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Healing the Divide by Ruining Lives

[This is a guest post by Robert Fersh, the president of The Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.]

One could be forgiven for thinking that the acrimony and dysfunction that’s come to characterize our national politics is immutable. After all, longtime Congressional observers and the national media have deemed our current crop of elected officials the “most dysfunctional” and “least productive in history”—not exactly awards a well-meaning public servant angles for. The signs of breakdown are everywhere; public approval of Congress recently sunk as low as 9% – the lowest rating since polling began in 1976.

Yet as someone who works with equally passionate, ideologically opposed groups to find points of common ground on national issues, I can tell you it does not need to be this way.

It’s true that we have a wide spectrum of opinions and temperaments in our debates, but differing views don’t have to roil the nation and paralyze us from acting.  The creative tension among strong, opposing views can fuel better solutions than any one party or political perspective can provide.

The secret is to engage with others, with a focus on listening and respect, rather than on questioning motives or winning debates.  This is not a blind plea for politeness; this is hard work. It requires discipline and patience, and welcomes respectful argument.  If practiced well, this approach won’t just yield civility, but also not-otherwise-possible solutions that energize and inspire all participants. We not only need politicians and political leaders to do this, but also myriad organizations, businesses, civil society groups, and citizens as well.

Several years ago, I directed a project involving top, and often conflicting, national organizations attempting to find common ground on health care coverage for the uninsured. The participants’ ideological differences were, from a distance, not unlike those that led to the 2013 government shutdown.  Yet this group of “strange bedfellows” managed to agree on substantive recommendations and a plan to work together to provide health coverage to most of the then-estimated 47 million Americans who lacked it. Some of their key recommendations have since been enacted into law.

The process not only achieved dramatic policy results, but also deeply affected the individuals involved. One participant from a physicians group told me: “When we started, I thought I knew exactly how to cover the uninsured. My group had thought this through. We had the right answer.  And now, after spending time with all these smart, caring people from other places, I cannot see the world or this issue the same way.  You have ruined my life!”

As another think tank participant put it, “I had known most of these people for many years. Yet in this process, an entirely different dynamic and better result occurred because we took the time to really understand each other and address the concerns each of us had, rather than just blindly advocate for what we believed when we started.”

There’s a simple lesson at play: None of us wants our own views discounted or demonized, but we routinely do that to the “other side.”  For us, the golden rule seems to apply only to those we perceive to share our values and viewpoints.

We’re no Pollyannas. We understand that this process may not work for all topics at all times.  But there is a track record of success in various policy arenas and there are experienced, skilled practitioners who are ready to serve the nation.  And there are glimmers of hope in Congress, including bipartisan cooperation on immigration reform and a newly reached budget deal.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, said in an interview in 2012: “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.  That’s what our political institutions used to do, but they don’t do anymore.”

Polarization and gridlock don’t have to be permanent political watchwords if we can find leaders from all sectors with the courage to embrace a new approach.  If we actively engage those who disagree with us, we may “ruin” some lives, but we will be all the better for it.


Robert J. Fersh is the president of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a national organization that convenes people and groups with conflicting views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues. He has held leadership positions working for Congress, in the Executive Branch, and in the non-profit sector in Washington, DC for over 35 years.

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The Psychology of Aggression and the Ugliness of the Health Care Reform Debate

Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, there are high costs involved for a member of a species to kill other members of it’s own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I’m guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It’s usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.

There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram’s obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I’m wrong about this and I’ll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif’s classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights’s ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn’t necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.

A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others “for the greater good”, which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman’s wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.

I don’t have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call ‘hypermoralism’, I created a small educational website that I thought I’d use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.

Reasons to support violence against civilians

As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral (“They were amoral, having no moral standards.” or “They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.”) most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral (“They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.”) as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival (“They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.”) was a distant third motivation.

In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.

Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It’s not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.

In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior.  Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it’s worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn’t enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman’s home are a small price to pay.

Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have ‘won’ this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don’t go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to “stop big corporations from taking over our democracy”, a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives “won”. Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads….ugliness.

– Ravi Iyer

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