Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Breitbart And Other Culture Warriors On Right And Left Are Building Moats, Not Bridges

by April 5th, 2010

There are four ways to deal with viewpoints different from your own. 1) Ignore them. 2) Challenge them based on objective facts. 3) Challenge them based on what you perceive to be the underlying values. 4) Methodically turn the dissonance on its head, and seek to find out what sort of common ground exists between you and your opponent.

Andrew Breitbart, courtesy Time

“Above it all” has its merits at times, but only gets you so far. Arguments based on facts are tricky. Objective information is often sorely needed, and its absence can foster prejudice and emotion where neither are useful. But definition and selection of facts – and ensuing arguments – can also widen a gulf. Then there’s Door Number Three: through which comes the message, “your whole way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.” This fairly applies to totalitarian dictators, abortion clinic bombers, mass murders and modern day slave masters. But it’s a lousy platform for beginning to resolve the political polarization that has risen to a fever pitch in the United States in recent years, poisoning national dialog and civic life. The view of the political culture warrior is encapsulated well by conservative Internet commentator Andrew Breitbart in a recent profile by Time magazine.

“Politics,” he often says, “is downstream from culture. I want to change the cultural narrative.” Thus the Big sites devote their energy less to trying to influence the legislative process in Washington than to attacking the institutions and people Breitbart believes dictate the American conversation.

It’s not unreasonable to recognize and articulate fundamental differences in political and cultural values. But too often these differences become inflamed. Presidents, politicians and opposing lobby groups become objects of hateful rhetoric. News media waste scarce resources detailing who said what outrageous thing about whom and who said what in response, and then what was the response to the response, and one by one the American people say adios to the monster truck rally of public discourse today, and decide to spend more time in their gardens.

Agriculture, even the small-bore variety, presents a fitting corollary. What do you grow in your garden, and how? Democracy is hybrid vegetation that must withstand a harsh climate.

One interesting observation I was able to make at the recent Open Government West conference in Seattle was that although many of the participants clearly hewed to what would be described as “left of center” or “progressive” or “liberal” views (I know these terms are not perfectly synonymous), there was still a strong sensibility government is not the be-all, end-all solution to every problem – a point of view more readily voiced by conservatives. The idea I heard expressed repeatedly was that as city, county, state and federal governments voluntarily make more and better information information available to the various “publics” who use it, community interests will be better able to address challenges and opportunities. Perhaps in partnership with government, or perhaps by by building upon better information and analysis which can help attract non-government resources. All the more so, I heard, because a sharp decline in tax revenues due to the recession is forcing re-examination of the public sector’s roles and responsibilities.

The point is to build bridges, not moats. Locate the time and place to actually sit down and identify common ground and next steps. For those who work or live in King County, Washington, one such opportunity is via Countywide Community Forums. Small groups of four to twelve people gather in living rooms, library meeting rooms or coffee shops to review information on an aspect of county government, followed by a discussion and filling out a survey which informs a final report issued by the County Auditor’s office for the public and county elected officials. It’s a great way to become more informed about public affairs, help government operate more purposefully, and practice the art of civil conversation. Round Five runs from May 1 through June 13. If you haven’t signed up yet to become a citizen councilor, now’s the time.

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