Giving new meaning to the old adage “the elephant in the room”
Six years ago a group of liberal and conservative Tallahassee leaders – who somehow enjoyed enduring across-the-aisle friendships despite enduring political disagreement – started an audacious civic experiment. They were frustrated by the divisiveness of the political dialogue nationally and its increasingly negative impact on local decision-making. And they were nervy enough to think they could fix it.
“The experiment” is now called The Village Square, named after Albert Einstein’s reflection on America’s first nuclear energy debate: “To the village square, we must carry the facts… from there must come America’s voice.”
In the good company of Mr. Einstein, we were doing some Grade A wishful thinking when we decided to elevate facts as central to our mission. Facts, after all (and especially in the internet age), are ripe for motivated cherry picking and human beings are nothing if not motivated cherry pickers.
Using the central metaphor in Civil Politics’ founder Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, with a founding charter on facts, The Village Square had decided to talk to “riders” on their “elephants.”
“The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant… The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”
An encyclopedic volume of facts can drive any particular complex issue – hard for mere mortals (with children, bosses and a mortgage) to absorb. So instead, people make decisions intuitively (and based on others around them), then settle on a set of “facts” that support the decision they’ve already made. “The Righteous Mind” offers overwhelming scientific support for the driving force of “post-hoc” rationalization in our mental processes.
I now suspect our original conservative and liberal friends were unconsciously deluding ourselves that The Village Square would convince our wayward friends on the opposite side of the aisle of the ultimate correctness of our own political views. That didn’t happen.
Instead, in the process of rolling up our sleeves together in common work, we had accidentally put ourselves in the company of a very different group of elephants than our usual herd. That is what has changed everything – including (ironically) allowing us to be naturally affected by a broader range of facts.
Now when our “elephants” lean in the direction our minds choose instinctively – we choose a different direction than we might have without these new and unique relationships. Using Jon Haidt’s construct, in the process of aiming our efforts at what doesn’t work – talking to the rider – The Village Square stumbled on what does work: We changed the path of the elephant.
Jon on Bill Moyers earlier this month:
“…If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other's reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”
Do we still talk to riders? Sure we do. Riders matter, as servants of the elephant. Riders need good ideas to talk to other people, and try to influence them. But the ingredient essential to our success has always been that we speak to elephants.
More soon on how you get 4 ton pachyderms into a room…
(Photo credit: Cody Simms)