What motivates this dialogue project? Part I

As I’ve written more about contrasting narratives shaping this particular conversation, one of the questions that I’ve heard is “what exactly motivates this all?” This usually comes up with some suspicion about what drives me, but that doesn’t bother me at all.  Transparency is a good thing.

It’s true that sometimes in the dialogue field, we intentionally step away from saying a lot about our own standpoint, in part because the primary aim of dialogue is seeking understanding of someone else (rather than spouting off your own stuff). But at some point in a healthy conversation, it’s helpful to hear what motivates everyone involved in a conversation…including facilitators.

So what about me?

In the broader culture, religious conservatives-like-me-who who get involved in this conversation have been labeled somehow sick or screwy for wanting to “interfere or control people’s lives” – as if somehow not saying anything would be the most appropriate thing to do.

The overriding reason and motivation for speaking out in this blog is exactly opposite of “controlling” others – or limiting freedom in any way. To my mind, the current conversation is what effectively limits freedom – interfering with and controlling people’s lives in subtle, but significant ways.  In both the broader framing of the conversation – and how we end up engaging it – everywhere I look, I find a high-pressurized vacuum that seems to be working against freedom (on all sides).

If that’s true and if we want to preserve (and grow) people’s freedom to choose what is right and best for them, I’m convinced we need this kind of a conversation-about-the-conversation.  Even if you disagree with my own views, I’ll bet we agree on some of the larger trends in our nation’s public discourse.

Problems with the status quo conversation.  In Bill Bishop’s instant-classic sociological text, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” he documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views – in the churches we go to, the clubs we join, the neighborhoods we live in.  Instead, we are “sorting ourselves” into insular groups as we read, listen to and spend time largely with people who agree with us.

As Liz Joyner, national director of the Village Square, puts it: “We’re increasingly choosing to associate only with our ‘tribe’ rather than bravely disagree face to face. Bunkered up at home with information sources that serve as a virtual amen chorus for everything we want to believe, we can’t seem to tolerate the people we used to share town meetings with.”

In this conversation about gay rights (as with many other topics), my experience is that in 90-95% of instances, it’s people talking with other people who agree with them.

And on one level, of course, this isn’t a problem. This is one reason we gather in communities – to share and unite with others of like-minded commitments.  That’s a healthy thing!

On another level, however, when like-on-like communication becomes the dominant norm – to the exclusion and endangerment of more diverse connections – it starts to get a little creepy (at least to me).  And the research backs this up – showing increasing polarization that happens in like-minded conversations.[1] What’s more, how exactly are we going to learn anything new while living in silos – or find out if and when and where we’re wrong?

That’s another thing that motivates me big time: truth. I want people (myself included) to have the highest possibility and likelihood of discovering what the truth of the matter – any matter, all matters – really is.  Clearly, whatever issue we’re talking about, we’re going to disagree on what ‘the truth’ is (and whether it even exists).  But even then, perhaps we may agree generally speaking on healthier (or less healthy) processes for helping us approximate that truth, decrease error, multiply insight and expand collective wisdom.

How do most online measure groups measure up against those criteria?  My experience of most online groups – Facebook especially – is aggregations of people who have come together around some passionately-held central commonality or commitment (whether on the Right or Left).  While there is a relief and excitement in “meeting others that think like us,” I’ve watched over time how interactions between those like-minded souls can concentrate all the so-called evidence of one’s “rightness” in one place – resulting in a feeding frenzy that incessantly confirms “our rightness” (while, of course, supporting their “wrongness”)..just what we were hoping to believe.  How convenient!

Long before the echo-chamber of Facebook groups blessed our lives, however, Francis Bacon observed hundreds of years ago:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate (Novum Organum, 1620)

Scientists now call this “confirmation bias” or “confirmatory bias” (or “myside bias”), defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”  Studies have found that the effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs – where our tendency is to confirm our existing beliefs or perform “tests” that are one-sided and which subtly prioritize one perspective and diverting our attention away from alternatives.  Even when two people have been exposed to the “same evidence,” they have found disagreement becoming more extreme based on selective interpretation and emphasis within the evidence.

Interestingly enough, both sides (and all sides) in a given hot topic typically do this!  And I’m not sure what you think – but it’s a little screwy wherever it happens!

So how do we combat such a strong psychological tendency?  What methods are the best “confirmatory-bias-busters”?

Comparing methods to overcome confirmation bias. As much as randomized-controlled trials (RCT) and other structured scientific studies are held up as the gold standard for revealing truth, as the author of an RCT, I can tell you one thing for sure:  they are messier than they look.

There are 100 ways that personal biases can influence the conception, design, execution, documentation and analysis of any given study – including the most controlled of the lot.

So instead of pretending to be outside of the influence of human bias, what if we just acknowledged those biases – and brought them into an open and transparent exploration, side by side?

Enter:  dialogue.  As I said before, I’ve come to seen open-hearted, open-minded dialogue as among the best “methods” for revealing the truth of the matter…not by somehow establishing THE truth to all present in the room.

But instead, by inviting us all to dig a little deeper – reach a little broader, and challenge our own assumptions (even as we invite others to inquire)…collectively inviting us together to inch towards THE truth (or A truth) – however incremental our progress.

If nothing else, an open dialogue space exposes ourselves to others’ (best) ideas and (most compelling) arguments and (most precious) values in a way that we might just actually hear and give them a fair hearing.

In the process, we come to see our own passionately held convictions and ideas as, yes, one way of thinking – alongside others that do exist.  This chance to consider our own narrative critically allows us to “test” our ideas – and decide what we really believe.  Even while welcoming participants to hold their truth claims with equal passion at the beginning and end of a dialogue – this gives us an opportunity for movement:  growing more convicted in something – or even less.

Is that scary?  Or refreshing?  How does this compare with going about our lives surrounded by faces and Face-less comments that only confirm and affirm what we already know.

Could that be the scary thing?

I think so, at least.

If I’m wrong – goodness gracious – I want to have the greatest possible chance of seeing it. And for all of us, I’m convinced we’re going to be less likely to ever find our own blind-spots if we’re living in a self-reinforcing echo chamber.  More than simply an intellectual limitation of constraining our capacity to “see new ideas,” I’m convinced the restrictions become very practical as our freedom to choose other possibilities shrinks.

As long as we’re stuck in our own story – without an awareness of any other, there are limited possibilities ahead. And this, in turn, can have substantial consequences for our real lives, since we don’t just tell stories – we live them!

That’s the first reason I do this writing.  To invite, advocate and call for more spaces where we expose ourselves to the best thinking of our “adversaries.”  The quickest way to make that happen, to my mind, is to start by doing it in writing – illustrating how exactly contrasting ideas can be juxtaposed in the best possible light.

That’s why I write.  It’s been my motivation in all my years of mental health work – from contrasting Prozac narratives to recovery narratives to “successful outcome” narratives.

It’s why I’m working on the Red Blue Dictionary with a fantastic group of collaborators – and why we do what we do with the Village Square.

It’s about Freedom.  Of exploring ideas.  And exploring life possibilities.

That’s my first motivation in this work – and one I acknowledge many (not all) who disagree with my specific convictions do generally and genuinely share.


[1] For example, group members of the same nationality who start out by disapproving of the US, and are suspicious of its intentions, will end up with greater disapproval and suspicion after they exchange points of view. Roger Brown, Social Psychology: The Second Edition (New York: Free Press, 1986), 206–207.

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