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