Civility 101: Bring your human brain

Early on, when The Village Square was just a glimmer in our eyes, I learned a little something about human nature – and something about reptiles – from my priest Father Melvin Gray of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

It seems that, no matter how evolved we humans might be, there’s a bit of reptile in all of us.

That comes from neuroscientist Dr. Paul McLean’s Triune Brain Theory which posits, more or less, that our complex human brain capable of rational thought is built on the chassis of a lizard brain.

According to McLean, it is the instinctual and reactive part of our brains (the brain stem and cerebellum), simply capable of reacting, not of thought. The second level of our triune brain is the mammalian brain (the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdale) which is capable of caring, playfulness, communication, relationships. Think your cat and dog.

And then there is the cortex and neo-cortex, our human brain, which gives us the capability of problem-solving, philosophical thought, leadership, etc.

McLean’s theory views the connection of the human and reptile brains as similar to a driver training car with two sets of controls. Normally, it’s the human brain at the wheel, but when anxiety gets high, the lizard brain jumps on in, all the while the driver thinking their rational brain is still in control.

Lizard brains can be a good thing when used at the right time. Good reads like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker argue effectively why our snap reptilian judgments can be very accurate in certain circumstances, for instance in assessing danger.

Other times, our human brain should be up to bat, say, when we vote?

Stay tuned for “Of Lizards and Humans, Part Deux” where I’ll develop this idea a bit to ‘splain where we find ourselves right about now.

Would you say it to my face?

Here’s a clip from a conversation on Friday night’s Real Time with Bill Maher:

Tony Snow (former Bush press secretary): “The level of personalizing in politics has gotten to the point where it’s really silly.”

Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks): “..Ultra-partisanship is one of the biggest problems this country has, because everyone wants to take sides and if you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy… ”

Tony Snow: “… The fact is you can disagree with people vehemently and you don’t have to think they’re going to hell because they disagree with you and they don’t have to think you’re going to hell because you disagree with them…

It’s interesting, they’re a lot tougher on you by email.”

Hello to the world outside of Tallahassee!

If you read about The Village Square in Kathleen Parker’s column, we’re delighted you stopped by for a visit. While you’re on hold with Mayflower Van Lines you’re booking so that you too can be a part of our Village Square (for the time being we’re only in Tallahassee), we’d like to suggest a less extreme alternative. . . join us online.

We’ll be having a conversation between neighbors that remembers the whole borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar neighborly thing. Hard to know exactly where that will go, but we’ll start by agreeing that no one will be calling anyone else a nazi. We’ve done all sorts of peer-reviewed scientific study that suggests that usually doesn’t go so well.

We think there’s something very American about real discussions across ideologies seeking the very best ideas we’ve got, so we’re jumping right in to do just that. We’re expecting a serious amount of disagreement, but we’re going to “Fight Like Founding Fathers” – have it out when need be, but stay connected and keep right on talking. Maybe we’ll even go out for a beer.

And, after all, you are our neighbor in this land of blog. So pull up a kitchen chair (and sign up for our “not-Tallahassee” email list here, we’ll let you know when we’re coming to an oh-so-very-civil city near you.)

Here, here!

Former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and David Boren of Oklahoma have invited a bipartisan group of national leaders to meet on January 7 to discuss how to “stimulate a meaningful debate during the current presidential campaign on the important challenges facing our nation.” (Quote from Atlanta Journal Constitution.) Here is a portion of their letter, sent to (among others) former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former N.J. Governor Christie Todd Whitman, former Ambassador John Danforth and Senator Chuck Hagel:

“Our political system is, at the least, badly bent and many are concluding that it is broken at a time where America must lead boldly at home and abroad. Partisan polarization is preventing us from uniting to meet the challenges that we must face if we are to prevent further erosion of America’s power of leadership and example.

. . . To say the obvious, the presidential debates thus far have produced little national discussion of these and other fundamental issues and plans to address them. If this pattern continues through this important national election, it will produce neither a national consensus for governing nor a president who can successfully tackle these threats to our nation’s future. We understand the rough and tumble part of the political process, but without a modicum of civility and respect in our debates, forming a bipartisan consensus on the major issues after the election will be virtually impossible.”

Whether or not this meeting produces a third party candidacy (and whether or not you think that’s a good idea), it’s hard to disagree with their opening volley.

. . . a people who can engage in self-determination

“We describe ourselves very proudly as a democracy. The preamble of the constitution, which I think is a wonderful preamble. I think we ought to think about it almost literally everyday and ask, well, to what extent is government organized to realize the noble visions of the preamble. The preamble begins “We The People” it’s a notion of a people who can engage in self-determination.

What I have discovered is a real fear of popular government. I think that for a variety of reasons having to do with the nature of politics in recent years, there is this incredible mistrust of people who don’t share your views, and you think that they’re out in some ways to wreck the country. . .

If you actually talk to Americans in their own homes in their own workplaces, it’s not that everybody agrees, but they aren’t so polarized as our current political system is. And there really is the opportunity to create a more democratic politics but I think frankly ,and somewhat sadly, more and more people are losing that faith in popular government.”

– Sanford Levinson on PBS’s Bill Moyers’ Journal

Well said.

“It seems to me that this country has become two choirs, each side listening only to its own preachers.” – Bill Moyers

The Pope speaks; people don’t listen


I nearly fainted when this number from UK’s Daily Mail arrived in my inbox yesterday morning, sent by a friend who probably also nearly fainted.

The Pope condemns the climate change prophets of doom

Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology.

The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering. . .

Right after my urge to quickly find a new planet to inhabit given that the primo Man of God on the planet we’re occupying would be that intemperate, I . . . uh . . . looked at what the Pope actually said (you see, he’s got his own website in all sorts of languages, very handy when one is actually trying to understand what the Pope says).

In the interest of refusing to cherry-pick, please just read the entire items under #7 and #8. It will take you 5 minutes max and you’ll be oh-so-much-more-informed than everyone else. The Pope offered up a fair caution to avoid hasty action based on ideology rather than fact, while still urging that we act. Suffice it to say that the Pope clearly strived for an intelligent, balanced assessment of the situation, sort of like what you’d like to hear from – er - a world religious leader.

Ah, but not so with the press. (And I believe in this case I am applying the term “press” loosely.) UK’s Daily Mail and “journalist” Simon Caldwell might want to keep an eye cast heavenward for bolts of lightening with their name on it. Not far behind them is Fox News who proclaims that “Global Warming Skeptics Have Friend in the Vatican” and proceeds to pick out only the parts of the Pope’s address that support their pre-existing opinion before they read his address, and by “reading” it I mean not reading it.

Then there’s the blogosphere. Conservative site “The Free Republic” posted the Daily Mail screed, to which readers made the predictable “you’ll never read this in the mainstream media” comments. Nor, I believe, will you find the big news that Elvis is actually living on a previously undiscovered Samoan island romping with primordial sea creatures and practicing his lounge act for Komodo dragons to prep for his big plans to re-debut on “American Idol” next season. Or did The Enquirer do that one already?

And the big Village Square civility thumbs-down goes to a blog on the left, Wonkette, for this beauty (cover the children’s eyes):

The Pope Sucks

Pope Benedict XVI has decided to stick his little Nazi head directly up Al Gore’s peaceful a** by calling global warming fears nothing but “scare-mongering.” He will make these completely unnecessary and regressive remarks, coincidentally, for World Peace Day on Jan. 1. That’s the same day when we’ll be wishing the Pope a jolly f***-you. [*My edits, they didn’t bother.]

Let’s just say that today I’m not so worried that The Village Square will run out of work.

Civility 101: A draft

We’ve been thinking for a while now about just how this civility thing might go, and all that thinking has produced some ideas. Just to confuse you, here’s our tickler:

Bring your human brain.
Hold opinion lightly at times.
Eat potato salad, make potato salad.
Recognize horse manure before tracking it.
Find the wedge. Lose the wedge.
Fight like Founding Fathers.
Get (un)personal.
Lose the evil “they.”
Build your vocabulary.
Remove punctuation
Meet your batty brain.
Hold discomfort.
Be a comparison shopper.
Elevate substance over symbolism.
Err on the side of laughter.

Next week we will jump right in to discussion about bringing your human brain and leaving your lizard brain at home (when you come to the Village Square AND – we might humbly suggest as long as we’re being bossy – when you drive and when you vote).

The sum of light

The Year of Living Dangerously

One of my favorite movie lines is from The Year of Living Dangerously:

“You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.”

The character speaking was Billy Kwan, played by Linda Hunt (cast alongside a young Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver). Though he was speaking of poverty in Indonesia, it doesn’t seem like a half-bad general admonition for a way to live a life.

At the foundation of The Village Square is the concept that, when it comes to politics, we’re in need of a bit of light right about now (and the big-for-our-britches ambition that we can contribute to the sum). Dr. Law, co-chair of our board of directors characterized us as seeking “less heat, more light.”

Of late, we’ve witnessed the growth of partisan online blogs, where people who generally agree with each other “talk” (and sometimes yell). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s civic engagement, it can be “light” but too often it turns into “heat.” Too many of us now belong to a side which pitches half an argument. Two sides with half an argument each is no substitute for citizens who understand a whole argument.

Here at The Village Square blog, we’ll strive for whole arguments. If we care about truth telling by public servants, we must care about truth telling by all public servants, on the right and the left. If we care about media accuracy, we must care about media accuracy whether it benefits the right or the left.

And as we launch our Village Square, we need to resist the temptation to vilify an average citizen on the “other” side, who is, in reality, our neighbor down the street, the nice woman at the bookstore, our kid’s softball coach. It’s so much harder to hate “people” when you meet them face-to-face.

That doesn’t mean becoming a doormat and failing to pitch or even appear to believe in your argument, as good argument is fundamental to The Village Square. But argument must incorporate a larger perspective that allows us to argue AND hold the tension of opposites at the core of our democracy. Maybe in these partisan times, our new forum will be our own version of “The Year of Living Dangerously?”

And, if there is anyone out there still listening to anything other than the sound of his or her own voice, maybe someone will notice.