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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 find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.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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