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

Making Politics Less Personal

Recently, Thomas Edsall wrote an interesting essay in the New York Times covering work done by various academics, including Jonathan Haidt, who is one of the founders of Civil Politics.  In this article, Edsall suggests that:

The work of Iyengar, Talhelm and Haidt adds a new layer to the study of polarization. In seminal work, scholars like Nolan McCarty, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists at Princeton, Yale and Berkeley, respectively, have stressed the key role of external factors in deepening our political schism, including inequality, the nationalization of politics, immigration and the fast approaching moment when whites will no longer be in the majority.

There are many factors that contribute to polarization and certainly these political factors are part of the equation.  Yet the intuitionist view that we have found evidence for at Civil Politics, suggests that the reasons we see increasing personal polarization is less a result of political or economic factors and more at the level of the personal.  Indeed, such vitriol is not just found in politics, but also in completely artificial settings like sports.  These political factors can all be boiled down to a single personal factor, that also exists in the sports realm: group competition.  Given this, our view would be more in line with what Iyengar suggested to Edsall in the article:

In an email exchange, Iyengar speculated on a number of reasons for the increase in polarization:

Residential neighborhoods are politically homogeneous as are social media networks. I suspect this is one of the principal reasons for the significantly increased rate of same-party marriages. In 1965, a national survey of married couples showed around sixty-five percent agreement among couples. By 2010, the agreement rate was near 90 percent.

The result, according to Iyengar, is that “since inter-personal contact across the party divide is infrequent, it is easier for people to buy into the caricatures and stereotypes of the out party and its supporters.”

Competition, whether for racial equality or the NFL championship, is going to lead to personal negative feelings and without the balancing factor of other positive personal relations, you get the kind of intense dislike described in the article.  In that way, politics is a sport just like any other.

– Ravi Iyer


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When We Teach Rhetoric, We Teach Values: A Writing Curriculum to Teach Civil Discourse

“Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.”              


                                                                                              Jim Corder – “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”

Background and Rationale for the Curriculum

Whenever I discuss rhetoric with fellow teachers, I notice many of them hold a definition of rhetoric that emphasizes the instrumental, that values a rhetor’s ability to persuade over their ability to illuminate, clarify, or listen.  I know this to be true because when I ask them what they think of the rhetoric on cable news, many of them reply that it is incredibly successful – “just look at how many people are persuaded by their methods.”

When we teach our students rhetoric in the English or Humanities classroom, we ought to serve them better.  We ought to teach them to value complexity and subtlety over the brute force of a well delivered message.  We ought to teach them to value the process of communicating and reasoning over the certainty of their convictions.  We ought to teach them to value and love the other first, and to use language in a way that makes space for those they disagree with. 

The world of psychology has much to offer the world of writing instruction.  Jim Corder and other rhetoricians have relied on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers to teach students to find common ground within polarizing issues for over forty years now.  Today, teachers of writing, communication, and rhetoric can look to current work in moral psychology to derive many of the same insights.  In his Ted Talk “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a moral matrix to describe how we fail to make space for the other in our reasoning and communication:

“Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out.  And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.”                       

In basic terms, this metaphor of the matrix implies that while we believe our judgments and perceptions always match reality, they often do not.   This insight offers a way to develop a new vision of rhetoric in our own writing classes.  If we can develop writing assignments to help students realize that they live in a matrix of their own beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions, and if we can teach them to develop moral humility in their communication, the way is cleared for them to engage in discourse and reasoning that is both more civil and critical.  Here is one curriculum designed to achieve these goals.

Opening Essay – In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

In the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, students answer essay prompts that put them in conversation with Haidt’s “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.”  The questions in the assignment ask them to apply frameworks or lenses from moral psychology to their own experiences.  This not only models how much of academic and critical thinking works (applying theoretical frameworks to real life issues) but encourages them to investigate some of their own unexamined values and assumptions about themselves and others.  The concept of the Moral Matrix also provides a theme for the course, and sets up the four part I-Controversy research paper in which students will be asked to step outside of their own moral matrices.

Research Paper Sequence: The I-Controversy Paper (4 Parts)

The I-Controversy Paper assignment inherits its title from the I-Search paper that is often taught in writing classes.  The ‘I’ borrowed from the I-Search connotes that this is a process assignment that embeds student interest and reflection.   In order to encourage students to confront and open to spaces of difference and disagreement, the I-Controversy asks students to choose a specific yes/no controversial statement or question.  This question then serves as the foundation for all 4 parts or essays.    

Part 1 of the I-Controversy Paper

In part 1 of the paper, students write about the experiences and people that have shaped their perspective on their controversy.  Many students are first inclined to write their opinions on the issue, and I encourage them in the writing process to focus more on what shaped those opinions rather than on the opinions themselves.  Like the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, this encourages students to look at the sources of their beliefs rather than their beliefs themselves, opening the way for reflection and critical thinking.

Parts 2 and 3 of the I-Controversy

In parts 2 and 3, students literally step outside of the moral matrix, writing in the third person and reporting the best arguments from first the pro and then the con side of their controversy.  By writing in a voice that represents the pro and con side, students can’t help but make space for voices on both sides of the controversy. 

Part 4 of the I-Controversy

In part 4, students get to choose from a series of reflection questions designed to encourage them to demonstrate the civil and critical thinking the developed on their journey outside the matrix.  After voicing the arguments for each side, almost all students report having a better understanding of the other side, and some students even find that they have changed their mind on their issue.  Still others focus on articulating something deeper about the nature of their controversy, exploring the differences in the values of both sides or analyzing what makes the issue complex enough to warrant it being a controversy in the first place. 

Final Thought

All of these moves offer students space to consider the other and thoughtfully represent their issue.  This is what rhetoric ought to be and can be if we see it as an expression of human value rather than an instrument or means to an end.

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Creating Shared Goals Using The Asteroids Club Paradigm

One of the most general and robust findings in social psychology is the power of situations to shape behavior.  For example, if you are in a situation where you are competing with others, you will tend to dislike them, whereas when you are cooperating with them, you will tend to like them.  This is relatively intuitive, yet we often fail to appreciate this in practice, and then we end up amazed when arbitrary groups put in competition end up in deep conflict.  If artificially created competitions can inflame divisions (e.g. sports fandom usually pits very similar people against each other), perhaps we can also manufacture cooperation to reduce division.
Jonathan Haidt (a director of CivilPolitics) conceived of the idea of The Asteroids Club with this in mind and the idea is currently being incubated by To The Village Square, a non-profit dedicated to improving political dialogue.  Below is an excerpt from an op-ed by Haidt in The Tallahassee Democrat:

Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams developing multiple competing visions for the voters to choose among. But when our political system loses the ability for national interest to come before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyper-partisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it paralyzes us in the face of so many impending threats.

What can we do about this? How can we free ourselves and our leaders from hyper-partisanship, and return to plain old partisanship? By joining the Asteroids Club! It’s a club for all Americans who are willing to grant that the other side sees some real threats more acutely than their own side does. It’s a concept developed with Tallahassee’s Village Square, which is hosting a series of Asteroids Club Dinner at the Square programs this year.

Asteroids Clubs would never hold debates. Debates often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold telescope parties in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids — one from each side — that they hadn’t really noticed before. Telescope parties would harness the awesome power of reciprocity. If we acknowledge your asteroid, will you acknowledge ours?

So come on, people! Dozens of asteroids are closer to impact than they were yesterday. Don’t wait for Washington to fix itself. Let’s just start working together, and if we can do it, it will be easier for Washington to follow our example. The alternative is for us to follow theirs.

If you are in the Tallahassee area, consider joining the event on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 from 5:30 to 7:30pm (more info at  At Civil Politics, we plan to both support the work of such groups, by giving them access to academic research and to support the work of academics, by giving them access to the findings generated by such real-world events.

– 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.