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

Lessons from 25 Years Bridging Divides at the Public Conversations Project

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 fifth post in the series detailing the experiences of Dave Joseph, who is a senior vice president for programs at the Public Conversations Project.

What is the the history of the Public Conversations Project?

Public Conversations Project is a 25-year-old, Boston-based nonprofit committed to helping people bridge divides of identity, core values and worldviews. Our approach, Reflective Structured Dialogue, has its basis in family systems therapy, narrative therapy and appreciative inquiry. Its founders began by attempting to figure out how to help people have constructive, respectful conversations about the issue of abortion.

It is designed to build trust, deepen relationships and provide the foundation for collaboration between people who see each other as opponents or enemies. We design and facilitate respectful conversations about complex and controversial subjects, so that people can speak from the heart, listen deeply and remain in community, while acknowledging their differences.

We have addressed differences of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation; we have extensive work in intra-faith and interfaith conversations; we have designed and facilitated dialogues addressing issues of community, faith and science, child labor, the environment, sustainable development, immigration, post-conflict reconciliation and many others.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

We have worked with many organizational and community partners, collaborating to help them accomplish their goals.  We have designed dialogue guides (written and video) on a range of subjects that are available for free download from our “Resources” webpage.  We also co-sponsored the Boston Transpartisan conference recently (videos are available here).
We provide numerous workshops in Boston and other areas (detailed here).  As well, we also design and facilitate meetings and conferences that have addressed such issues as guns; domestic violence / marriage promotion / responsible fatherhood; international development.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

  • Having a clear purpose for the event is essential, so that participants understand what to expect and not to expect—and that their expectations are shared.
  • Co-creation with participants of communication agreements that support the purpose of the event helps promote participant ownership and adherence to shared commitments.
  • Structure that promotes inclusion of all voices and democratization of the opportunity to participate is helpful.
  • Designing questions for participants that invite speaking from personal experience and sharing of personal stories that promote connection, curiosity and community.
  • Engagement of participants to promote reflection and deeper understanding of their own views, as well as those of others.
  • Preparation of participants to identify their hopes, concerns, past experience and invite their advice as to how to structure successful, respectful conversations.

What have you tried in your programs/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?

  • Whenever possible, avoid activities for which proper participant preparation has not been done.
  • Avoid responding to last-minute requests to step in and facilitate events that you have not been able to play a role in designing. If you don’t know people’s agendas, concerns and past experience, you’re likely to be in for unpleasant surprises.

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?

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, Affirming One’s Own Values to make people open to Others, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

Please expand upon your use of the above ideas. How exactly have you operationalized these ideas? Which ideas have you tried and felt worked well? Which ideas have you tried and felt worked badly?

We highly value the practice of “”mapping”" / understanding the lay of the land beforehand in order to understand whether the situation is “”ripe”" for dialogue. 80% of our work is done before people ever come together, ideally through individual, oral conversations with participants or a written questionnaire to determine their hopes, concerns, expectations, past experiences, advice and how they can prepare themselves to get the most out of the experience. We also tend to work with a small planning group of the community/organization with and we are working, as they are the local/cultural experts. We see them as co-collaborators in designing an effective intervention. This builds participant commitment and ownership of the process, so they can be more likely to accomplish their purposes.

Communication agreements and structures that promote reflection (e.g. pause before speaking and between speakers) help reduce the likelihood of reactivity and conversations deteriorating into slogans, attacks and blaming.

From the above list, what other techniques and ideas would you add? How have you used these techniques in your work?

Our approach is derived from narrative therapy, appreciative inquiry and systems theory. We have also utilized techniques from internal family systems therapy, psychodrama, organizational development, anthropology and conflict transformation.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

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When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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Why do we study the psychology of libertarians?

We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt.  The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives.  Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives.  For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization.  Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.

Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”).  They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy .  They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.

If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.

Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish.  But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don’t support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.

But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice.  Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others.  But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment.  I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road.

Why do we seek to publicize this paper?  In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers,  and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these.  Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor.  In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.

- Ravi Iyer

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On the Morality of Torture & Utilitarianism

I personally do not believe in torture, but I have to admit that when I think of it, my mind prototypically thinks of the potential harm that might befall an innocent person caught by an unscrupulous policeman who is all too sure of his moral superiority. What would I do if I knew with 100% certainty that torture of a known murderer/rapist would save countless lives, including the lives of many people I knew and loved?

Is support for torture restricted to the evil among us (e.g. liberals who think that Dick Cheney = Darth Vader)? When individuals say that they are torturing an evil few in order to save many innocents (an argument based in Utilitarianism), are they lying about their noble goals? A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that individuals may not be honest about their utilitarian motives. From the abstract:

The use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects is typically justified on utilitarian grounds. The present research suggests, however, that those who support such techniques are fuelled by retributive motives.

This is a very well done experimental study, which illustrates an important point about other potential motives for torture, specifically a desire for retribution or vengeance. However, it may be nitpicking or splitting hairs, but I might instead have written “those who support such techniques may also be fuelled by retributive motives.” Indeed, in the study itself, there is an increase in support for severe interrogation techniques when there is a greater likelihood that the suspect is withholding information that may save lives, especially among Republicans, the group most likely to be “those who support such techniques.” The fact that retributive motives exist, does not necessarily mean that utilitarian motives do not. One could probably design a study that shows the opposite, where utilitarian motives dominate, given the total control one has in a lab environment.

Our data suggests that utilitarian motives are indeed important in predicting attitudes toward torture. There are a number of measures that tap utilitarian thinking, but the most convincing to me are the classic moral dilemmas that ask people if they are willing to take some action (e.g. flipping a switch) to save 5 innocent people at the cost of 1 innocent life. They are convincing because they are generally free of any political content or judgment about the worth or guilt of individuals.  Below is a graph relating responses to these dilemmas to attitudes toward torture.  Higher scores on the Y axis indicate more willingness to sacrifice 1 life for 5.  Higher scores on the X axis indicate willingness to support torture in more situations.

Torture and Utilitarian Moral Judgments are positively correlated

There is a fairly robust positive correlation between utilitarian judgments on these dilemmas and support for torture (the dip on the far right for liberals is likely due to there being such a small number of liberals who think torture is often justified).

If I look at other utilitarian measures such as moral idealism (using the Ethics Position Questionnaire – e.g. “The existence of potential harm to others is always wrong, irrespective of the benefits to be gained.”, r=-.35) or moral maximizing (using an adapted version of Schwartz’s maximizing-satisficing scale – e.g. “In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morallyimperfect action.”, r=-.15), you find the same relationship. Controlling for political affiliation and beliefs about punishment and disposition toward vengeance, one still finds significant relationships between utilitarianism and support for torture.

My take home. Part of promoting civil politics is to take people at their word for their motives, rather than questioning them. There may indeed be some vengeful motive behind torture…but there are utilitarian motives as well and those of us who dislike torture might actually get further confronting torture on utilitarian grounds rather than attempting to question the motives of those who believe in torture.

- Ravi Iyer

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