Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Mark Zuckerberg Exhibits Civility in Business

Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency.  It does not mean that you will come to an agreement with others, but simply won’t villainize them in a way that invariably leads to an inability to compromise, harsh words, and other ugly behavior.   Recently, many have taken issue with those in their workplace, like Peter Thiel at Facebook, who have supported Donald Trump’s campaign.  As Mark Zuckerberg writes , it is easy to be civil with people we agree with, but trying to create an environment that respects people of all viewpoints requires us to give people the benefit of the doubt – that disagreement does not necessarily come from a place of evil.  The full letter, posted internally to Facebook employees, is shown above and is well worth reading.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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American Democracy as a Shared Goal that Unites Liberals and Conservatives

One of our main evidence-based recommendations is to try to find common goals when seeking to unite groups that have a moral conflict.  Recently, two events have gotten me thinking about how to apply this more specifically to the current political division through a relatively benign shared goal – the goal of staying true to the founding fathers’ idea of American Democracy.

american-flag-447444_960_720I recently attended a gathering of concerned citizens – liberal and conservative – put on by Better Angels.  While most of us in the room were very politically active and gathered out of a concern for rising polarization, we recognized that we had challenges in getting less politically active citizens engaged in the relatively abstract and uninspiring goal of “depolarizing” American politics.  We had particular issues in attracting more conservative citizens for whom rhetoric around conflict reduction can seem like code words for liberal ways of thinking.  We were lucky enough to have some conservative representation in the room, which is a testament to Better Angels’ network, and they felt that the positive goal of promoting the American democratic ideal was indeed something they (and perhaps conservatives like them) would gravitate toward.  Given that common goals are a proven way to bring groups together and that waiting for the next 9/11 style attack or war to provide that goal, our nation seems in need of a common goal that can indeed unite us in relatively peaceful times – and specifically a goal that can get conservatives and liberals both interested in increasing civility in politics.

Around this time, Donald Trump has been engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to undermine our faith in democratic institutions, by pointedly failing to reassure citizens that he would accept the results of the election and facilitate a peaceful, civil transfer of power.  In light of our gathering’s suggestion for a common goal, I couldn’t help but notice how Trump’s rhetoric united many liberals and conservatives in their defense of our electoral system.  Consider this essays penned by the loser of the Republican loser of the 2008 election.

From CBS News:

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election as the Republican nominee, slammed Trump’s behavior Thursday, penning a lengthy statement that never once mentioned his party’s candidate.

“All Arizonans and all Americans should be confident in the integrity of our elections,” McCain said in a statement Thursday. “Free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the pride of our country, and the envy of much of the world because they are the means to protecting our most cherished values, the right to liberty and equal justice.”

“There have been irregularities in our elections, sometimes even fraud, but never to an extent that it affected the outcome. We should all be proud of that, and respect the decision of the majority even when we disagree with it. Especially when we disagree with it,” he added.

McCain went on to discuss the results of the 2008 election.

“I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election,” he said. “But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.

Many more Republicans have either criticized Trump’s remarks or attempted to walk them back for him, suggesting that the ideal of American Democracy is indeed strong enough to transcend partisanship.  It is also something that groups like The Village Square use to great effect in their programming.  So perhaps the next time you’re seeking something to bridge a liberal-conservative divide in your community, family or city – consider respect for the unique nature of American Democracy itself as a common goal that we can all work toward together.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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How Dialogue and Listening lead to Common Ground from Project Citizen’s Suzanne Soule

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the third post in the series detailing the experiences of Suzanne Soule, who worked as the Director of Research for the Center for Civic Education for over a decade.

What is the organization/group that you worked with? What is its history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

I worked as director of research for the Center for Civic Education for a little over a decade. We worked with youth in the United States and Emerging Democracies to try to get them to be engaged citizens, through programs like We the People and Project Citizen.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Most of the students in these countries did a program called Project Citizen. Despite all the talk about uncivil discourse in the US, we are a lot further along than these emerging democracies. We at least have a forum and a conversation, whereas in a lot of these places, there is no forum and people may just walk out of the room, when confronted with conflicting opinions.  Most of the best lessons for resolving inter-group divisions could be learned from our work with post-war emerging democracies. We did research in Boznia/Herzegovina, Palestine, and other emerging democracies that had a history of totalitarianism that had issues with transparency and corruption. In these places, there is not a history of open dialogue, so there was a lot to be learned in creating such a space.

Young people would conduct research on a problem in their community that they chose and propose a solution based on their research to elected officials.  In a place like China, they may also go to the media and increase pressure on officials. We partnered with local organizations as there is a lot more autonomy at the local level for change, within emerging democracies as well as places like China.  This wouldn’t have worked without the local partners as you can’t do these things from the outside.

Students vote on which problem they should address. There would be winners and losers and some students would end up on a project that they didn’t necessarily care about. The teachers worked to give them a reasonable role in the project as there is often a difficult moment where their chosen issue has lost, but in all the years I worked on Project Citizen, I’ve never noticed a time when a student wasn’t able to eventually contribute. The contribution may end up large or small, but they all end up contributing something, even if it isn’t exactly the issue they would have chosen, which has implications for getting people to work together on collective action from different perspectives.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

What I think works well in getting a student to work towards a group goal that they didn’t initially endorse is to figure out what a students’ skills are and seeing how that relates to the problem. If they are good artists or good interviewers, how can we help them shine so that they can do really good work leveraging those skills and buy in. 

They also work together in groups, so seeing the others inspired in the group works wonders. Over time, their initial ideas about the ideal project fade and the group project gains momentum.

In conversations with adults, it also helped that the students did a lot of research, so the adults were often convinced by the students because of their empirical knowledge.  Students were trained to evaluate the status kuo and were often critical of existing policies. and able to effect change because they had lots of evidence. Public officials who would be threatened by adults making the same recommendations were far more open to a group of 12 year olds. They were much more open. They often got a lot more of what they wanted from the public officials than we thought was possible. Youth often melts the hearts of hardened people…the heart opens and there is an element of surrender.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

It doesn’t work if the problem is chosen from the outside. There needs to be some time spent on finding out what they care about themselves with a lot of listening and open dialogue. I had to stop going in with a questionnaire and just listen to what concerned them and what was really problematic. Often they would come back to the problems I listed, but there was more buy-in if they came up with it themselves. There was more discourse and willingness to do the work as they were invested rather than thinking that there were these “Americans” coming in telling them what to do.

As far as the public officials we talked to, if there was any possibility that the officials would be shamed or put on the spot, then it would close dialogue. But if there were a possibility for positive PR or an award…or to talk to their own constituents/voters, people were very open. Having people far removed from them telling what to do would also close things down.

 

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

I would like to emphasize listening at the outset. Careful listening that leads to finding common ground.  It gives space for people to realize that they often have the same problems in divided societies and it improves relationships for people to realize that people unlike them have the same issues. It humanizes the other side.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://www.civiced.org

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Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions About Occupy Wall Street

As traditional newspapers decline in popularity, more and more people are turning to the internet to stay informed. Internet users can seek out web versions of established news publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or they can take their pick among thousands of political blogs covering all sides of the political spectrum. Political blogs, in particular, encourage reader interaction and debate, and reflect the democratization of the internet in that anyone who wishes to can create one and garner thousands, if not millions, of followers. A major concern with this transition to internet news sources is that people will tend to seek out those publications that reinforce their own views to the exclusion of all others, thereby creating online echo chambers of political thought, and leading to increased polarization and incivility.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

The researchers had several hypotheses about political polarization among political blogs:

First, they predicted that political bloggers would tend to express opinions that align with the particular ideology of the blog they write for, leading to polarized opinions between conservative and liberal blogs. They predicted the same would be true of the blogs’ comment sections.

Next, they predicted that incivility would become more frequent as political extremity increased in either the post or comment sections, and that most of this incivility would be directed towards off-site political opponents.

Researchers were also interested in comparing political blogs with those blogs published by established newspapers. They predicted that the latter, which tend to encourage a higher level of objectivity, would display less political bias both in the posts and comment sections, as well as less incivility than the political blogs.

To test these hypotheses, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of 2011 was used as a case study. Five popular blogs spanning the political spectrum were chosen for comparison, as well as two newspaper blogs, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Blog posts about OWS and their comments were coded for the author or commenter’s stance toward the OWS protests, specific groups or persons (including the blog author or another commenter) praised or criticized, and whether any criticism was uncivil.

2. What They Found – Results:

As expected, political bloggers expressed opinions that were in line with the particular political bent of the given blog—authors on the conservative blogs opposed OWS and those on the liberal blogs supported it. Blog comments showed a similar trend, though they were somewhat less polarized. Also as predicted, incivility increased as blog content and comments grew more extreme, and was most frequently directed at off-site opponents.

Newspaper blogs were found to be significantly less biased than political blogs, as were the commenters on these blogs. Newspaper blog authors and commenters also displayed less incivility.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

Authors and commenters on 2 liberal blogs—Daily Kos and firedoglake; 2 conservative blogs—Townhall and MichelleMalkin; and one moderate blog, TheModerateVoice. Authors and commenters on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal blogs.

4. Study Name:

Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street

5. Citation:

Suhay, E., Blackwell A., Roche, C. & L.  Bruggeman.  “Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges:  Political Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street.” (2014) Unpublished manuscript, American University, Washington, D.C.

6. Link:

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/266260311_Forging_Bonds_and_Burning_Bridges_Polarization_and_Incivility_in_Blog_Discussions_about_Occupy_Wall_Street

7. Intervention Categories:

8. Sample Size:

2,392 blog posts and comments across 7 sources

9. Central Reported Statistic:

Incivility greater on political blog posts than newspaper blog posts (χ2 = 16.76, df = 3, p ≤.001) and on political blog comments (χ2 = 14.18, df = 1, p ≤.001)

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.