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Polarization doesn’t just divide, it impedes

The summer before my first year in college I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an excellent book about the errors and omissions in high school American history textbooks that gloss over the not-so-pretty parts of our nation’s past.

I loved the book, and I remembered seeing a copy on my grandma’s bookshelf. So one day, I tried to strike up a conversation with her about it.

That didn’t go too far.

I don’t remember her exact words, but the essence was that she doesn’t like books that point out the faults in our country’s history, and the conversation stopped there.

All too often the way we discuss American history in the United States leads us to the same place my grandma and I came to: a conversational dead-end. Either the conversation doesn’t go any farther (as it did with my grandma and me), or it goes forward with both sides having closed their ears, minds, and hearts as they open their mouths to shout their views.

This failure to engage other perspectives paralyzes us to be able to confront issues of economic vitality, race relations, the role of the U.S. military, or other important issues of the day.

The polarization of history

There is a polarization in the teaching of history. On the right, American History is a self-important, jingoistic ode to the greatness, glory, and grandeur of the United States. The U.S. is portrayed as a nation that has been an unblemished beacon of goodness in the world. This noble history stands against an endless siege of internal sedition and external threats.

On the left, American history is a litany of abuses, injustices, and exploitations. It is a nation founded to protect the wealth and status of white Protestant land-owning men, and its entire history is a catalog of wrongs against people of color, women, workers, Jews, American Indians, and other nations to defend the interests of the elites. In the face of this bulwark of oppression, a consistent counter-current pushes for liberation for the oppresses. Sometimes this counter-current succeeds, sometimes it is co-opted, but these efforts can never fully redeem the nation from its tainted history and belligerent present.

Truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it so often does), and most people’s views of history also fall somewhere between the extreme positions I’ve laid out.

Polarization and the Cyclops

With only an eye to the good or the bad of American history you can become a cyclops. Cyclopses were powerful creatures in mythology, but they were also monstors.

Adherents to both polarized positions are like cyclopses, the mythical monsters of The Odessey that had only one eye.

Physically we need two eyes to have good depth perception. With only an eye for the good or the bad parts of the American legacy, these polarized positions cannot see the fullness and depth of our country’s past.

And let us remember, while the cyclopses of mythology were huge and powerful (just like contemporary ideologues  can be), they were also monsters capable of extreme cruelty.

Going beyond polarization to keep the conversation open

The problem with both narratives is that they shut out conversation with other views and the ability to learn from each other and work together for a better future.

My grandma’s reaction to Lies My Teacher Told Me shows how the critical perspective of the left’s narrative seems anti-American and just focused on attacking the country. Likewise, the “America can do no wrong”  jingoism of the right’s narrative comes off as dishonest to those whose past ancestors have been done wrong by the United States, as well as those whose current communities don’t fully share in the promise of America.

An honest study of American history will acknowledge both the liberation and oppression in our history. Only a complete history is broad enough to include those whose hearts stir with the words, “liberty and justice for all,” as well as those whose hearts burn with the question, “when will my community see our liberty and justice?”

A Lesson from the Bible

One of the things I deeply love about the Bible is that it is make up of people who are always making mistakes–and who nevertheless are faithful to a higher calling. Noah got stupid drunk after he left the ark. Moses was a murderer, as was King David. Rebekah counseled Jacob to lie to his father and steal his brother’s blessing. The apostles are almost laughable in how often they get things wrong.

Part of the message of the Bible is that we do not need to be afraid to confront our mistakes and the mistakes of our ancestors.  We should take that kind of approach to the study of history.

A lesson from psychology

I’ve blogged before about research that shows that training programs that evaluate mistakes are more successful than those that only highlight successes.

Personally, we need to acknowledge both our successes and our failures to learn and grow. So too as a nation do we need to learn from and face the good and the bad in our history

I’m not calling for an end to conflict over history

When I say that we need to acknowledge the good and the bad, I’m not saying that we stop arguing over what those are. I have no illusions that the right and the left will agree whether or not the Vietnam War was a just war to stop Soviet aggression or an unjust war to prop up a corrupt and oppressive government. What I am saying is that in the debate, both the right and the left should be open to acknowledging that the government could have done good or bad things.

Why I think this is so important

I was recently assigned to serve the Racial and Economic Justice task force at Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading to catch up.

I’ve been reading Courageous Conversations About Race as we look at how we can support efforts to close the achievement gap in local schools, and I’ve been reading Uprooting Racism as part of our upcoming Racial Justice Book Group.

Courageous Conversations quotes and article by Julian Weissglass discussing causes for the achievement gap which says:

“White people lack informatnio about the history and nature of the oppression that people of color have endured. They learn little, for example, about the genocide of indigenous people, the kidnapping and slavery of Africans and the oppression of their descendants, the military seizure of the southwestern U.S. territory from Mexico, or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II…. Given the lack of information and the spread of misinformation, it is not surprising that white peopel do not always understand the feelings of native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans.”

I agree with Weissglass’s point, and experiences like the one I had with my grandmother lead me to ask the question, “how can we create the setting in which white educators and conservative Americans will be willing to look at the mistakes in our history?”

Paul Kivel’s  Uprooting Racism does an excellent job to set the stage to make it possible for white Americans to explore issues of race and racism, and part of his strategy to do that is to avoid the blame game. He writes, “This book is not about whether you are a racist or not, or whether all white people are racist or not.” That is, he evades the temptation to put the discussion in cyclops terms that only see good or bad, that can only either indict or defend.

I believe a similar approach will help discussing the history of race or other difficult issues in American history.

This approach does not give the same self-satisfied sense of moral superiority that a polarized position does. But I’m willing to give up a bit of smugness for a better chance of connecting with people; opening ears, minds, and hearts; changing people’s perspectives (perhaps even my own); and thereby changing the world.

Outreach isn’t just reaching people who already agree with you

But a capaign can go to far. In this case, too far is when people believe that believing is enough, without factoring in the differences between the passionate few who run the campaign and the barely interested many who actually vote. –Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, referring to the 2004 Howard Dean campaign

In my wife’s work with the GetDowntown program, she hears avid bicycle commuters suggest ways to get non-cyclists to bike to work. She hears from avid walkers about how to get non-walkers to give up their cars for a good pair of shoes.

In my work, I hear from deeply committed environmentalists about how to get indifferent people to lower their carbon footprint. I hear passionate peace activists tell me how we should get the apathetic public to care.

This input is valuable, and many good ideas come from it, but what these true believers forget, and what I often forget, is that the “barely interested many” aren’t approaching our issues from the same perspective we are, and what motivates us may not motivate them. To reach the “barely interested many,” you have to set aside your interests to see what it is that they are interested in, meet them where they are, and help them take the next step.

It can be fun to connect with the people who already agree with and to talk the shared language of what already motivates you, and there is a place for that in sustaining a movement, but it is not enough.

If you are going to change the world, you can’t just talk to people who already agree with you. You can’t just speak the language of what motivates people like you. You need to reach out, talk to new people in their own language. That’s why they call it outreach.

You live or die by your database

Your groups most important resource is the people involved in it. Your database is how you connect with them. Keep you database healthy to keep your organizaiton healthy.
Your group’s most important resource is the people involved in it. Your database is how you connect with them. Keep you database healthy to keep your organizaiton healthy.

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith tells you “you live or die by your database.”

Their point is to be personally effective, you need to have a way to track your personal contacts and keep in touch with them.

The same is true for a nonprofit. I often say at ICPJ, “Our most important resource is our people: our volunteers and donors. Our database is how we keep track of this most important resource.”

Since you live or die by your database, you need to:

  • Make sure your database has accurate contact information;
  • Make sure that when you send something out it gets to it’s destination (not caught in a spam filter or lost because of a bad postal address); and
  • Use that database to keep in touch with your contacts.

Chris and Julien aren’t exaggerating, I’ve seen nonprofits live and die by their databases.

The first nonprofit job I had was with the Nicaragua Network, a small group that has stayed active even as U.S. policy toward Nicaragua has become less of a concern in the media because their co-director, Chuck Kaufman, does an excellent job of  working with the NicaNet donor database.

Think of your contact list like a muscle, you need to use it to keep it strong. Chuck Kaufman is a master of using his NicaNet list and keeping it strong.

On the other side of things, I’ve seen nonprofits fail because they didn’t keep up with their database. People got dropped from the email list. The only mailings they received were infrequent donor appeals. The nonprofit didn’t keep up with their database, and they suffered as attendance, engagement, and donations dropped.

Keep your organization healthy by keeping your database healthy and active. It can mean life or death for your group.

How to act like a human online

People want to connect with people, and that true online as well. That means you have to act like a person online. Heres how.

People want to connect with people, and that' true online as well. That means you have to act like a person online. Here's how.

Sometimes online communication strips away the human touch in interactions, especially when we’re online to promote our cause.

In Trust Agents, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith give seven great tips they title “How to be human.”

  1. Remember to ask about other people–first.
  2. Understand the culture.
  3. Promote others 12 times as much as you promote yourself or your company.
  4. Use your picture (and a good one) as your avatar on your profiles all these social sites (never your logo).
  5. If you mess up, remember the three A’s: acknowledge, apologize, act.
  6. Share a bit of your personal life in your professional.
  7. Remember that this new online world is about relationships, not campaigns.

I’m not convinced about never using your logo, I think it depends on the context. I have both a personal twitter account and ICPJ, where I work, has a twitter account. My personal twitter has my personal photo, ICPJ uses its logo.

That issue aside, Chris and Julien put together a good list, though it’s sad we need instructions on “how to be human” to begin with.

Jargon doesn’t make you sound smart

Wordy messages wont convince your audience. Clear speaking and writing will.

Wordy messages won't convince your audience. Clear speaking and writing will.

I’ve ranted on this blog before about the perils of bad writing. Now I have research to back it up.

Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive gives an example of jargon overload:

We’re leveraging our assets and establishing strategiec alliances to create a robust knowlege center-one with a customer-ruled business structure using market-leading technologies to maximize our human systems.

According to the book, that means “we’re consultants.”

What happens when you use language like this? Yes summarizes research by Daniel Oppenheimer which shows that “the message is deemed less convincing and the author is perceived as less intelligent.”

The lesson is clear: you will be more convincing if you communicate clearly. Use simple sentences and words your audience can understand.

What’s true for you may not be true for everyone

I’ve been reading Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Cialdini (I’ve blogged before about his previous book, Influence), and he gives a great story that warns us not to assume that what works for us will work for everyone.

He gives the example of efforts to try to get hotel guests to help save the environment by re-using their towels.

How would you promote that kind of program?

Well, if you’re like me, you would be motivated by environmental arguments, so you would be inclined to write a sign along the lines of, “You can help save water by re-using your towel.”

But here’s the rub–there will be a lot of hotel guests who don’t care about that message.

So Cialdini and his co-authors decided to test an alternate message that tells guests that “a majority of guests choose to re-use their towels at least once in their stay.”

There are two lessons here:

1. “Social proof” is a powerful way to influence people;

2. Don’t assume that the messages that work for you will work for everyone.

Don’t Write Crappy Content

I’ve often wished for a short guide to help my interns break all the bad habits that academic writing instills in them.

Jocelyn Harmon’s in Fundraising Success Magazine, “Don’t Write Crappy Content,” is a pretty good start.

Her main points are:

  1. Write to one person
  2. Use active vs. passive voice
  3. Make an outline
  4. Speaking of stories … tell one!
  5. Edit, edit and edit some more
  6. Add images
  7. Bonus: Use metaphors

Consider giving it a read, unless you’re one of my interns, in which case I will be insisting you read it before writing for me.

The power of “thank you”

Its hard to put your foot in your mouth when the words thank you are coming out of your mouth.

It's hard to put your foot in your mouth when the words "thank you" are coming out of your mouth.

Of the 20 destructive habits Marshall Goldsmith identifies in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, five have share a common solution.

Say “thank you.”

Sometimes this is obvious, as with habits #10 and #17, “Failing to give proper recognition” and “failing to express gratitude.” In that case, saying “thank you” is a no brainer.

Goldsmith also recommends saying “thank you” as a remedy for less obvious problems, such as habit #18, “punishing the messenger.”

What does saying thank you have to do with not punishing the messanger?

Think of it this way, it’s hard for you to put your foot in your mouth when the words “thank you” are coming out.

In this case, the “thank you” is less about expressing gratitude and more about stopping you from expressing harmful emotions. “Thank you” is a way not to take out your anger on the messenger.

That’s also why saying “thank you” is part of the prescription for habit  #3, “passing judgment,” and habit #6, “telling the world how smart we are.”

For habit 6, he explains how “thank you” works, “Stopping this behavior is not hard–a three-step drill in which you (a) pause before opening your mouth to ask yourself, ‘Is anything I say worth it?’ (b) conclude that it isn’t, and (c) say, ‘Thank you.'”

For this to work, though, you have to just say thank you. If you say, “thank you, but…” and then launch into a self-serving lecture about how you could improve on the idea (thereby showing how smart you are), you’ve defeated the purpose.

I picked up on this not because I think it’s an easy fix (I don’t think it is), but because it ties into one of my destructive habits. I often get defensive and bristle when given negative feedback or when I feel at my limit and I’m asked to do more or criticized for not having done more.

Goldsmith’s suggested response of “thank you” would be a big improvement over my defensiveness.

Are you saying “thank you” enough? Are there things you shouldn’t be saying where you’d be better off just saying “thank you”?

It’s about what works, not what should work

Jeff Brooks from the Donor Power Blog recently covered how “Emotional messaging works; rational messaging hurts” in fundraising (from a post on the Neuromarketing blog titled Emotional Ads Work Best).

Here’s the thing. People think rational should work. The healthcare debate should be decided on a rational weighing of the plans. A fundraising appeal should be based on a rational evaluation of which nonprofit best achieves the donors’ ends.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Emotional arguments move people–even highly-educated, ivory-tower, college professors and hard-nosed, data-driven corporate leaders.

Use emotion in your community organizing. Use what works.

People don’t have time to think…get over it

The first rule of community organizing is to meet people where they Not where you are or where you want them to be. Where they are.

And most people are completely overwhelmed with the world they live in.

Every brain cell is overwhelmed with getting the kids to soccer practice, worrying about retirement, wondering about dinner, feeling guilty over not exercising, trying to remember to take the car in for an oil change, hoping their mother doesn’t move in with them, looking forward to a weekend off and an endless stream of other thoughts.

They don’t have time to think.

At least, not about something that seems extraneous to them. It’s not that their stupid. Their brains are just full.

And this 24/7 always-on, media-overload, hyper-connected world just exacerbates that.

You can’t solve this problem for people, so you have to work with it.

As a community organizer, that means you need to:

  • Stop being condescending. I’m not going to demean anybody for not thinking about the SOA/WHINSEC, Complex Transformation, or dry versus liquid malt extract. After all, I don’t want them to criticize me for not thinking about developments in auto industry or the plight of abandoned rabbits.
  • Give people bite-sized pieces of information. Now that we’re not beating each-other up over not thinking about everything, our next job is to make it easy for people to approach the issue. Yes, this requires some oversimplifications. No, we don’t get to prove how smart we are by going into all the intricacies. Yes, it will make it easier for someone else to listen to us.
  • Be agonizingly clear what you want people to think and to do. We can organize people without overwhelming them. I ask you to write a letter to promote human rights in Latin America by closing the SOA/WHINSEC without subjecting you to a lecture on the last 60 years of U.S. intervention in Latin America, that doesn’t mean
  • Look for long-term relationships. In gardening, a slow drip of water is more effective than dumping a pail of water on your plants all at once. Likewise, in organizing, we’re asking people to take a series of steps to learn more and do more about an issue. Look at the big picture. In this long walk we will take together, there will be time for the in-depth discussion of why Kissinger has changed his perspective on nuclear disarmament. We’ll get there. Today, let’s just start with “Tell Senator Levin not to build new nukes. These could blow up the world, and it’s not worth the risk.”