Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They've shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We'll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.

Anderson: I'm Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I'm Micah Saul. And you're listening to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: Well, we're back. Officially. Formally. With a real, edited episode not us at South by Southwest. We aren't even going to waste time with apologies because we've wasted so much other time. We're going to jump in.

This episode is with Joan Blades. She is the cofounder of MoveOn. You've probably heard of them. She's involved with MomsRising, which is another nonprofit organization. But what caught our attention was her work with a group called Living Room Conversations, and she started that with the head of the Tea Party Patriots. We heard about Living Room Conversations through Puck Mykleby so long ago, back in South Carolina. And when I was talking to him, he said, "You've gotta look up Joan Blades. She's actually bringing together people from radically different backgrounds and having them sit around in their living room and look for common ground. People who might not think they had any." And she thinks this is possible.

Micah Saul: We were intrigued by this for…I mean, the reasons should be pretty clear. So yeah, let's just go ahead and turn this over to Joan Blades and we'll be back in a little bit to talk about it.

Joan Blades: Living Room Conversations are a project to make it pos­si­ble for peo­ple with dif­fer­ent view­points (and being a founder of both MoveOn and MomsRising I’ve been par­tic­u­lar­ly exposed to polit­i­cal view­points) to be able to sit down togeth­er and have a very thought­ful and respect­ful con­ver­sa­tion about what­ev­er they want to talk about.

What I’ve seen as a founder of MoveOn is that we’ve become increas­ing­ly polar­ized. And in fact we have got­ten to the point where we have separate…realities? when it comes to a whole raft of facts. And so how can we pos­si­bly make good deci­sions togeth­er when we don’t even share basic facts? You first have to have a rela­tion­ship, and you have to have shared val­ues.

And I should be very spe­cif­ic. Living Room Conversations are a very gran­u­lar process where two friends, one with one view­point, anoth­er with anoth­er view­point, each invite two friends for a struc­tured con­ver­sa­tion. And every­body agrees to six basic prin­ci­ples, which are you know, kind of what you learned in kinder­garten. You take turns. You lis­ten. You’re curi­ous. You’re respect­ful. And then you go through a set of ques­tions. And the first hour real­ly is, Why did you say yes to hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion?” And, Who are you? How would your friends describe you? And what are your dreams for the future, for your com­mu­ni­ty, for…?”

And by the time you get through that you’re sit­ting with peo­ple and you’re going, Well I like these peo­ple.” Or you know, so many peo­ple come into a room with peo­ple with dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal view­points and they’ve got these pre­con­ceived notions that peo­ple are some­how mean-spirited, or…not so bright, or what­ev­er it may be. And you quick­ly dis­pose of that, and then when you get down to the con­tent you’re real­ly lis­ten­ing to each oth­er. And there’s not an expec­ta­tion that you’re going to com­plete­ly change your mind about any­thing. That’s not a rea­son­able— But you built some rela­tion­ship and then you can have more con­ver­sa­tions.

And maybe you con­tin­ue to just have your small group have con­ver­sa­tions. Or maybe you decide you know, we got com­mon ground on a few things but there’s a big­ger ques­tion and you ask for some facil­i­tat­ed help. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. It’s an open source project, any­one can use it. It’s so that we can talk to peo­ple we would­n’t nor­mal­ly be talk­ing to. And for orga­ni­za­tions it’s so they can speak to peo­ple that extend beyond the choir.

Aengus Anderson: Mm hm. What in your expe­ri­ence and work­ing on MoveOn—because clear­ly you start­ed that to advo­cate for one side…

Blades: Actually no.

Anderson: Oh real­ly? Could you tell me a lit­tle more about that?

Blades: I’m a medi­a­tor by ori­gin and incli­na­tion. My hus­band and I had put out a peti­tion to under a hun­dred of our friends and fam­i­lies, mid­way in the impeach­ment scan­dal, ask­ing for Congress to imme­di­ate­ly cen­sure the President and move on to press­ing issues fac­ing the nation. And it was a very uni­fy­ing state­ment because you could hate Bill Clinton, or love Bill Clinton, and agree that cen­sure him and get back to busi­ness. In the­o­ry our gov­ern­ment and the media have respon­si­bil­i­ties to live up to, and it was a busi­nessper­son­’s plea for san­i­ty and oppor­tu­ni­ty cost to attract Democrats, Republicans, inde­pen­dents, Green Party… It was not a polar­iz­ing peti­tion.

Anderson: That’s inter­est­ing. So fif­teen years ago you’re cre­at­ing this orga­ni­za­tion that’s sort of try­ing to bring peo­ple togeth­er for a com­mon goal. It seems like since then we’ve drift­ed away and we’ve become more polar­ized. And you men­tioned some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing at the begin­ning of this, the idea that we almost have to dif­fer­ent real­i­ties or two dif­fer­ent sets of facts. Why do you think that has been hap­pen­ing over this…let’s just say look­ing at the past fif­teen years just since you start­ed MoveOn?

Blades: Well I can say with MoveOn when you said drift­ed away” I went mmm, no, it was­n’t drift. It was a very spe­cif­ic point in time. We had an elec­tion where we got hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple. And in 98 this was extra­or­di­nary, to have hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple sign an online peti­tion to stand up and say, We don’t want an impeach­ment, we want you to get back to busi­ness.”

Well, there was an elec­tion where pun­dits tend­ed to think that the impeach­ment was unpop­u­lar, and yet two weeks lat­er the House vot­ed to impeach. And we’d just got­ten hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple engaged polit­i­cal­ly for the first time in their lives and we’re going [inhales sharply] It was sup­posed to be a flash cam­paign.”

But it did­n’t feel right to walk away at that point. So we then launched the We Will Remember cam­paign. When your elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives don’t reflect your val­ues, good cit­i­zens try to get some­one elect­ed that does reflect their val­ues. So that did a sort to the half a mil­lion peo­ple that had shown up, the peo­ple that stayed with us, were all peo­ple that then want­ed to elect Democrats because it was a Republican ini­tia­tive—

Anderson: Interesting.

Blades: —impeach­ing the President. You know, my heart is with find­ing com­mon ground, but you also have to be full-on con­nect­ed to the polit­i­cal process and try and elect peo­ple that reflect your val­ues.

So that that was a very pre­cise spot. With the media and with pol­i­tics it’s been my obser­va­tion that the way the polit­i­cal realm is work­ing right now, peo­ple are get­ting reward­ed for not being col­lab­o­ra­tive. And I am real­ly clear at that to have the best pos­si­ble solu­tions, we have to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly. Adversarially-derived solu­tion is a shad­ow of the effec­tive­ness as a col­lab­o­ra­tive one.

So, my top issue’s actu­al­ly cli­mate change. The world as we now know it is at risk, we real­ly should be doing some­thing about it. And I hon­est­ly expect that Republicans are going to agree it’s a seri­ous con­cern with­in the next cou­ple years. If we start hav­ing real rela­tion­ships (and I have deep belief in aver­age cit­i­zens from doing the MoveOn and MomsRising work), I think the cit­i­zens need to lead. And if we cre­ate the ground­work for politi­cians that do want to do good work, the back­ing, then I hope we can help the polit­i­cal sphere get out of this neg­a­tive dynam­ic they’re in. It’s going to be real­ly hard—I know it’s a long shot. I just am com­pelled to do it because you can’t give up on stuff like this.

Anderson: Yeah, I always kind of start these con­ver­sa­tions with a look at the present. And it seems like when we look at the present now we’re see­ing a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent things. We’re see­ing a dis­crep­an­cy between the elec­torate and the rep­re­sen­ta­tives. An elec­torate that might have a lot more in com­mon, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives who have an incen­tive sys­tem that encour­ages them not to find things in com­mon. It also seems like we have that thing you men­tioned at the begin­ning, two dif­fer­ent bod­ies of facts, or two dif­fer­ent real­i­ties.

So let’s look at both of those things. Let’s start with the two dif­fer­ent real­i­ties amongst reg­u­lar cit­i­zens. Why do we have two dif­fer­ent real­i­ties? Or why do we have, prob­a­bly, many real­i­ties, but such…drastically dif­fer­ent ones? And is that new?

Blades: Well you also men­tioned the media. I, in part, attribute that to a media that has become…media for the right, medi­um for the left. It was­n’t that long ago that there were a few trust­ed news sources. And now there’s a set of peo­ple that are trust­ing a whole dif­fer­ent set of infor­ma­tion than are trust­ing the set that I trust. I’ll nev­er for­get that in 2004 when Bush won a sec­ond term, a major­i­ty of the peo­ple that vot­ed him into office believed that weapons of mass destruc­tion were found in Iraq. That’s a fact; either they were or they weren’t found. And I heard there was a com­mis­sion that deter­mined that they weren’t found.

There are these com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives that peo­ple have heard and had repeat­ed again and again. And since we’re not talk­ing to each oth­er, we’re liv­ing in par­al­lel uni­vers­es. If I Google Iraq” and my con­ser­v­a­tive part­ner in this project Googles Iraq,” we’ll get com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als, because Google is try­ing to pro­vide us with the infor­ma­tion we want. This is not good. How are we going to resolve these things? And that’s why Living Room Conversations are one small piece of this puz­zle. Or, a big piece, if they are mas­sive­ly repro­ducible, as we hope they are.

Anderson: Is that a his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed thing? I mean, if we look at obvi­ous­ly the media sit­u­a­tion, we’ve nev­er lived at a point in his­to­ry where you’ve had this kind of…this many frag­ment­ed options of see­ing the world, and also in a way they are your only medi­a­tion. You know, for most Americans that’s kind of like, we don’t go to Iraq, we don’t see those things. It’s like we’re deal­ing with sys­tems of gov­ern­ment that have a glob­al reach and we’re still the same lit­tle bio­log­i­cal ani­mals.

So maybe there’s some­thing new there? But there’s part of me that of course as I’m think­ing about this I’m think­ing of like, well, let’s go back to the 19th cen­tu­ry and the yel­low press, where you’ve got dif­fer­ent news­pa­pers that are print­ing in the same city total­ly dif­fer­ent things about local politi­cians who you may know. And you have two alter­nate nar­ra­tives there. Was a uni­fied nar­ra­tive maybe start­ing in the 50s or even ear­li­er with radio? You know cou­ple big sta­tions maybe last­ing into the 70s and 80s. Was that the aber­ra­tion? Or is this the aber­ra­tion?

Blades: I don’t know. Radio and TV def­i­nite­ly changed things. The oth­er piece to think about, though, is… I actu­al­ly think the mon­ey and pol­i­tics ques­tion is per­haps the most insid­i­ous of them all? I don’t know how much our gov­ern­ment is run by…you know, response to cit­i­zens, and how much is run by response to cor­po­ra­tions and their influ­ence. I’m very con­cerned that the cor­po­ra­tions are win­ning in a big way. When I work on things like tox­i­cs, I see leg­is­la­tion that makes no sense but for the ben­e­fit of the pow­er of cer­tain cor­po­ra­tions.

Anderson: And that seems to kind of get us to that oth­er ques­tion, why the dis­crep­an­cy between the elec­torate and their elect­ed offi­cials? Because in this case it seems like that kind of explains the dis­crep­an­cy, right? On one hand—

Blades: It cer­tain­ly does.

Anderson: I mean…yeah. If the elect­ed offi­cials are not respon­sive to the elec­torate because they’re being paid.

Blades: But it’s nev­er so bla­tant as that.

Anderson: Mm hm. What is it, if it’s…a soft­er pow­er?

Blades: California has this real­ly clas­sic exam­ple of… We have tox­ic flame retar­dants in all our fur­ni­ture because of a California reg­u­la­tion flam­ma­bil­i­ty stan­dard that our bureau of home fur­nish­ings put in. And it seems like such a nice, safe thing to do.

But, if you go to the his­to­ry, that’s actu­al­ly hap­pened because the cig­a­rette indus­try did­n’t want to have self-extinguishing cig­a­rettes. And they decid­ed, bet­ter to make the fur­ni­ture flame-retardant.

Well it turns out these flame retar­dants are actu­al­ly close­ly relat­ed to DDT and oth­er pes­ti­cides. They’re—

Anderson: Of course they are.

Blades: Many are car­cino­gens. Some are endocrine disruptors—I think most of them are that. They’re bioac­cu­mu­la­tive. And in fact, because of this California reg­u­la­tion, most of the fur­ni­ture in North America has flame retar­dants in it. And we’ve been try­ing to get this reg­u­la­tion over­turned for years. The indus­try cre­ates the fire mar­shals for fire safe­ty or what­ev­er it is so that for a leg­is­la­tor that has all these things going on all the time, some­one that’s real­ly got a nice suit on, or comes and has— And here are the fire mar­shals for fire safe­ty, and here’s you know, a burn vic­tim and they make this poignant case about how this is so nec­es­sary. So it cre­ates a real­ly great incen­tive to go, Oh yeah, we do have to keep this reg­u­la­tion.”

Anderson: Okay, so that’s how it’s more sub­tle than just… It’s not that these peo­ple are just bought off it’s that there’s a real­ly good case made, and if you don’t get well below the sur­face and you don’t have the time to dig into the research and to look at what appears to be a very gray issue in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways… Then you can be eas­i­ly— It’s almost like they are exposed to a cer­tain type of media them­selves.

Blades: They are exposed to a absolute­ly pow­er­ful cam­paign of why you have to do this. And in fact, you’re accused of not car­ing about babies and chil­dren and all the vul­ner­a­ble in the world, when in fact we we have flame-retardant whales up in the Puget Sound. [laughs]

Anderson: [laugh­ing] It’s those details that always get me with this stuff.

Something that’s com­ing to mind now is just the role of infor­ma­tion in this. So we’ve talked about an elec­torate that has dif­fer­ent bod­ies of facts. Because they have dif­fer­ent media sources. We’ve talked about elect­ed—

Blades: Different trust­ed experts.

Anderson: Ah, and that’s inter­est­ing, too. And how does that come about? You know, we’ve looked at sort of on the elect­ed offi­cials side, we see well there are these very com­pli­cat­ed issues… They’re lob­bied. They can actu­al­ly do what they con­sid­er to be the best thing. And not even nec­es­sar­i­ly know that they are play­ing into indus­try’s hands but just that they’re pre­sent­ed with a case that’s very com­pelling from indus­try and they can’t see through it.

Blades: Yeah, and there’s also finan­cial ben­e­fits, I’m quite sure.

Anderson: Sure. But yeah, I think it’s almost more more inter­est­ing to look at the cas­es where you have an elect­ed offi­cial who real­ly in good faith does some­thing that is com­plete­ly in the indus­tries’ pock­et.

So I feel like we’ve got that a lit­tle more delin­eat­ed. Back on the side of the elec­torate, let’s talk about trust­ed experts and why do we have this sit­u­a­tion oth­er than like the media struc­ture, but clear­ly the media struc­ture itself came from some­where. Why do we have dif­fer­ent real­i­ties like that? Why are the experts trust­ed dif­fer­ent­ly?

Blades: Well… We have allowed this to hap­pen. It used to be, when there was a fact the media felt some respon­si­bil­i­ty for report­ing on the fact. And now, they say, Well, he says this, and she says that. Isn’t that inter­est­ing?” Well if there’s a fact some­where in there I would like to know, thank you. But this piece about being even-handed has just got­ten to the point where it’s non-information and it leaves the pub­lic in the place where again and again they have to go with the per­son they like more or they trust more. That’s not the job.

And James Fallows wrote a book called Breaking the News many years ago. And I thought he put it pret­ty well that media gets more press when they do a horse race. And so they focus on the dif­fer­ences. They…fan the dif­fer­ences right along with too many elect­ed lead­ers that get advan­tage from that. It’s become the accept­ed way to pro­ceed. And peo­ple that want to do it dif­fer­ent­ly? I think maybe they too often don’t end up get­ting elect­ed.

One of the things I’m chal­lenged with by the Living Room Conversations project is it’s a boot­strap. And get­ting sup­port for it is real­ly hard, because peo­ple want to sup­port their project that is doing X or doing Y. And when we say, Well, we have a real­ly good con­ver­sa­tion about immi­gra­tion, or about mon­ey and pol­i­tics,” peo­ple want to know what the answer is. And this isn’t about say­ing, We will give you this out­come.” This is say­ing, We will help you have your peo­ple talk beyond the choir. And you’re like­ly to find some com­mon ground and build some rela­tion­ship.”

But that’s not what most peo­ple want. They want to be work­ing on get­ting the next leg­is­la­tion on X or Y.

Anderson: You know, what’s inter­est­ing about the Living Room Conversations is that it’s com­ing kind of going bottom-up? but we’ve also been talk­ing about a lot of things that are top-down. Media, or influ­ence upon politi­cians. It may be almost a sil­ly ques­tion to ask but, is that some­thing where it would be more effec­tive to start at the top? Or do you have to start at the bot­tom?

Blades: I think the top has moti­va­tions that are more chal­leng­ing. I think there’s some­thing a lit­tle truer about being able to start with just reg­u­lar cit­i­zens hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions because they’re not wor­ried about what the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of find­ing com­mon ground might be. Or hav­ing an idea that does­n’t fit with­in a pre­scribed we’re sup­posed to do it this way.”

That said, the con­ver­sa­tion I had with Mark Meckler, who’s a cofounder of Tea Party Patriots, in my liv­ing room was you know, incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful. He brought two of his friends, I brought two of mine, and that’s kind of grass­roots and grass­roots. And we had it about crony cap­i­tal­ism. And in that con­ver­sa­tion we iden­ti­fied that there’s a hun­dred per­cent agree­ment that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem isn’t work­ing well for us. Having huge num­bers of peo­ple in prison is incred­i­bly cost­ly to our soci­ety. But also to soci­eties with­in the inner cities where you have a big chunk of their men­folk that if they’re not locked up they have been locked up.

And this relates to The New Jim Crow, which I got the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read last month. I’m get­ting edu­cat­ed about crim­i­nal jus­tice since the con­ver­sa­tion because okay, here’s a place we have right/left agree­ment, inside/outside. We should be able to work here.

Anderson: But are you guys open to a com­mon set of facts? You know, is one of the things that brought you two togeth­er to talk in the liv­ing room that you can agree that there are aspects of your real­i­ties that over­lap, and maybe that’s hard­er to find else­where?

Blades: We’re look­ing for those. I mean we pur­pose­ly chose an issue are where we have a set of facts that have a lot of com­mon­al­i­ties around.

Anderson: Do you think enough peo­ple are open-minded enough to sit down togeth­er that this can be effec­tive? Maybe this is kind of get­ting back to when I was ask­ing about do you start at the bottom-up or the top-down, you know. Do you need to crack the media thing first, so you maybe a let a lit­tle bit more of the coun­try get open-minded?

Blades: My con­fi­dence in the media and elect­ed lead­ers is not high right now. My belief in reg­u­lar cit­i­zens con­tin­ues to be high. And it’s a long­shot, I admit. But what I’ve seen is the com­bi­na­tion of real peo­ple and the tech­nolo­gies we now have can cre­ate some very amaz­ing out­comes if you hit the right moment, the right com­bi­na­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ties.

The bottom-up is the place where I hold the great­est opti­mism. Because you know, can you imag­ine if some elect­ed lead­ers that real­ly do want to do good work had tens of thou­sands of liv­ing room con­ver­sa­tions say­ing we a hun­dred per­cent agree that you’ve got to pass Glass–Steagall. End the war on drugs. Get rid of Citizens United. All those things, it’s so unusu­al to get con­sen­sus. I’m hop­ing that can be a gamechang­er.

Anderson: Thinking about a lot of things like this, if we’re work­ing bottom-up for change, then there’s a real onus on peo­ple who are on the bot­tom to be informed enough, right, to have…not only an abil­i­ty to agree on some facts with each oth­er so they can form con­sen­sus but also a real­ly wide-ranging under­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent issues. Because we have a lot of things that prob­a­bly need rem­e­dy­ing.

And that’s some­thing that I run into in this project all the time. Lots and lots of dif­fer­ent types of issues. And a theme that keeps com­ing up as I talk to peo­ple about them is well, we’re liv­ing in a time of unprece­dent­ed infor­ma­tion. Whatever oth­er things may or may not make this era his­tor­i­cal­ly unique there’s cer­tain­ly a lot of stuff hap­pen­ing. Do you think we’ve hit a point where there’s actu­al­ly too much going on for us to real­ly rely on change from the bot­tom up? Because all of these peo­ple who have to have these con­ver­sa­tions have got to also work, and take care of their kids… And to be an informed, engaged per­son who also does those things seems like an immense chal­lenge.

Blades: We all rely on trust­ed experts. That’s how we make most of our deci­sions in a day, real­ly. But being in com­mu­ni­ty is actu­al­ly enliven­ing. So at the heart of this is actu­al­ly cre­at­ing con­nec­tions that will make your life rich­er, and bet­ter. The way I see it right now we had a pilot project, with ear­ly adapters right now. And if the ear­ly adapters do feed­back to us how to do this bet­ter and start shar­ing and we can start build­ing a com­mu­ni­ty online… Yeah, I admit the online space is very lim­it­ed right now, but hope­ful­ly some­one with a vision for how to make it rich­er and bet­ter will join us and allow that to hap­pen. Some amaz­ing things have hap­pened because of tech­nol­o­gy. On a small scale it’s good. On a grand scale it’s glo­ri­ous.

Anderson: Do you think the human mind is up to the scale of the chal­lenge?

Blades: Uh… How can we not be up to the scale of the chal­lenge? We have to try. That is what makes humans inspi­ra­tional, is they will try to do the most ambi­tious and won­der­ful things. And that’s the way the best things have hap­pened. There’s a great book called The Wisdom of Crowds, and it has strong sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that a group deci­sion is actu­al­ly bet­ter than a deci­sion made by an expert. There are lemming-like behav­iors, which we don’t want [?]. But if we can cre­ate the right dynam­ics, a group deci­sion should be vast­ly supe­ri­or.

Anderson: I think either the flip­side, the book Manias, Crashes, and Panics, or The Madness of Crowds, or…

Blades: That’s the lem­ming side.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s the lem­ming side. It’s fun­ny, we’re like bal­anc­ing this dual­i­ty of our lem­ming side and our wis­er crowd behav­ior. Have we hit a point where sort of democ­ra­cy in a way is deal­ing with a lev­el of com­plex­i­ty that democ­ra­cy is sim­ply not the best sys­tem for, the wis­dom of crowds real­ly isn’t going to solve? With some­thing like cli­mate change coin­cid­ing with a mas­sive­ly com­plex eco­nom­ic sys­tem, is that sim­ply beyond the scope of a crowd to decide? Do you need to pass it over to experts at some point? Do you need to have deci­sions that are cen­tral­ly made?

Blades: I do not have con­fi­dence in deci­sions that are cen­tral­ly made with­out input from the peo­ple it affects. I believe that all inter­est­ed par­ties should be at the table. And col­lab­o­ra­tive problem-solving is going to give us the opti­mal answer. That said, we haven’t been doing that. Perhaps one of the rea­sons we have I think fall­en short of a lot of our poten­tial in the last num­ber of decades.

There’s a talk I’ve giv­en called The Punctuated Equilibrium of Social Progress—

Anderson: That’s… Tell me more. That’s a real­ly intrigu­ing title.

Blades: And I keep on wait­ing for that. Well it’s basi­cal­ly that in the evo­lu­tion­ary sys­tem, it’s not that you’ve got this grad­ual change all the time. What you’re doing is you’re going along, most­ly flat, and then you have a jump in change. And so I’m just wait­ing for anoth­er jump.

Anderson: This is a project where I talk to a lot of peo­ple about modes of change. And that spe­cif­ic thing you know, some peo­ple feel that change is some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing con­stant­ly and grad­u­al­ly. Other peo­ple talk more about the jump. Other peo­ple say it’s real­ly an illu­sion, there’s not a whole hell of a lot of change hap­pen­ing at all.

I’m inter­est­ed in the jump. I’m inter­est­ed in how does that come about. Do you think this is some­thing we can do…preemptively? Say we’re talk­ing about cli­mate and you know, we don’t need any more evi­dence that we’re chang­ing the cli­mate. That’s doc­u­ment­ed, you know. But we have a lot of peo­ple who don’t agree—

Blades: I’ve met a bunch of those peo­ple that total­ly don’t think we have the evi­dence. They still think it’s a leap of faith.

Anderson: So in a case like that where the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty says it’s estab­lished, a bunch of oth­er peo­ple say that’s not estab­lished, how do you have that con­ver­sa­tion, when you’ve got such dif­fer­ent bod­ies of fact?

Blades: At this point what you do, what I do, is I have a con­ver­sa­tion about some­thing where we can find some com­mon ground. Instead of talk­ing about cli­mate I’ll talk about ener­gy. And we’ll find that hav­ing more non­re­new­able resources is some­thing that can be sup­port­ed across the lines, typ­i­cal­ly. Yes, I would pre­fer that every­body agreed that cli­mate’s a huge prob­lem and we have to work on it. That’s not the case right now, so I’m ready to do what can be done with con­sen­sus; keep mov­ing for­ward as well as we can in every area we can; build rela­tion­ship; and be ready when that time comes, when there is con­sen­sus.

And it will come soon­er if we have rela­tion­ship, because one of the rea­sons peo­ple don’t… If I con­vinced one of my con­ser­v­a­tive friends who lives in a con­ser­v­a­tive com­mu­ni­ty cli­mate’s a huge prob­lem and they went back and start­ed talk­ing about that, they could be shunned. And just evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly speak­ing, being shunned means you die. So we have a strong human instinct to avoid being shunned. As long as we have this height­ened trib­al­ism we have right now where my folks don’t hang out with your folks, it reduces the capac­i­ty for peo­ple to have a new view­point.

Anderson: Because… right, if they spoke togeth­er they could get shunned one com­mu­ni­ty and feel like they still have anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty that they were a part of?

Blades: Yeah.

Anderson: Mm hm. I spoke to a com­plex­i­ty the­o­rist named Joseph Tainter at Utah State University, and he has this very large his­tor­i­cal vision of soci­eties that build com­plex sys­tems to solve prob­lems and at some point they get so com­plex that their ener­gy needs just of gov­ern­ment and soci­ety col­lapse. And it’s this cycli­cal thing that goes on and on and on.

And when I talked to him about cli­mate and I asked him, do you think this is some­thing that we can pre­emp­tive­ly solve… You know, is this some­thing that we can get to through con­ver­sa­tion? Do we have the lux­u­ry of time of chang­ing minds, of maybe not push­ing too hard here but maybe push­ing some­where else. Or is this some­thing where we have to hit a cri­sis point, like a real­ly big cri­sis point. And then is that the only point when we can talk?

And I remem­ber very vivid­ly what he said. He’s like, I don’t think peo­ple change their behav­ior until they get hit in the wal­let.”

And so as we’re talk­ing about cli­mate, or just change more broad­ly, any sort of improve­ment to soci­ety, do you think we can do that until peo­ple real­ly feel it in a vis­cer­al way? Are facts kind of com­plete­ly imma­te­r­i­al, you know?

Blades: I guess I have to answer I don’t know.” My approach is we should be try­ing every­thing that we know how. So, this is my piece of the puz­zle that might be trans­for­ma­tive. There are folks like 350 that are doing their piece, and Sierra, and we each take a piece. And I don’t know which will work. I come from the entre­pre­neur­ial back­ground where you fund five projects and you know that prob­a­bly only one of them’s gonna hit, if you’re lucky. And anoth­er two will be use­ful, and anoth­er two, eh, prob­a­bly give em a joy­ful funer­al. Yeah, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one bas­ket. So we should do all of the above. And they don’t under­mine each oth­er, in fact they sup­port each oth­er in most cas­es.

Anderson: Something I want­ed to get to was lan­guage. You’re in the inter­est­ing posi­tion of bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and some­thing I’ve talked to a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple in this project about is not only do we live in dif­fer­ent fact-based com­mu­ni­ties or dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, almost, cre­at­ed by media, but we have real­ly dif­fer­ent lan­guages for how we speak about the world. And it seems like one of the things you’re doing, some­thing that I’m try­ing to do this project as well, is to go beneath the imme­di­ate polit­i­cal issues that peo­ple are pret­ty locked on and get into a ques­tion of like well, real­ly what kind of future do you want? Which is more vague, and forces peo­ple to maybe get away from talk­ing points.

But some­thing I’ve run into a lot is that when you want to get into ques­tions of the good, or why do you want this kind of future, you get into a lan­guage ques­tion? And that we’re used to argu­ing about you know, left/right pol­i­tics, we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly used to say­ing like, I real­ly feel strong­ly that say, ani­mals and peo­ple have equal rights because I have a spir­i­tu­al belief that ani­mals mat­ter.” Because that’s a real­ly weird con­ver­sa­tion that most peo­ple don’t have all the time and it takes kind of a dif­fer­ent set of lan­guage.
Do you run into that prob­lem? Do you think there’s lin­guis­tic work that we almost need to do before we bring peo­ple togeth­er?

Blades: Happily, no. The work we do with the mate­ri­als we share for the con­ver­sa­tion, we try to be care­ful not to have trig­ger­ing lan­guage in there. There’s a project to do a red/blue dic­tio­nary” that points out that there are def­i­n­i­tions for dif­fer­ent ter­mi­nol­o­gy, depend­ing on where you’re com­ing from. But all the con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had have been suc­cess­ful. People found it enlight­en­ing. People enjoyed it. They want­ed to do it again, often. And that whole thing about talk­ing about your own per­spec­tive real­ly enables peo­ple to say a lot with­out cre­at­ing an out­right con­flict.

Anderson: What would be your ide­al sce­nario for what grows out of this? Let’s say it works per­fect­ly.

Blades: Oh, it’s a very hap­py, rosy sce­nario where…you know hate radio? It becomes unac­cept­able. It would still hap­pen, just like pornog­ra­phy, but peo­ple think it’s kin­da dis­gust­ing. That treat­ing peo­ple respect­ful­ly, no mat­ter where they come from, is the norm, the expec­ta­tion. And that when we have issues to deal with, we approach them with that respect­ful and col­lab­o­ra­tive view­point, local­ly, nation­al­ly, wher­ev­er it is. That’s the dream. And I bet there’d be all these mar­riages of peo­ple on right and left togeth­er it would be oh so roman­tic, too.

Anderson: So respect is real­ly just— I mean that’s like, that’s the vision of the bet­ter future.

Blades: Yeah. It’s deeply respect­ful, a dig­ni­tar­i­an soci­ety.

Anderson: And I love ask peo­ple this ques­tion when they say some­thing that I total­ly agree with, and I can’t imag­ine how I’d answer it myself, but why is that good, you know? Why is—

Blades: Why, exact­ly?

Anderson: Yeah, why— I mean, what makes respect, and in this case respect con­nect­ed to a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, why is that bet­ter than anoth­er sys­tem?

Blades: It gives us all a sense of wor­thi­ness. And that we are an impor­tant part of the sys­tem. And we’re con­nect­ed to all these oth­er wor­thy peo­ple. And my per­son­al belief is that as human beings, car­ing about each oth­er is core to being the kind of human being I want to be and I want to have around me. I imag­ine that would be a very good com­mu­ni­ty. And I have some of that, so I know it’s a very good com­mu­ni­ty.

Anderson: Do you think there’s ever been a soci­ety that had the sort of lev­el of respect that we’re work­ing towards? Is that achiev­able?

Blades:hope so, I don’t know. I believe it is achiev­able. And I also believe that it’s a lit­tle bit like going to church. You don’t just estab­lish a good cul­ture and then let it go. You have to keep on renew­ing it and be very con­scious about it because we do fall back into author­i­tar­i­an com­mand and con­trol styles rather eas­i­ly. And we are pri­mates that have some dom­i­nance issues at times.

Anderson: That’s putting it very gen­tly, isn’t it?

Blades: And we have to watch that.

Anderson: I’ve spo­ken to a lot of peo­ple who start from that assump­tion. I mean, it’s kind of a nat­u­ral­ism sort of approach like, we’re an ani­mal; ani­mals assert hier­ar­chy, you know, they have hier­ar­chies, yes they work in com­mu­ni­ties, they’re col­lab­o­ra­tive; but ulti­mate­ly they’re hier­ar­chi­cal, that’s what we are, and if you want to prag­mat­i­cal­ly design a soci­ety that solves prob­lems you need to rec­og­nize that and mod­el the soci­ety after that.

And I think of some­thing like that and sort of the con­ver­sa­tion we’re hav­ing and think about, well that’s an interesting—how would you bring those view­points togeth­er? Can there be com­mon ground when you have two fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent assump­tions of what the human ani­mal is?

Blades: I think you can. I haven’t been able to have that con­ver­sa­tion yet. I look for­ward to it.

Anderson: Often I ask peo­ple if they’re opti­mistic, but I feel that… Oh, well hell I’ll just ask you. Are you opti­mistic about the future?

Blades: I’m hope­ful.

Anderson: Ah, a lot of peo­ple have made that dis­tinc­tion in this project.

Blades: You know, I am a par­ent. And as a par­ent you’ve got to keep on work­ing on mak­ing the future a good one. Even when there are some obsta­cles you don’t know how you’re going to over­come, or how we as a soci­ety are going to over­come. You can’t give up; not allowed.

Aengus Anderson: So this one's really cool because I mean, Joan is essentially trying to do what we've been trying to do. You know, she's trying to take different people, different backgrounds… What happens when you put them together. Can you find anything in common? And she's asking the same question we're asking, you know. Can you find anything in common. Are there points where conversation simply dies? And she's an optimist, in a lot of ways. Certainly about conversation and the common sense of regular people.

Micah Saul: So here's an interesting question. I feel like you and I are growing a little more…I don't know, pessimistic about the ability to put vastly diverse people in conversation. I mean, certainly we've seen that people towards the middle, you can put them in conversation. But you know, putting someone like Tim Cannon in conversation with John Zerzan would be really hard. I don't about you, I've been getting a little more pessimistic about it. She's not. What's the difference?

Anderson: I mean I think the first thing that comes to mind is do we choose people for this project who are typically so polarizing that we essentially have only the fringe? And Joan is working with people who are much more in the middle. So maybe they have a lot more in common, they really do, than someone like Tim Canon and John Zerzan would.

Saul: Okay. I actually totally buy that.

Anderson: And I mean, I think, so Joan gets the sense that out of those regular people, there's a common sense that emerges, and that actually can solve a bunch of problems that we are not going to solve otherwise, we're not going to solve from the top down. I think the question is, does that common sense actually emerge from there? You know, she cites a lot of reasons that things are screwed up right now. Different realities, created in part by kind of a rigged media. Vast amounts of money in politics. And what I wonder is like, did those things actually preclude the very sort of conversation that she wants to end those things, right?

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: Are we in a Catch-22?

Saul: To that point, I think there were a lot of big issues brought up in this conversation. But the issue of the media and the issue of money in politics creating two different realities is actually the biggest one. Though it's the cause of the falling apart of conversation that keeps us from solving what she thinks are the big problems, I wan to look at that problem itself, the media and money in politics. Can you solve that via conversation?

I think it's pretty easy to find common ground that…you know, left or right, that there is bias in the media. Even though we agree on that, well okay, so clearly the answer is that Fox News should just shut up. Well you know, the people that watch Fox News are not going to agree with me on that. And, I don't think anybody's really satisfied with the media that tries to walk the line between two and provide equal voices, because then you have the evolution deniers on the same show as the scientists. Can conversation fix that problem? The problem that is preventing conversation from occurring? I don't know.

Anderson: I mean, Joan is such a pragmatist. We've talked about the kind of purity versus pragmatism spectrum a lot before in this project. Certainly with episodes like Gary Francione's. And I think this is a nice place to sort of bring that back up again? She's totally pragmatic, so let's just try to get people talking and then see what they do after that. Kind of a "don't over think it."

All of that of course is predicated upon people actually wanting to sit down and have this conversation. Which is something that maybe even if they can find common ground, will you ever get enough people who are committed to listening to each other to have that sort of groundswell of consensus?

Saul: Yeah, I think that's something you brought up in the conversation a little bit didn't you didn't really talk about it much. You know, I totally buy that if two people are intelligent and rational and enjoy talking, you can put them in a room and they will have a good time talking to each other. And you can even talk about politics and it will be okay. And you will find common ground.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: But, this is a question came up with Lawrence Torcello. What if somebody decides, "Nah, forget it. I'm just going to throw the chair."

Okay. Conversation over. Doesn't matter. You can't find common ground there if somebody's beating you over the head with a chair.

Anderson: I mean, you end up with a self-selection problem. And especially if you're dealing with the sort of media problems that Joan cites, that really encourages people to throw the chair rather than seek conversation with an opponent. Because so often it seems what partisan media does is it vilifies people. Conversation isn't even possible because the other person isn't even a person.

Saul: Right. Exactly.

Anderson: I think we're in this little cycle of like, media, and power, and different agendas, and then…conversation and consensus, and they're all so…it's a Möbius strip. And it feels like maybe Joan gets around this by being really candid and saying, "Look, I am just doing one project, and there've got to be a million others that happen at once." She's not interested in taking things from the top down, but hopefully someone else is, and addressing things in the media sphere or addressing money in politics. And that maybe her work with Living Room Conversations has to happen concurrently with something else at the top that she's not particularly interested in organizing, you know, but someone else will be.

She says she's got that background in sort of like the venture capital, you know, where you just start a bunch of projects and you see where they go.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And you throw out the ones that don't work.

Saul: It's funny, actually I think I'm finding my own hypocrisy here. I critiqued Francione for being…too much on the purity side, right? And I'm now feeling like well, this is too much on the pragmatic side, and it's too small, and it's too focused on like, little things. And maybe you're right, maybe the idea is that she's just trying to do her small part in what she envisions as a much larger movement of getting people talking to each other, getting people agreeing with each other and completely reforming where we're at. And that me expecting a single group like, "No. This is the plan. This is how we're going to solve everything," is me just being…I don't know, silly.

Anderson: Or maybe it's just your… You know, you've been working on this project forever. I've been working on it forever. Most of the things we talk about are like, huge and comprehensive. These sort of big systems analysis.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And Joan is pitching a very small project, which is essentially a trial. And the fact that we don't get this comprehensive "here's how it would work and why…" Maybe—I mean, we shouldn't be expecting that from here.

Saul: I think that nailed it.

Anderson: Instead of just nailing it shut with a snappy ending like that, I want to throw something else out that's been on my mind.

Saul: Okay.

Anderson: The ticking time bomb of the environmental clock. Because it's one thing to say, "This is a small project and it's just a test," but we've got a lot of thinkers in The Conversation who've said, "Hey, we don't have time to just sort of test small things. We need big radical action, now, because the environmental changes we're making cannot be unmade at some point. They're huge. It's a moral issue. You don't just tinker and explore and launch little projects."

And so I just want to throw that out there to you and see what you think of that. I mean, are we dealing with issues that are much bigger than money in politics and democratic representation, you know. Is the existential issue of the environment so big that approaching things from sort of a grassroots living room conversation stance, that's just not enough? In fact it's a waste of time because the other issues are so big. I think we may have some thinkers in the project who would level a criticism at this. They'd say this is all fine and dandy but this is not remotely enough and you need to focus on something much more substantial.

Saul: This is again where where that pessimism comes back in. I mean, I totally agree with you. I mean, have we reached a point—

Anderson: Well, I was just saying that. I'm not sure that I believe that. But I can imagine thinkers in this project saying something like that.

Saul: Oh. Okay. Well so…I mean, in some ways I do kind of feel that way. I wonder if anything can turn that tide. It feels like we're reaching a point where there's…there has to be some major shift. This is one of the big questions of this project in general. Have we reached this sort of existential crisis, and if so what can be done about it?

Anderson: Mm hm.

Saul: Or just you know, have we gone too far already?

Anderson: Right, but that's a conversation-ender.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And so for the people who are really radical about the environment, who say not that this thing can't be stopped but that basically you have a moral imperative to go out and do whatever you have to do, right now, to stop an oncoming climate disaster. Is there a response to that, within the conversation of Joan Blades?

Saul: I don't think there is a response to that. It doesn't seem like you can gain enough support, virally… Which is basically what Living Room Conversations is, right. It's a viral means of of finding consensus. If this is a time-sensitive existential question, I don't know that you can solve that grassroots, virally. I don't know that she's talking about that, because I think that to believe that we've reached that point kills optimism in a project like this.

Anderson: Do you want to end it there?

Saul: I think "Taps" is supposed to come in right now, right?

Anderson: And maybe that's why we didn't talk about the environment more in this conversation. Maybe that's why we ended up talking about politics and media and representation. You know, because those are things that are perhaps much more solvable with the tools of conversation in a meaningful timeframe.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And maybe solving environmental questions isn't as easy to do in a meaningful timeframe through something like a conversation.

Saul: Or even in democracy.

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I don't blame her for not wanting to bite on this. But I think it's a question that pops up again and again in this series and it's something that people have a hard time dealing with. When you when you have a situation which a lot of things seem to be going wrong in a great big democracy, it's tough to say, "Well, maybe the problem's the democracy. Maybe didn't scale that well. Maybe the problems overtook it."

You know, I don't think anyone wants to say that. I think that's still… That's pretty heretical even for a series like this. You know, we've talked before about wanting to get someone who could kind of take the critique of democracy you find in Plato's Republic and run with it. I would still like that. I still think that's probably one of the most radical ideas out there.

Saul: So I think now's as good a time as any to sort of wind it down and say that we have conversations recorded that we haven't edited yet. And this is something we want to keep doing, and we do want to add a few conversations a year. So, if you can think of somebody— Again, we're asking again. If you can think of somebody that will give us that critique, let us know. Because I think that would be a really interesting voice to add to this.

Anderson: That was Joan Blades, recorded June 3rd, 2013, exactly one year ago today in Berkeley, California.

Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.

Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I'm Micah Saul.

Neil Prendergast: I'm Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I'm Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.

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