting rights, among other injustices, one can easily find reason to be doubtful of this experiment’s success. Given current levels of political polarization, it can seem naïve to think of America as a “done deal”. But, before we acquiesce to a failed experiment, let’s consider the role of dialogue in shaping our American experiment and how it might be able to help this experiment succeed.

The Democracy Group and Ideos Institute present a panel discussion with Kamy Akhavan, Executive Director of USC’s Center for the Political Future; Richard Davies, renowned journalist; John Gamba, technology entrepreneur, and a participant in the Ideos led dialogue that inspired the documentary, Dialogue Lab: America; and Dr. Carah Ong Whaley, Associate Director for the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement.

Featuring

Carah Ong Whaley

Democracy Matters

Carah works in partnership with students, faculty, staff and community partners to embed civic learning and democratic engagement across campus through curricular and co-curricular programming. Carah has developed innovative pedagogy melding scholarship and experiential learning to teach courses on civic engagement, campaigns and elections, and state and local politics. At the heart of her research interests is a desire to understand and illuminate how the interactions of political actors and institutions structure public access and participation in policy- and decision-making processes. Carah holds a PhD in American Government and an MA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia.

Richard Davies

How Do We Fix It?

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant and narrator. During three decades with ABC News, Richard was a news reporter, newscaster, show host and business correspondent. Richard reported from four continents and 35 U.S. states. He covered the 2008 Wall Street financial crash; the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany; 1984 - 2016 Presidential elections; OPEC oil conferences; the run-up to the First Gulf War (on assignment for six weeks in Jordan); the assassination of Anwar Sadat; and the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. Richard is located in Gilford, CT.

Kamy Akhavan

The Bully Pulpit

Kamy Akhavan, former CEO of ProCon.org, the nation's leading source of nonpartisan research on controversial issues, now leads the Center for the Political Future (CPF) at the University of Southern California. As the Executive Director, Kamy oversees the operations of all Center components including the Unruh Institute of Politics, the Fellows Program, the USC Dornsife Poll, and community and global engagement. With more than 20 years of experience in bridging divides at national levels, Kamy’s work has served more than 200 million people, including students at more than 12,000 schools in all 50 states and 100 countries.

John Gamba

Technology Entrepreneur

Transcripts

Jenna Spinelle  

Hello, everyone. Welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Jenna Spinelli. I am the founder of the democracy group Podcast Network, which is an initiative of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn States. And on behalf of Ideas Institute and the democracy group, I'm excited to welcome you to our panel on dialogue and political polarization. As part of the inaugural National Day of Dialogue, it's great to see folks from all across the country. Joining us I see we have Connecticut, Mississippi, Seattle, Los Angeles, Berkeley, lots of lots of folks from all across the US joining I hope you all enjoyed the rest of the programming that happened as part of the National Day of Dialogue. And I think we'll do our best to end the day on a strong note here with this this panel. Over the next hour or so, we will be exploring the question of whether hard conversations can help solve hard problems like America's increasing polarization. We are thrilled for the opportunity to add our network's expertise to the wonderful lineup of programming that's happened already throughout the day. Just a couple of housekeeping things before we dive into the questions. This event along with all the others from the National Day of Dialogue will be recorded and available for later viewing at National Day of Dialogue comm so check your email for follow up information about how to access all of those recordings. And speaking of email, look in the chat for the opportunity to sign up for the democracy groups mailing list. We are a network of 16 podcasts that are all about making our democracy stronger and working together to do so you can sign up to receive our newsletter which comes out every other week and highlights new episodes from across our network. Some of the books we're reading ways to get involved in democracy related causes and organizations and and a whole lot more. We'll also be sharing links to the the podcasts that our panelists host I hope you'll check all of those out as well. I have a lot of questions for the panel. But we'll also leave plenty of time for your questions as well. So just put them in the chat and we will get to as many as we can. But let's get started by having everyone introduce yourself and just give us some opening thoughts about how you think about the relationship between dialogue and political polarization. So Kami, why don't you kick us off?

Kamy Akhavan  

Thank you, Jenna. First of all, it's a great pleasure to be invited to participate in this event, a kudos to the IDS Institute and their funders. The funders are important, so grateful to you. My name is Kami AK avant, I was born in Iran and grew up in South Louisiana. And I live currently in Southern California, where I'm the executive director of the USC center for the political future. Formerly, I was a CEO of an organization called Pro con.org, where we looked at the pros and cons of controversial issues. Over the course of my career, I probably served about 300 million people on the verging issues, people who are vehemently opposed to each other's ideologies, possibly even hate each other's guts, and how can we bring any form of unity or any form of empathy into those corners? And it can't be done. And the way that I think about it to your question, Jenna is I think about it the same way or similarly to how I think about global warming. It is a huge global problem that you think I'm one person, what can I possibly do to net this problem? And then I think, well, there's actions that I can do individually. And then I think there's actions that I can influence my neighbors and, and co workers and colleagues and friends and family to do. So I can do that. And then it becomes the conversations then become the equivalent of recycling or taking the bus or riding a bicycle. So I think about dialogue that way, it is part of the solution that we are in control of and we got to do it. And if enough of us do it collectively, that we are going to see those changes that we want to see.

Jenna Spinelle  

Wonderful, thank you. Richard, why don't you pick up the baton from there?

Richard Davies  

Yes, and thank you to the Ideas Institute. Delighted to be on this panel. Thank you to the organizers, and, and sponsors as well. I really agree with what kami was saying about the importance of dialogue. I'm sort of half and half. I was born to English parents, and lived in the United States as a child and a teenager and then lived in the UK for 20 years before coming back to the US. So dialogue through differences always been important to me. I'm a journalist. And I spent more than three decades as a national radio network reporter in in news before launching a podcast called How do we fix it? In 2015. And I'm now a podcast consultant. I work with clients including nonprofits in the kind of bridging community space that tries to combat polarization which, which I think is the biggest crisis we now face as a nation through improving dialogue between people with different points of view, and different backgrounds. Thanks, Richard. John.

John Gamba  

Hello, everyone. I too am a huge ideas and Christy vines fan. This is really an honor to be on this panel and to be with such distinguished guests. I am John gamba. I am the entrepreneur in residence and director of innovative programs at Penn's Graduate School of Education. Our Center is committed to advance innovation and equity in worldwide education. We do that through a continuum of programming including boot camps, entrepreneur and residents, ours and our signature program, the Milken pen, a GSE, a business plan competition. I do a lot of mentoring of ed tech startups and and founders, but sort of my gateway into this conversation, kind of like Kami, although not 300 million people. We were tired as a family of ruining our Thanksgiving and our Christmas dinners over political conversations. And we found ourselves my parents and my sister and I going to neutral corners and saying, okay, dinner's over. We got to go to neutral corners. We can't talk about this anymore. What do we do, and as a family, the gamba Family Foundation, we started the the gamble red and blue exchange at the University of Pennsylvania, which is a program to advance viewpoint diversity. And we do that through pretty much two lenses. One is through the lens of content, bringing red and blue content to the table and exposing and extending that content to the students in a classically blue environment of an Ivy League university to try to really diversify the content that is being brought to these these young, impressionable minds, but also competencies, the competencies of good dialogue and I have to credit Michael telecabine and Dr. Harris Sokoloff and a lot of their research and their experience in bringing competencies to the table. How do we talk to each other? seek to understand before trying to be understood, talk slowly, be disagreeable, but humble in your disagreement. So we've launched the red and blue exchange two years ago. We have an incredible course. Can we talk led by Krista tulo and Dr. Sokoloff. And we're just really excited to advance this work in an environment that that has a lot of challenges as it relates to being woke, or going to safe spaces where we want to welcome civic dialogue and good conversations. And I'm just very excited to participate on this panel and exchange with our esteemed guests.

Jenna Spinelle  

Wonderful. And I see a thumbs up to those those resources. And those those experts you're mentioning John, so clearly that that resonates as well. Last but not least, Kara.

Carah Ong Whaley  

Hello, good evening. Thank you, Jenna, and Brandon, and Christy and everyone at IDEO and the democracy group. It's just wonderful to spend time with, with colleagues from different podcasts, within the network and from other organizations that to see our shared commitment, really to this work. I think this is just sort of a ray of hope right now, especially as we're coming up on the first anniversary tomorrow of the January 6 insurrection, which really highlights for me the importance of making sure that we do have dialogue and expose ourselves and reach out to others. Because when we do get caught in our in our own bubbles, we can see how things and don't get the right accurate information, we can see a very poor example of civic engagement, what not to do civic engagement. I say that a little bit tongue in cheek, of course. So I'm Associate Director at the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University. And we are we are not a liberal Bastion, we actually have a lot of good data on our students that show that we are our school colors are purple, we are also a purple campus. When ends and pretty evenly split. A third, identify felt students self identify as liberal, the third as conservative and a third, you know, self identify down in the middle. And what we like to do at JMU. Civic our mission is to address pressing public issues and to cultivate a more just and inclusive democracy inspiring our students in the in the pub and members of the public, working in partnership with faculty, staff, students and community, state and national partners to do that. For us. It's really about what are the pressing problems that we see? And how can we come together to solve them. I think dialogue plays an important role in just learning what different perspectives are. And it's really important, though, to think about how we can set up those conversations and how we can set up those dialogues because the dialogue set up poorly, can go can actually just create more harm. I think one of the things that we're seeing in in the in our politics is sort of the lack of spaces where we can come together and build trust and actually have those opportunities to to talk to one another. But I also do want in just these opening remarks, just want to talk about the limits of dialogue. Dialogue cannot address in justices in our democracy. And so you know, yes, we need dialogue. But we also need to think about the other tools. As John mentioned, you know, it is competencies, we measure the competencies, competencies that our students gained while they're at the at our university. And when we think about civic engagement, we're thinking about what are the skills, the knowledge and the values that we want students to develop? And which tools are they going to need? which tools are any of us as individuals going to need to engage effectively in our political and civic life?

Jenna Spinelle  

Right now? Well, well put care, I think we will hopefully return to several of those themes here over the next couple of minutes. But, you know, just one more kind of big, big framing question before we get to some of those specifics there. Are there any number of things I think that contribute to polarization you know, whether it's its media consumption or other aspects of your political or cultural identity. I'm wondering you know, to what extent you you all think dialogue or a lack there of is is in that mix, where does it fit in terms of all of the different things that we know, lead to this this wicked problem of political polarization?

Kamy Akhavan  

Oh, let's tackle that one first. Yeah, so it's a big question. Dialog is a form of learning. If I went out into the world based on what I was born into the world with, I would know zero, it is all through a process of self education and communication with others. If I talk to an engineer for 10 minutes, who is an expert on bridges, I'm going to learn more about bridges than I could for reading 10 books on bridges, right, because I will have absorbed that much information from this other source. So cut dialogue really is that it's a way to benefit from someone else's knowledge, wisdom perspective, in order to grow our own. And that's all I see it as it is a form of self education to improve our perspective on the world. And the reason why it's so important is because left our own thoughts unchallenged can often take us to the wrong conclusions that we want for ourselves, right. And so there's people like Daniel Kahneman, who will describe very eloquently about how our human psychology wants us to think in certain ways to be responsive in milliseconds to certain conditions in our environment. And yet, if we apply it this prefrontal cortex, and really slow down our thoughts and think about it, might say, Whoa, I don't want to do that thing I wanted to do at the instant that I thought it I want to do the second or the third thing I thought about doing because that's really in my best interest. So for me, dialogue is a way of getting to that, to our genuine interest was really in our best interest based on educating ourselves. And it's not just me, I'll tell you, and this is a story and then I'll be quiet. But a pal John gamba here goes to University of works in University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by Ben Franklin, Ben Franklin famously, was advising a friend Joseph Priestley, on whether that friend should get married, and Joseph Priestley wanted to marry his own cousin. And so he said, Ben, what do I do, I want to marry my cousin, I think I love her and, and so there's this exchange of letters, it's really, it's great, you should read them. And Ben Franklin, advise them take a sheet of paper folded in half right Pro on one side con on the other and come up with all the reasons why you should or shouldn't marry your cousin. Bottom line, he did not marry his cousin. So it works.

Richard Davies  

I think that it might be helpful to define what we mean by dialogue. Because dialogue to some may mean, we should have more conversations, hard conversations with people who are not like us and see the world differently. But then there also another, there's another form of dialogue, which is working on projects together, a dialogue that comes out of for instance, being a member of a basketball team, or a softball league, where you may be playing a game or working on a project with with people who are completely different from you. And that can also be a really valuable form of dialogue. Where I think that that dialogue, if this is the right definition, between between people who are not necessarily right in your your set of, of people, where that can be really helpful is just broadening your experience of the world, in much the same way I think the travel does, and then also subjecting your opinions to the rigor of being tested with with people who see things see things very differently, and who are not only politically different from you, but may have come from a different race or class or ethnic background, or nationality. They're just many different ways to, to parse this and figure out what we're talking about when we say dialogue.

Carah Ong Whaley  

I'd love to expand on that as well, Richard? Because I think, you know, we do know that a lot of our polarization political polarization has been elite driven. Right. And so I think we also need to think about when we're talking about dialogue, what kind of dialogues are set up for, for elected leaders and and for for government officials, and then those with whom they interact with in the business community or the nonprofit sector, for example. And, you know, what we have found is that there were lacking there is less space for members of Congress, especially to just have chance interactions chance dialogue, where they can build trust. There's not a shared space for them to have lunch or workout together anymore. And so there's also for we really need to think about what are the the elite problems with our the problems among elites and our political system and the spaces for the natch the, the the less construed spaces for dialogue, not just the House or the Senate floor right? Or, you know the public debates that we see in the media or on social media. But But how can we design spaces where we can build trust. And there's there's a number of studies that show that when we can have these more informal settings where we can come together and build trust, even and especially, there's a really important role for sharing meals with one another. And in my own research with communities across the country, and this actually ended up being a really important factor in crossing bridges to the other side, and then helping communities in their struggle to clean up the nuclear weapons complex. So I think we, you know, there's the formal settings. And then there's the informal settings. And those and we know that those informal settings, especially in Congress, and we're talking, we're talking about political polarization, those informal settings have decreased. And we're also I think, we're going to talk about this more a little bit later. But as we've become increasingly segregated as a society by class, especially, you know, there's there's less informal mechanisms for us to interact with, with others across socio economic and racial lines as well.

John Gamba  

And building on that I think, you raise the issue of, of government officials, then Senator Obama in 2006, said, We live in a culture that discourages empathy. And that's the word that I think about almost the antithesis or the the antonym of polarization is empathy. Obama said, a culture that often that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses. Man, isn't that foreshadowing in terms of where we are today? That was in 2006, in a commencement address at Northwestern University. So I think a lot about the ideal and the value of empathy, and excited that this year, we have a new class that will be taught by Dr. Leah Howard called political empathy and deliberative democracy, which talks about the issue of what if our elected officials were built or had a value of empathy and, and drove with empathy or lead with empathy first, before they thought about owning the lids? Or owning the conservatives or, or whatever the names we would call in terms of the political polarities?

Jenna Spinelle  

Yeah, you know, it's a to kind of bring this this all around, I couldn't help but think about it. So I play in a community bands, and that I think it and I live, I didn't mention earlier in State College, Pennsylvania, which marks like you were saying about JMU care, we are also a very purple area, in terms of, you know, we have the campus itself is fairly liberal, but you go far, you know, not that far away, and you're into a much more conservative area. So the band really brings all of that together. And then in a way that's not explicitly political. But I found that that has been a really great experience to to broaden my horizons. And I, I hope that you know, I, my dialogue with my my fellow saxophone players has helped broaden their perspectives as well. But, you know, we have a question here from Steve that I think gets to some of what we were talking about in terms of, you know, how how to engage whether it is in a formal setting, or an informal setting, whether we're talking about elites or just everyday people dialog in Steve's question here presumes a degree of tolerance of opposing beliefs. Steve mentions as well poppers paradox of tolerance, if that rings a bell for anyone, but you know, how, how do you all think about the limits of tolerance? Or, you know, how much tolerance should we, you know, bring to to the table, so to speak, what should we expect from others? And that that kind of leads to something that I was thinking too, about how this this idea of coming to the table in good faith, I see those things as maybe being two sides of the same coin is worth thinking about how we we show up in these situations?

John Gamba  

I think that's a great question. I'm going to speak for how things and how we're feeling tough word feeling at the University of Pennsylvania, and that is there's a fine line between this idea of having In open mind, being tolerant, but also promoting a safe space or a safe environment. For instance, I personally believe that when Thomas Holman who was the so called architect of the, the family separation policy at the border, was invited to the University of Pennsylvania who was booed and he never got on stage not exactly tolerant, not exactly supportive of viewpoint diversity. A lot of people said, we're not going to have Thomas Holman here because he promotes violence and we are a safe campus. I believe that he should have been allowed to speak and that he should be beaten by the Socratic method by people who could argue the alternative. On the other hand, Dr. Amy wax, a professor in our law school, who is abjectly racist in her views and spews racism, I think that personally personally crosses a line. Some conservatives think she's a tenured professor, she should be allowed to speak and have the same mentality or prism for her as we do with Thomas Holman. I think there are fine lines, we celebrate that we are a safe space, that we are an inclusive environment. And so I think we have to be careful about that notion of tolerance. But also, at the same time, embrace Socratic method in embrace conversation, embrace viewpoint diversity, because we will be limited if we're all thinking the same thing and all thinking through the same lens.

Richard Davies  

I do a podcast with someone I disagree with. On how do we fix it, Jim mags, my co host, is he calls himself a squishy libertarian, he's definitely much more of the right than the left I'm kind of tend to be moderately left. And I found that by testing my argument with him. It's it's really a valuable form of dialogue and a good way to go about this. I think that when it comes to what we tolerate, and what we don't tolerate, I, I'd like to promote kindness as a value more than we currently have in our, in our dialogue in our political debate. And I really agree with with what John just said about the importance of the Socratic method, what I think that we should not be afraid, or how do I put this that we should we should not be afraid of, of, of not tolerating conspiracy theories and hatred. I think that's where the boundaries lie. And I think that that when you when you when you tolerate openly racist or hateful sentiments, and that that really does cross the line.

Kamy Akhavan  

One other point I'll make on that front is sorry, here is a boring an analogy from Jonathan Hite who talks about opinions as elephants, right. And so the way that we currently think, is like that elephant and we're the little jockey sitting on top and trying to steer it one way or the other, we don't want to disconfirming information, or psychology rejects it. So we have to have different part of our brain that says, No, actually, I want disconfirming information, I want to make sure that this belief is challenged and tested. Like you were saying, Richard, and I kind of put it through the ideas gym, so that it can get stronger. But most people they can they have their limits, there are some issues they will be very open minded on and some issues that are a little closer to their identity. That's where there's there's no room for for tolerance, there's once you cross the line, it becomes a threat. And not just a Sticks and stones may break my my bones, but words will never hurt me know the words do hurt me, the words are very hurtful. And that's where for a lot of us, our identity goes hand in hand with a lot of our ideologies. And when it becomes that intermix, it's very hard to be tolerant of viewpoints that we find, not just offensive, but hurtful and wrong. And it's to where we don't think of the other side as our opponent, we think of the other side as our enemy. And that distinction, I think, is what's driving so much of the polarization. And it came from somewhere. It hasn't always been this way. You know, it came from somewhere and cared talks about systems. There's a lot of systems that have led us into this place where we are now. And as much as we need to address the systems we absolutely do, and we can talk about them. But I also think that it's not fair to say it's all on the system's. There's a lot that's on us too, as individuals for John's dysfunctional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners. He said like hey, let's fix this. Let's go to neutral colors. There's things that We can do. And I think to the point about, about tolerance that's on us, we can increase or reduce the level of tolerance to our own satisfied satisfaction. And we have to somehow get our brains to think most of the time, not all the time, that it is better to have disconfirming information because we're getting, we're making ourselves mentally stronger through the process. Or maybe we're learning that we had it wrong the whole time. And we're just now someone is correcting us. Oh, my gosh, thank you, right. That sort of mentality is rare. But I think it's more constructive to try to do that for our own sake. Right. I'm not saying it's easy to do. But I'm saying that, that kind of thinking, I think can get us past this whole tolerance, intolerance. It's not monolithic. It's really about when my identity feels threatened, then you're the bad guy. Right? And that's, I think of it that way more broadly.

John Gamba  

How do we get through that commie not to open up a whole can of worms, but who is the cross the line police, we struggle that a lot in our work, one person's effort to be tolerant could be another person's view of being woke. And then it just disintegrates from there in terms of good conversation. So I, I really do struggle with that. On the Thomas Homan case. I personally think that but I wasn't a family member who was in a cage on the border, who was impacted by that policy. So I could see the argument that would be made That would say, No, that's violent, racist, in unacceptable intolerant behavior, not allowed to speak on our canvas campus. And that wouldn't be wrong. The other conservative has said, Amy wax is a tenured professor and has the ability to say, I don't think Asians should be immigrating to the United States is not good for America. That's her opinion. Should we hit her with the Socratic method? I struggle with that a lot and wonder what you think is experts and researchers in this area? Where is that line? How do you not cross the line? What do you do? Is it Twitter? Who says, That's hate? Sorry, you're out? You know, how do we really set the cross the line police adjudication, if you will.

Kamy Akhavan  

I defer to care on this one out of purple university, you can speak to this point. So well,

Carah Ong Whaley  

um, I'm not sure that anybody should really be adjudicating, because, you know, we are really talking about very, you know, we can all look at the same data, and come out, have different inferences and different takeaways from the same data. Right? I showed this in in my classes, there was a great example from the 2016 presidential election where Gary King, you know, gave the same polling data to different pollsters, and all the pollsters had very different predictions, right? Because we all have underlying assumptions, perspectives and experiences, right, that are going to inform our view of an event. And so I think, you know, part of this is just thinking about recognizing our own biases, I think, going back to what CAMI said about our individual responsibility, you know, starting as an individual, okay, what are my own biases? What are my own beliefs? And if we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue, or push ourselves to to enter into one, which I strongly encourage that we all do, you know, to? It's not, it's not just about tolerance, but it's about what can I learn from this experience? What can I learn by understanding how that other person has formed, the beliefs that they hold? And taking back to January 6, Harry Dunn is a Capitol police officer that's been speaking out calling for accountability. And, you know, one of the things he said that was so scary to him, and defending democracy on that day was that everyone believed what they were doing. They believed they were right. They thought they were saving America. Right. And, and so I think, and not everyone is going to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue. So we're also in this very, we're talking right now as people who have the privilege and the space to engage in dialogue. And so we need to recognize that, you know, I think about I live right off of I 81, and is a huge trucking. You know, do truckers have the opportunity to engage in political dialogue? You know, I'm honestly thinking about that. And if we're going to solve our problems, how do we have these conversations with other people? And one more thing to John's point. I was in Charlottesville, I lived in Charlottesville in 2017. And Nicolas A Walker, who later became the mayor of Charlottesville, was out there. And and there's photos, you can Google it of her talking to, to one of the neo Nazi white supremacists. And one of the things she said that day that really struck me was, how can you expect me to talk with somebody who threatens my very existence? Right. And so that's what I think of in terms of, you know, okay, if there's a line of adjudication, that is probably it, right. But at the same time, there's pictures of her still out there actually engaging in conversation with, with members of militias and members of the KKK.

Richard Davies  

But this this problem is not merely one on the right. It's also on the left, how, how can a small business person in a neighborhood where his business is being or her business is being burnt down by protesters, also, their their identity, their, their livelihood, their place of business is also being threatened in? And so it's, you know, it's not merely, I mean, it's not merely a problem from one side of the political spectrum.

Jenna Spinelle  

Yeah, and, you know, this gets to I think we're sort of talking around this idea of tribalism, which, which one of our attendees? Zona, we have not really brought up directly here to for thinking but we've, we've sort of hinted at it a little bit, right. So you'll polarization is is directly linked to being part of these tribes and these issues of identity we were talking about and dignity and, you know, you being tied up in in your, your political beliefs. And I want to bring this back to January six that I've heard and read stories, I'm sure you all have, as well over the past couple of days, about the year, these ongoing efforts to figure out how to talk about the big lie, or, you know, people who are struggling to communicate with family members who believe these these ideas, and I found myself thinking as I was listening to something I heard on the radio yesterday, like, at what point? Is it not productive to kind of keep trying, you know, move, move to something else that might be a little bit easier to find a point of connection? Or, you know, how, how can we when faced with things, things like this, try to chart a path forward? And is there ever a point where the tribalism or the polarization becomes so severe that trying to go directly into a dialogue might not be the best step to take?

John Gamba  

I'll just say, having difficult candid conversations with very close family members, one of whom is my mentor, and we just can't agree, politically, I will say the power and the danger of but when somebody says I will never support Donald Trump, or I will never I don't think January six is acceptable, or complete repudiation of those actions. But the alternative is so unacceptable. A left Joe Biden, I have to stay with Donald Trump because his I don't agree with his personality, but his principles align with my principles as it relates to conservatism. It brings me back to commie that when he said 300 million people hate each other. Are we at that point now? I mean, I almost feel like we are like, literally, David French talks about the brink of civil war. You know, if if I have to hang up or end Thanksgiving dinners with family members, you know, think about what I'm doing with my other conservative friends. I mean, these are people I love. These are people I trust these are we at that point, I think is a real question. And then what do we do?

Richard Davies  

If we only define things by politics? Perhaps we are at that point, but I really don't think we are. I think that there's so many people who, who don't see politics as the most important thing in their lives. And there are just so many different ways that we can communicate and and be with one another. The pandemic without a doubt has made things worse, where more physically is simulated from others than than we used to be. And I think that makes it harder for us to have everyday conversations with people who see the world very differently from from us. And then we're also I think, speaking of politics, are trying tribal identities in terms of our are more politically parsed than they used to be when I was young, I'm young enough, I'm old enough to remember this. There were liberal Republicans, you can conservative Democrats, and party labels then mattered a lot less to our tribal identity than they do now. And so that's part of part of the problem.

Kamy Akhavan  

I agree with what you just said, Richard. And I just want a frame that that we can think about. So we all feel it in our, in our dining tables in our communities, in our universities, in our society, in our culture, we see it at the highest levels, we are freakishly scary divided, right? And nobody wants that feeling certainly don't want it in their close personal lives. Part of what gives me comfort is knowing that it hasn't always been like this. We have been opponents, we're supposed to debate with one another. We're supposed to disagree on issues. This is how our system of government is supposed to work. We as the participants shape the policies and we fight and argue about it, and then that's it. But I think the the key thing to remember is it came from somewhere. So think about where we are right now. And I think about the things that bring us together. Those unifiers are really diminishing. And those unifiers are things like the common enemy of the during the Cold War, think about people who, who did public service in the military, the GI Bill, you know, the greatest generation, those people are dying off. There's very few of them around our participation in unions, churches, this the public square is shrinking, retail, movies, concerts, these things are low. And then like your say, Richard, the pandemic has driven us into further isolation. We're humans are a species out of the millions of species on the planet. We're one of the more social ones, right? And so it's not in our nature to want to be so divided. So we end up clinging to people who think and act like we do. So our unifiers are going away. And at the same time, these dividers are accelerating on steroids, right. And I'm thinking about things like partisan gerrymandering, about the things you're seeing here, this bipartisan precedent erosion and congressional schedule literally changed. So they don't live in DC anymore. They just fly in fly out. They don't have these across the aisle friendships anymore. The primaries have taken on an increasingly important role in politics, the general elections are largely predictable. And the district by district level, like to the tune of about 95 to 90% of our congressional districts are predictable. We know it's a Dr. It's an art, we just don't know which one is for the Prime Minister determined. So I'm thinking about these things and think about identity politics, I'm thinking about social media algorithms and thinking about search engine algorithms and thinking about traditional media where we used to have three channels. And now we have you know, 3000. And I'm thinking about the self sort where my pal Brett Brandon Stover who produces for the democracy group, who's lives in Austin, and it's a city, where are you going to move into the community that has trucks with Gun Racks are going to move to the community with plug in Priuses. And we're going to self sort, right? And I'm thinking about how in the 70s, and 80s, and 90s, this hyper focus on STEM, not so much on critical thinking, civic Social Studies, and the compound effect of all these things unify our shrinking, dividers accelerating. And here we are, we didn't cause that problem. You know, we didn't do this, but we're living in that world. So part of it is like, we got to give ourselves a break and say, I didn't cause this problem, but I'm living in it. And it's kind of incumbent on me to do something about it. But I also know that I don't need to feel like it's my fault, because it's not if I kind of want to be mad at this person, I might really be mad at them. It's because of a lot of factors that preceded this, right? That make me so angry, that make these these certain beliefs just trigger me to to rage or intolerance, or you're, you're out of my social media life, you're out of my family, I don't care for blood related. I just I can't deal with you anymore. That that sort of thinking, I think is part of it is it's not our fault. And there's some comfort in that and knowing it's not our fault, but I think if we know the origins of it, and we can look at how this all came to me to where it is now. It's kind of empowering, because we know that it doesn't have to be this way, and that we can do better and we must do better. If we don't want it to be any better, than we'll just let the status quo continue. But all of us the reason we're even doing this conversation today, the reason all of you are listening to this conversation today is because we know we can do better and we want it to be better.

John Gamba  

Does anybody think that this idea of polarization, a real quick question of polarization is is fleeting? Like I often think, at one point, we thought the actions of Richard Nixon were just unvarying, Li unacceptable. And we go through now, where some people think that January 6 was a peaceful protest. I find that fascinating, almost as much as I find it fascinating with people I have political conversations with where we get so rabid and entrenched in our positions. But it's also often fleeting, we I can have a drag out, hit down using links using evidence to try to substantiate my argument with a family member, be so angry, and then two seconds later, I can be like, Isn't Jalen hertz awesome and have a conversation with him about the Philadelphia Eagles that is so like, a line that we love each other again, like, sometimes I feel like it's totally incorrigible. And we are somebody said in the chat, all that's left is the dust or the dirt over the coffin. And then at moments, I say, This, too, shall past we are a great experiment, and we will push forward and you know, the goodness will come out, I just don't know, I'm not sure. I love what you

Richard Davies  

just said. It's just great. I, I'm, I remember the Vietnam War, I was a student and, and passionately opposed to the war, that was a pretty scary time to and was highly divided. And families, very often generations, were deeply bitterly divided over that issue. So perhaps, this moment will calm down somewhat.

Carah Ong Whaley  

I hate to be the Debbie Downer of this party. But there's a lot of political science research that shows that political polarization is actually the norm for the United States. And actually, you know, the era of good feelings. You know, the, the time when we, you know, when, when Americans were, you know, mostly concerned about external threats, during, especially during the Cold War, you know, where we saw less domestic division, because they're overcome by these external threats. Those are actually the rare moments in our history. And so the question is, how do we, you know, polarization doesn't necessarily have to be a negative thing, right. In fact, the American Political Science Association in the 1960s said, you know, we needed parties that, you know, stood for things. You know, I think they're regretting somewhat, some of those recommendations, right, that the parties would be able to give cues and take clear positions on the issues in order to mobilize voters and increase engagement and democracy. So I don't think political polarization itself is necessarily a bad thing. But we have to think about, you know, what are the consequences of the way in which elites behave, and the role of elites and the precedents that they set and especially in terms of whipping up the the whims and the passions of the people, to use Madison's terms, and also the, you know, there's just so many there's, there's so many other roles, too, that are mediating our process, including media, social media, all of these things that we've already already talked about. But I think in terms of, to kind of bring this thread back together. And Cami, as alluded to this, we know from political psychology literature, you know, there is this tendency for us, the way our brains are structured to create in groups and out groups, right, and to other others, a way to overcome that is to give a joint task to those groups. And so that's, you know, I think that's one way to think about this, what is it that we can do to work together and that's a lot of why our approach is to be issue focused, right? Like, let's define together what the problem is, and then talk about what it is through dialogue, you know, talk about how we define the problem, the public problem, define what we can do about it, get perspectives, get multiple perspectives, and then work together in terms of solving that pressing public issue. And so that's that would kind of be our approach, or that is our approach in thinking about this

Jenna Spinelle  

Yeah, it's it's that whole notion of of common cause right common cause common grounds and and how do you does one big Get the other or can you can you bring people together to this notion of common cause. So as we have about 10 minutes left here, and I want to think about so, you know, everybody joining, not just this session, but all the other programming that's happened as part of the National Day of Dialogue is, is clearly concerned about how we move past these issues. And, you know, Kara, to bring it back to what you were saying before, you know, we are all in the in a privileged place, in some ways, because we have the time and you know, everything else that that's required to participate in these things? How can how can everybody listening here tonight, you know, try to take this, these these thoughts, these actions, these principles out into their, their broader communities? What are our next our next steps forward? And how, how can we all center this notion of, of inclusion, so that dialogue is not just something that you know, people with, with college degrees who work in white collar jobs can participate in in our spare time? How can we make it part of our everyday lives?

Richard Davies  

Jenna, you're asking the question, how do we fix it?

Jenna Spinelle  

Maybe I am, Richard. Yeah,

Richard Davies  

I'm the only journalist on the panel. And I feel journalism really needs to change. Most big newsrooms have investigative units. They also need solutions teams. Reporters do cover much more about what's wrong with the world and what might be right. And so and perhaps this, this goes back to us as consumers of journalism that we demand or we read, or we watch examples of solutions, not just in America, but overseas, because right now, the us versus them story is the one that dominates the clashes, the contests, the controversies of journalism, that's what seems to be fueling media consumption. So that one is also on us.

Jenna Spinelle  

And are there resources you would would recommend Richard, for folks who might want to learn more about that style of journalism or think think more about that area of focus?

Richard Davies  

No point out to one is the solutions journalism network, which has examples on their website, it's a nonprofit that was set up by two journalists, former journalists and the New York Times, solutions journalism.org. And they have a solutions tracker, they share stories, a lot of stories every week on on different examples of how solutions are covered. And then the other example is all sides now, which which presents the left center and right perspective on major news stories of the day.

Jenna Spinelle  

You know, Kara, Kami. What, what can or should colleges and universities be doing? You know, Carrie, you you've already talked about your your approach at at JMU. But are there other other models, other things that you've seen that that might be helpful as we think about how to move forward?

Kamy Akhavan  

The answer is yes. So within the university system, a lot of universities are very risk averse. And whenever there's this anyone, somewhat controversial speaker, and the students don't want to hear it, then they don't allow that person on on campus. There's a organization fire that tracks those dis invitations across the country. So part of it is universities need to do a better job of building resiliency among its student population. And that means part of the university's job is exposing people to ideas that are really uncomfortable, so that they can reckon with them, because the real world is full of uncomfortable ideas, and they need to know how to deal with them. So it's part of the sort of developing the opinions, right. The other job of universities is obviously just education as subjects, but I'll tell you in conversation, facts may not matter. And I can say all of us have been in conversations where you say if I just tell the person that facts, then they'll come around to my way of thinking, well, it doesn't always work that way. Right. And so I think the better skill that universities need to teach and it doesn't have to be universal. Anybody can do this on their own. There's good books, and there's good websites and organizations. It's genuinely Listening. I'll give you a quick story. So at pro con, we had about 250,000 people a day coming to our website to learn about medical marijuana. Euthanasia is really conflict, death penalty, you name it controversy, it was all there. And when we surveyed our audience and asked, How many of you changed your mind on an issue based on what you read? I thought our fee break 5% I'll be thrilled we got to 40%. Now I was stoned, how do you change 40% of people's opinions based on what they read. And the reason that they did is we found out is because of listening. So they would go to this website and see their arguments for the thing they cared about, laid out better than they could ever say it better sources better articulate it, they're like, Wow, that's exactly how I feel. And better. And then staring at them on the other side of the page, where arguments that they may not have ever listened to, if they didn't first feel heard, the defense came down the end the the mind became open. So I really, truly think this that the number one skill you can apply to reducing polarization or just disagreement is listening. But listening to understand and listening is not, it's harder than you think it is to do it well. But if you can do it, well, the other person will trust you more. And now you have a power because you have their trust. And if you have their trust, then they can you can influence their opinions more. And these are powers that we would not have if we didn't listen. So I I'd say if anyone walks away from this conversation, listening to my voice, the number one thing I want him to know is listen to understand is the best skill you're going to take into reducing polarization in America.

Jenna Spinelle  

Wonderful.

Carah Ong Whaley  

That was fantastic. Kami, I, I wholeheartedly agree, especially on your points of universities needing to become less risk averse. And, and I think also, you know, I think and this is something you know, where somebody on a campus, I am constantly having to push, right. And one of our mottos is that we lean in to the politics and lean into pressing, you know, at our own university to sort of say, like, we're not going to be afraid to not have these conversations. And to take, you know, we have this whole program called tent talks, where we take public issues and create public spaces, where students who are just walking to another class or walking, going about their day, bump in to us at our tent, and have the opportunity to learn and engage in conversation about a pressing public issue. So I think universities can do a much better job of creating public spaces, or public spheres. You know, most some of us have residence life. So I think part, you know, ensuring, you know, ensuring that our residents life programming, you know, has a curricular component that we know, where people who are from a whole range of different backgrounds are actually living together. I think that's an amazing space to to explore. And I think finally, we need to sort of break down the walls that we have in our communities, you know, and the bubbles that we often have as universities, where we aren't bringing community members in to have these conversations alongside our students, and making sure that our students see themselves as part of the student, the communities in which we are embedded as universities. So I'll stop there, because I know we're out of time.

Jenna Spinelle  

Yeah, no, I love that idea of 10 talks, I feel like that's something that that anybody could do in their community, regardless of if you're on on a college campus or not. So John, will give you the last word here, you know, I know you come from the business world and and everybody has has a job that they do. So are there other ways that we can take some of these these ideas of these concepts we've been talking about into our work lives or things that you know, businesses can do to aid in in some of these problems that we've been talking about?

John Gamba  

Very dangerous to give me the last word. I would say very simply because I know we are out of time. Dr. Howard Stevenson is a researcher done a lot of incredible work on racial stress, and racial literacy, and has a organization called Lions story. And he does a lot of workshops with organizations, professional organizations outside of the university, and he says it best. He talks about the power of story, that once you get through understanding the personal story of the people that you're interacting with, right on Twitter, it's very easy to just flame someone deny someone unfollowed someone kill someone. But once you know their personal story and what impacts them and affects them in a business environment, you may think twice about moving to different pillars, hey, we have to work together, we men, we might as well get along, we might as well seek to understand before trying to be understood stood. So not only do I think the there's important, there's a lot of importance in content and competency, but also understanding the personal relationships that you're in and interacting in, in order to solve problems if you're in a professional organization. And we stress that in a lot of the organizational behavior and organizational development, in our mentorship of the startups we work with, and in my professional life.

Jenna Spinelle  

Well, there were there were so many things that we did not get get to talk about. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to continue this this conversation in some form. But I would just like to close by thanking, again, Christy, and Maren and the entire team at IDEO for putting this event together and for helping all of us come together. Thank you to all of you again to CAMI to John to Richard and to care for your insights and for for modeling what you're what you're preaching. Right. We all have listened to each other. And I think you did did an exemplary job. So please accept my virtual pat on the back to all of you and my thanks again to you and to everybody who joined us. So we will leave things there. I am Jenna Spinelle lead from the democracy group. Thank you all and have a great rest of the day.

Richard Davies  

Thank you. Thanks a lot.

Presented by

National Day of Dialogue

Through a coalition of organizations, led by Ideos Institute, the National Day of Dialogue is a series of virtual events, social media campaigns, and bridging resources on January 5, 2022. It is also the premiere date for the documentary film, Dialogue Lab: America, launching a powerful movement of empathy and action in pursuit of a better future for our nation.

The Democracy Group

The Democracy Group is a network of podcasts united around the goal of helping listeners understand what’s broken in our democracy, and how people are working together to fix it. We see the network as a public service dedicated to creating a more informed, civically engaged electorate.

The Democracy Group is organized and funded by The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, which produces the Democracy Works podcast in partnership with WPSU, central Pennsylvania’s NPR station.

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