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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is Civil Discourse Possible?

During this political season, with one week until the election of the next president of the United States, I've had several friends drop off of Facebook altogether. Their stated reason is that the political rancor disgusts them and they don't want to be a part of it.

I've taken the opposite tack. My goal has been to increase my posts about political topics leading up to the election. But, I hope, I'm not adding to the rancor that is so distasteful. I hope I'm providing a place where people can discuss these important topics without having to resort to name-calling, fighting and belittling.

Some people don't think it's possible to have civil conversations anymore. I disagree (respectfully) and I hope to provide a way for people to interact meaningfully.

In my mind, the root cause of uncivil discourse is the assumption that those who disagree are somehow less-than. Ann Coulter (in)famously tweeted about the president during the final debate. She made the assumption that Mr. Obama is mentally disabled (and she's been publicly reprimanded for it). The difference between Ann Coulter and every other pundit that speaks for either the Left or Right is that Coulter stated bluntly what they all assume: those with opposing viewpoints must be mentally disabled.

The majority of political and religious discourse in the United States has been reduced to that base assumption, and the result is a lack of any civility. Why should you be civil to a mental deficient? Why should you tolerate the views of someone who's stupid? Why should you waste your time listening to someone who's a "retard" (to use Coulter's word)?

The obvious logic is that you shouldn't.

So, we end up labeling people with terms intended to rob them of a voice. They are wackos, nutjobs, Republitards, Demoquacks, the 47%, Romnesiacs, and retards. We label and dismiss.

By labeling people as deficient we dehumanize them. When they are less than human, we no longer have to respect them. If we no longer have to respect them, then we don't have to listen to what they say, we don't have to consider their thoughts, and we don't need to respect their rights.

You know we've done this before. We did it to women. We did it to minorities. We did it to non-land-owners. But we learned to listen to those groups, we gave them a voice in our government and we're better for it. We put into practice the ideals of democracy which assumes that every voice is valuable, even when they disagree.

The difference now is that we're not subjugating a minority with our dehumanizing labels. We're dismissing half of our country. The assumption that half of the people in the country are mentally deficient carries with it the assumption that those people are not worthy of the right to vote.

If you assume that civil discourse is impossible, you also assume that democracy is not possible. For it's in democracy that we celebrate different voices, we value them and benefit from them. In a democracy we assume that we're better for disagreeing. We assume that we are surrounded by mentally capable people with valuable opinions. We assume that working through the issues with debate, dialog and respect will make us all better.

Civil discourse is possible between capable, respectful, thoughtful people. I think that's you, even if you disagree with me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writing Retreat

Last weekend I attended the Wordstock Literary Festival which is the largest literary festival in the Northwest. I went to three writing workshops to give me some ideas on editing and revising my next book.

Now, after a short week of teaching, I'm on a writing retreat to put all of that learning into practice. I don't know what it is about getting away from the regular routine that seems to make work easier, but it really does for me.

I wish I had a house on an island where I could go away and just write, but I'm not so lucky (yet). Instead I'm off to an exotic city south of the border with European flair. If you aren't familiar with this friendly town, you should make a point of visiting the next time you're in the area of Portland.

Yeah, my big retreat is just a few miles away from home, but it makes all the difference. Breaking the old habits and routines gives me a new view, even now as I'm sitting in a rocking chair listening to the city wind down for the day.

So, for this week, I'm going to focus on my book. But don't you worry, I'll be back here soon with vim and vigor to dazzle you all (I hope).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Communication and Technology

Unless you're face-to-face with someone, all communication uses technology (and one could even argue that language is a type of technology so that would include every form of communication). There is no way to separate the use of technology from the act of communication, but different types of technology demand different strategies for communication to be effective.

Visual Communication

At least one third of people are primarily visual learners (the others are auditory or kinesthetic). So if you skip visual communication, you're leaving out at least 33 percent of your audience. PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi and other slide-based tools give you the opportunity to communicate visually, but they take some time and effort to master. If you use visual communication effectively, it can increase the retention of your message by 6 times, but if you use it poorly, it can actually decrease the retention of your message. 

Online Communication

Communicating online is not the same as other text-based communication. You can't simply substitute an email for a written letter or a blog post for a magazine article. Online communication is faster, more interactive and more democratic than ever before. It takes new skills and thought processes to communicate effectively online. 


Recently Facebook passed 1 billion users and it continues to grow. More and more people are getting their news primarily through social media and important relationship information is often shared first online and then later in public. Facebook is a new world where people go to share, play, gripe and discuss. If it's used well, you can foster conversations between people who would never speak to each other in another forum. If it's used poorly it can reinforce negative stereotypes and further polarize people. 

Facebook is a mission field like none other. 


Keeping a blog or a website is a helpful way to promote ideas and connect with people all around the world, but blogs take discipline, effort and interaction. It's easy to create a blog and sit back waiting for people to jump in, but with the billions of pages on the internet today, it's not likely that people will stumble across you if you don't do the work to seek them out. 

Blogs give you a chance to develop your ideas in longer format than Facebook or Twitter, but they also require more effort to develop a culture of followers who check in and see what you're doing. 


There are times when it's appropriate to promote what you're doing online. If you're running a funding campaign or you're launching a new project and you want to generate excitement, you can promote it online. But there are rules to follow so that your promotion doesn't get lost in the crowd and it doesn't have the opposite effect you're looking for. There's a balance to be struck between getting the word out so people notice and being so annoying the people tune out and ignore you. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

How to Win at Facebook

Just because people can't see you doesn't mean you can be mean.
Many (most) approaches to Facebook result in polarizing positional statements rather than true dialog. I really want to change that. One thing that I'm doing to change the tone of conversations online is to model having good conversations. You can see a recent one here.

If you don't want to take the time to read through all of that post, I'll fill you in on the big ideas that allow me to have a congenial, thoughtful dialog about a divisive issue.

  • Ask questions. Statements don't invite dialog. Questions do. Jesus was a big fan of asking questions and inviting people into dialog. It's a powerful way to invite everyone to share and work through an issue. 
  • Ask real questions. Very often people will make positional statements (I believe x), which doesn't help dialog. But just slapping a question mark at the end of the sentence doesn't make it a real question. It can be a loaded question that doesn't really invite dialog. 
    • Loaded Question: "Why do you think gay marriage is wrong?" 
    • Real Question: "How is marriage understood in the bible?"
  • Get to the root of the issue. Typically fights are about positions that people have taken on an issue. Think of it as the difference between a symptom and a cause. You're trying to get to the root cause instead of just working on the level of symptoms. This will take some work on your part to step back through the thought processes and find the kernel of the debate. 
    • Symptom Question: "Why would you vote/not vote to legalize gay marriage?"
    • Cause Question: "If there's a separation between church and state, should the laws reflect Christian principles?"
  • Listen. You probably have an opinion on the question you're asking (you probably have strong opinions on some of the sample questions I posted here), but that doesn't mean you have to share it right away. You can wait to let others respond before you jump in with your thoughts. As soon as you attempt to answer the question, everyone else will feel like the conversation is over. Sit back and see how the conversation develops. 
  • Play nice. Name calling, belittling, defamation, and all kinds of insults will destroy conversation. But, so will refereeing every little quip and remark. I try to find a balance between holding people to a high standard of personal interaction and letting people freely discuss. In general, I'd say that the line is any statement that explicitly or implicitly devalues the ability of someone to have a valid opinion. Nothing will kill a conversation more quickly than the idea that the opposition is mentally deficient. If that happens, I step in and correct the misapprehension. 
Using this process, I've been able to have thoughtful conversations about abortion, gay marriage, just war, healthcare, the problem of pain, and numerous other topics. I'm better for it, and I think my friends are better for it. 

What have I left out of this list? What works for you?

Friday, October 05, 2012

How to alienate friends and frustrate people

Yesterday I got into a long conversation on Facebook with several of my friends. At my last check it was up to 75 comments and they spanned the gamut of thoughts on the topic. However, one of the comments was:
"wow...great conversation, totally changed my view point...said no one ever after a facebook debate like this!"
I may be the minority in this, but I have had my view changed, numerous times, by having a conversation (or even a debate) on Facebook. I don't think it's bragging to say that I'm very good at eliciting comments and creating conversation (both online and offline). I have friends who believe wildly different things and they all got together and had a civil discussion about one of the most divisive topics in our current sphere. So, how did I do it?

First, let me point out what is not working that I see on Facebook.

  • Posting scripture quotes and references. Though it's good to share the bible with people, a status update on Facebook probably isn't the best place for it. You will immediately shut down conversation from anyone who might disagree with you. 
  • Posting long status updates. It doesn't matter if it's your devotional thoughts for the day or your opinion on the current political climate or why you think your sports team will beat the other sports team in the upcoming sports match. If it's longer than two lines, it probably won't get much response. 
  • Posting one-sided questions. If your status update takes a side from the outset you probably won't get much discussion. You might get supporters proclaiming their support of your thoughts and opponents proclaiming their opposition, but you won't people exploring the space between support and opposition. 
  • Posting unfair, poorly researched or partisan statements. If your status assumes that half of all people are stupid, then it's probably not going to open up much dialog. Our social-political discussions are often reduced to the statement: "anyone with half-a-brain would think like me." If your base assumption is that opponents can't possess the same mental faculties that you do, then you will never have an open discussion. 
What do you see on Facebook that's just not working? 

I'll let you know how I'm able to have meaningful, transforming, thoughtful and kind Facebook conversations in the next post. 


Thursday, October 04, 2012

There are 1 billion people on Facebook, so why will no one 'like' your status?

I've blogged about Facebook before, but today is a momentous day in the history of social media. Facebook passed one billion users today. That means one out of every seven people in the world is on Facebook. If Facebook was a country it would be the third largest population with over three times the people of the United States.

That's big.

I remember the presidential campaign of 2008. President Obama did a great job of connecting to potential voters through social media and the internet. The other candidates saw that and attempted to replicate his success. It fell flat because they just got online. They didn't actually take the time to engage the medium.

I was presenting to a group of people about how to use technology to communicate well and one older gentleman suggested that he could scan his hand-written notes and email them to people as a way to engage new audiences with technology. Though I applaud his attitude, his tact is a bad one.

Social media isn't an electronic version of another type of communication - it is an unique form of communication. You can't just take other content and recycle it for Facebook (or Twitter or Pinterest or your other social media site). You can't just sign up and wait for the people to come to you. You can't just post things and have conversation happen. It takes work to learn the language and culture of each social media platform so you can communicate well.

I'll offer some tips on how to really connect with people through Facebook on Friday. For right now, what have you learned about communicating online versus other forms of communication?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Spiritual but not Religious

Recently there was a blog on CNN about the idea that being spiritual but not religious is a cop-out answer. And there's been some discussion on the topic from both sides of the belief aisle.

The cop-out side says that SBNR crew either ignores religion, doesn't understand religion or assumes they know better than all the religions.

The SBNR folks would say that they don't want to be associated with the hypocritical institutions of people, or that they don't have a better option to share (i.e. it's not appropriate to have the full, religious conversation).

By the way, the atheist crowd also thinks that SBNR is a cop-out, but from the other perspective. Atheists see the SBNR folks as equating spirituality with the good, ethical parts of being a human being rather than any extra-physical reality.

In some sense, the SBNR statement is as much of a cop-out as any other self-identification. Saying that you're Baptist, Catholic, Baha'i, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, American, or a fan of Harry Potter, just serves as shorthand so neither you nor I need to really process the information.

We have pre-set schemata (call them stereotypes if you want), that give us a way to move on with life instead of having to develop a full character profile for every person we meet. We don't have the mental energy to fully understand the complex ideas that are the core of each person's philosophy. We don't have the time to do much more than give cop-out answers when we first meet people.

The problem arises when we don't do the work to understand the people closest to us, or worse yet, when we don't do the work ourselves. It becomes a cop out when I let "Christian" define me rather than working hard to define myself within that label. It becomes a cop out when I let "Republican" or "Democrat" define my political ideals rather than finding the nuanced individuality that's unique to me.

So you can say that you're SBNR (or Buddhist or Pastafarian or Greek Orthodox), that's cool. I'll fit you into my stereotype of what that means. But if we're friends and I ask you why you wear that label, you'd better be able to give a more nuanced explanation. If you can't, SBNR is just a cop out.