The Flying Pig Society: The art and science behind a Village Square program

Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016

The Model

Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses).

The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goals that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.

This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues that are closest to their hearts.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

The Results

We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.

The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.

We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).

Processing the Results

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. It’s worth noting that we accurately predicted the attitude shifts we’d likely see from this program with the team at CivilPolitics – after the program and before the results were calculated. We think it’s pretty easy to do once you see the event play out (human beings are, after all, intuitive). While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.

Beyond chalking those instances up to “you win some, you lose some” we at the Village Square have come to believe strongly that there is a real shift that occurs through our continued efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the “between” where our results have the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance requires it. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy well-traveled by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Useful Links

CivilPolitics pre and post event analysis.

Created Equal and Breathing Free event page.

Photos from event.

Strategies used in this program.

Jacob Hess: Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite

new yorker elephant donkeyThe Director of our newest Salt Lake City Village Square Director, Jacob Hess, has written a smart and thoughtful piece posted at the Huffington Post. Here’s a sneak peak:

In discussions of political polarization in America, it’s often widely assumed that ‘most Americans’ want to see the hostility change.

Do they? On the one hand, a 2013 American survey found 70% of respondents believing that incivility had reached crisis proportions in the country.

On the other hand, when these same Americans are offered a chance of hearing out their own political opposite in a generous and productive setting, we have observed a striking level of resistance.

One woman told us just yesterday, “I cannot even begin to imagine trying something like that…” Another person insisted, “Most people don’t want to sit and have a real conversation with their political opposite…They just don’t!”

Could that be true? That even though (most of us) are worried about political tensions, for different reasons (most of us) don’t feel able or willing or interested in doing anything about it?

Read Jacob’s entire article at Huffington Post.

Photo credit: New Yorker Magazine

A Bastille Day Special: Let them eat (purple) cake

LET-THEM-EAT-PURPLE-CAKESeldom have four words ever brought such disastrous consequence to the person who uttered them, or so goes the legend of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” and that nasty business of her public beheading.

While a visit to modern day France finds Versailles proper positively dripping with the wretched excess history has assigned it, Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the private residence of the French queen, tells a somewhat different story. Rather than the gilded surroundings the king’s riches would surely have afforded her, she built a likeness of a quaint Austrian village, complete with working vineyards and livestock.

Could Marie-Antoinette – symbol the world over of condescending wealth – be misunderstood? My trip to France last summer had me scratching my head and returning home to learn more about the queen we love to hate.

Turns out the words we’ve put in poor Marie-Antoinette’s mouth may have been spoken – if spoken at all – by the wife of a different King Louis decades earlier. And even if the doomed queen had said it, a familiarity with French law regulating the price of bread suggests she would have probably meant “let them eat expensive bread with less flour in it for the same price,” a rather generous and common sense suggestion during a flour shortage.

We do know that Marie-Antoinette said “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”


Apparently when vein-poppingly angry people pick up their pitchforks and roll out the guillotine, they’ve been known to get it wrong from time to time.

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, will be given away as a door prize at a coming Village Square dinner!

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, actual Village Square door prize!

As uber-partisanship and the culture war have opened a gulf between us, we have been toting our own pitchforks lately. We’ve created opposing custom-ordered villains a la Marie-Antoinette, complete with oft-repeated misquotes, half quotes, and an occasional story spun of whole cloth.

In Revolutionary France, misinformation about the queen was fueled by the libelles – venomous slander-filled booklets produced by political opponents. Besting the distribution of French libelles, America’s present day incarnation sends distortions by email clear across the universe tout de suite.

Even as Americans are called to other countries to handle the fallout of ideological hatred gone to seed, we have a homegrown and thankfully only verbal – version of what journalist John Marks calls “wars of absolute dichotomy” brewing, fueled in part by a lot that we’re getting plain wrong about each other.

John, assigned to cover Bosnia for U.S. News & World Report, has seen the danger of absolute dichotomy. He’s since teamed with college roommate filmmaker Craig Detweiler to make the film “Purple State of Mind,”a conversation between friends with different religious worldviews. John and Craig were our Village Square guests in Tallahassee in 2009 – see their program here.

John explains that shaking up partisan red and blue to make “purple” isn’t really about seeking homogenized agreement but “about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency.”

On the queen’s behalf, I’d add “the utmost in factual accuracy.”

If we’re going to bring the best of America to bear on the big problems ahead, we can ill afford the cartoon version of a civic dialog that neglects the real consequences of creating fictions rather than grasping facts. At another perilous time in our history, the Founding Fathers set a high bar for the debate because they couldn’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong.

Marie-Antoinette met her end at Place de la Concorde, Revolutionary France’s version of our televised public square, where her beheading earned the eighteenth century’s equivalent of high Nielsen ratings. Whether or not she had it coming, most of us would like to think our decision-making has grown to reflect a higher standard in the couple of centuries since, regardless of potential for market share.

As we begin writing the history of what happens next in America, perhaps we can start by at least getting the quotes right. To do that, we might occasionally put down our pitchforks long enough to break bread with someone who doesn’t see it our way. Or, maybe, in a hat tip to learning the lessons of history, we should eat cake instead.

Only this time, make it purple.


Liz Joyner is Executive Director of the Village Square

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont

Here’s to the Town Hall. We are true believers. Town Hall Meeting Day gives us one more excuse to link to Maira Kalman’s NY Times “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog for “So Moved:” HERE. It is must read.

Popular Science shuts down its comment thread (and why this is very important)

Science ExpressH/T to the smart people over at CivilPolitics for this news:

Today Popular Science announced it is shutting down blog comments on most articles on it’s website. The reason? Studies have shown that comments on an article not only polarize readers (same old thing we see on every comment thread) but they also change the perception of the story itself. When your topic is science, you can quickly see that conflation of scientific results and what an angry person says on a blog thread is dangerous to one of the two (like mixing ice cream and horse manure – doesn’t do much to the horse manure, but it sure does damage the ice cream). From Popular Science:

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

Read the entire article online HERE.

And here’s a question to ponder: If we simultaneously shut off comment threads in every major publication in America, would civil discourse return to the town square? Sure, we’d all walk in mad, but we’d share a few munchies, a cup of coffee and a little bit of time with our neighbors. Might leave with a slightly different disposition…

(Photo credit)

Senator Olympia Snowe names Village Square as one of eight groups working for political common ground

fighting for common groundThis week The Christian Science Monitor launched a new commentary series “Common Ground, Common Good.” We love the name and the concept.

But most of all we love that they wrote about Senator Olympia Snowe in their inaugural column, who named the Village Square as one of eight groups helping to define a political center in America. Even cooler yet is that we’re the only locally-based organization of the eight. From The Christian Science Monitor:

In her book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” Olympia Snowe, the former senator from Maine, writes that the “fastest way” for citizens to push for compromise in Congress is to “support the efforts of existing national groups” that advocate bipartisanship. She recommends the following eight organizations, urging people to “browse their websites, visit them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.”

Read the list online HERE.


Photo credits: Senator Jay Rockefeller and Fighting for Common Ground book jacket.

“It’s Even Worse than it Looks” Solutions: Re-create a Public Square

I finally got the nerve up to read It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. It required nerve because it looks so bad that the idea that anything could be even worse than that, well… I’ll do a little reporting on some of the findings, starting with this:

“America also needs a concerted effort to ameliorate the impact of the partisan media. The country no longer has a public square where most Americans shared a common set of facts used to debate policy options with vigor, but with a basic acceptance of the legitimacy of others’ views. Little can be done to change the new business models, driven by technology and global economics, that make Fox News’s apprach a clear winner over the old network news apprach. But a semblance of a new public square, one that might never have the reach or audience of the old one, could be a model for civil discourse and intelligent, lively debate.”

Find our argument for why we think The Village Square fits the bill here (published February 2012 in the Tallahassee Democrat).

Pew says politics divides us more than race, religion, ethnicity

Dan Balz writes in yesterday’s Washington Post about a Pew Research Center survey showing that America is more divided now by political identity than by another other measure.

“Republicans and Democrats have long seen the world through different lenses. On some issues, the gaps between them are relatively small (the importance of political engagement, for example). On others they are wider. What Pew found is that in almost every measure, those gaps have increased over the past 25 years, and in some cases now seem to represent almost unbridgeable divisions.”

Read the article online HERE.

(It might not surprise you that we think this is another confirmation of why The Village Square is the correct model to address this challenge. In communities, where we are neighbors, seems like just about the only toehold.)

Mark Goodkin: We Need Symphonic Solutions

Up to now, the story of how liberals and conservatives engage in political discourse and problem solving has been marked by polarization, with questionable outcomes. Each side pushes its own agenda, thinking it has the answers to all the problems.

The question is whether this story has served us well? We face mounting problems, including the debt crisis, unemployment, environmental issues, energy dependency, food and water shortages, terrorism, war, and many others, which some have said will eventually lead to a perfect storm, if it hasn’t happened already. It becomes ever more doubtful that we can solve these problems within the context of our polarized, divisive mindset, which has lead to much of the present paralysis in Washington and has perhaps contributed to the problems.

The Energy Debate

Take for example the issue of energy. Both sides agree that we need to become energy independent. However, each side pushes for its own agenda, while disagreeing on an effective, long-range strategy to become energy independent.

In the energy debate, the main dividing line has been between the liberal concern for the environment and conservative concern for the economy.

Liberals want us to be weaned off of our dependency for petroleum, nuclear, coal, and other energy sources that pollute the environment and are limited in supply, to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources that support the environment, like solar, wind, and geothermal. They would like to see such a shift to cleaner energy sources done within a relatively short time frame.

They push for an increase in government funding and programs, which will support this endeavor, and are willing to tolerate higher energy prices and perhaps even some rationing as temporary measures during the transition.

On the other hand, conservatives want to exploit the conventional energy sources that already exist in our country. They feel that we can make a transition to energy independence much quicker if we invest in conventional energy, since it is already proven and economical. They argue that this approach will minimize the risk toward higher energy prices and rationing.

Conservatives believe that, perhaps some investment in alternative energy mightbe a good idea, but it will take years to develop it into a reliable and economical source to meet our growing energy needs. In fact, they argue, alternative energy will most likely never completely replace conventional sources, but supplement it.

Each side pushes forth its own agenda, without giving much thought to the other side’s merits or concerns. And if both sides did decide to work together, we learn from history that the likely outcome would be a middle of the road compromise, which lacked the necessary punch, while pleasing no one, except perhaps the special interests.

In fact, the debate on energy independence has been going on in one form or another, since at least the energy crisis of 1973. The ongoing debate reflects the story, previously mentioned, as to how each side pushes for its own agenda, without giving much, if any, consideration toward that of the other side. And in the end, with few exceptions, our problems never really get solved, but linger or incarnate into “new” problems. It’s apparent that this story has not served us well and is no match for the mounting issues we face.

What if we could change our story, the way in which we solve problems, from one of polarization and divisiveness to one of collaboration and synergy? In fact, is that possible? I believe it is.

Symphonic Solutions

I would like to introduce the idea of the Symphonic Solution. A Symphonic Solution is a meeting of the minds between liberals and conservatives on a particular issue. However, it does not limit its choices to the middle range of the political spectrum, as seen in middle of the road compromises, but is open to ideas across the entire board.

A musical symphony, or almost any melody for that matter, would be pretty blasé if its notes were limited to the middle range of the scale. A good symphony requires notes carefully taken along the entire musical scale.

A Symphonic Solution could be characterized as an effective plan, which takes into account the main values and concerns of both sides.

When both sides work together constructively for solutions and feel that their voices have been heard and accounted for, they will likely come up with more options, including innovative ones. Both sides also will more likely support the plan in the long run.

The old band-aid measures and watered down compromises that passed for solutions will give way to fresh, creative approaches, which result from a synergy of both sides working together.

It doesn’t mean there will be total agreement on every point. There will still be disagreements, which is natural in our diverse society.

So, returning to our example of the energy issue, how might the two sides work toward a Symphonic Solution for energy independence?

Such a solution would need to address the main values and concerns of both sides. It would have to take into account the liberal values and concerns for clean, renewable energy, which would have low impact on the environment, like pollution. The solution would also have to account for the conservative values and concerns for reliable energy sources, which are both cost effective and affordable.

Coming up with a Symphonic Solution for energy independence, or for that matter, any issue, will require innovative ideas, creativity, and a spirit of working together, and good will. We have a choice. We can continue with the current story of political polarization, paralysis, and ineffective solutions. Or we can change our story to collaboration, synergy, and effective solutions, which have a much better chance of meeting the challenges of mounting problems. The choice will take courage and require a shift in our thinking in how we work together to solve problems.


Mark Goodkin is publisher of Conversational Shift, a website devoted to helping people make the shift from polarized political discourse to one of civil discourse and synergistic solutions. He also publishes San Diego Coast Life, an online guide for locals and visitors to San Diego. He has been a website designer and content developer since 1998 and graphic artist since 1994. In the late 1980s, he worked as a publishing assistant for the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, in Washington DC. and assistant to the Senior Advisor to High Frontier, Inc., in Arlington VA. Mark Goodkin holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Design from the School of Visual Arts in Saint Paul, MN and in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt on Bill Moyers

Were there such a thing as Village Square homework (and there should be), this would be it. Conservatives, be sure to hang in for the whole the discussion; Dr. Haidt’s work is extremely validating of a conservative world view (and in a way that will help liberals understand you better, how much better does it get than that…) We believe Dr. Haidt is doing some of the most important work of our time. So get a bowl of popcorn and set aside 45 minutes. You won’t be sorry.

Liz Joyner: Reviving the town hall meeting

Published in the Tallahassee Democrat, February 15, 2012 - There’s nothing more quintessentially American than a town hall meeting. It’s how the business of American community has gotten done from just about the moment the first disaffected European foot hit ground in the New World.

Even if you’ve never attended one, the town meeting is buried so deep in our country’s psyche that you can probably immediately call up its intimate details – rows of folding chairs, town council up front with only a school lunch table to define their status, a charmless but functional meeting room. Someone probably saw to it that there would be coffee and cookies. Overachievers might organize a potluck. Read all »

Steve Seibert: Our history of humility

A must-read Village Square op-ed by Village Square board member Steve Seibert:

The greatness of America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, lies “in her ability to repair her faults.” In the face of crisis we band together, we compromise, we overcome.

These days, not so much. We have suffered through years of partisan bickering at all levels of government. But it is not the bickering that offends. It is the paralysis that results. Significant policy challenges remain unsolved and, at times, even unaddressed. That is the troublesome part. While political conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not. Read all »

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