Why should anyone host a conversation in 2017?
I’ve been meditating on this question over the past few weeks, between multiple professional trips (all in the US this time), a series of online presentations, several face-to-face presentations, three meeting facilitations, and a continuous stream of online discussions. Facilitating and even convening conversations between people who disagree with each other has become a growing part of my professional practice, from the Future Trends Forum on.
It’s also part of my personal practice, at least on Facebook. I try to provoke and support exchanges between people from multiple beliefs, nations, practices, and politics. Sometimes it works out.
This practice might not be well timed for 2017. American culture is currently hyper-polarized in the wake of last year’s divisive election and the subsequent Trump administration’s behavior. Party loyalty has deepened. Many Democrats cast themselves as active resisters, holding marches, pressuring politicians, and trying to maintain policies they value. Many Republicans seek to take full advantage of their spectacular electoral victories, and some urge their representatives to pull as far to the right as possible. Both sides receive support and faith-confirming opposition from various media outlets and platforms. Attacks on people for their beliefs, usually not violent, are popular.
So why should I try to throw bridges across these divides?
In some ways I’m not doing that at all. Sometimes I’m very partisan. In 2016 I was a big Bernie Sanders supporter (and still am). I advocate for the open web through my work and personal practice. I support the Pirate Party movement, like the Icelandic one. My family participated in the science march. In the past I’ve been a union member during strikes and other job actions, as well as a regional ACLU board member. And so on.
I also appreciate, on multiple levels, hearing from and speaking with people I agree with. There’s a powerful potential emotional support there, along with intellectual assistance. That’s very helpful in moments of anxiety or confusion.
Worse, today’s polarization increasingly means dehumanization. Some people we might reach out towards currently engage in demonizing, shaming, attacking, or simply othering people we care about, including ourselves. That engagement can demand emotional prices that might end up being higher than the return we anticipate. We might also see conversing with people who abhor us as giving them platforms they don’t deserve.
But I think we very much need to have conversations that cross the streams. Especially now.
First, as an educator I passionately believe in the transformative power of conversation, and know well the limits of preaching to the choir. People learn more and think better when they engage with others unlike themselves. Yes, there are risks and costs here. There are many ways to do this badly. Fortunately, educators have been writing about how best to support this for decades.
Second, as a technology researcher I know well the power of new and old technologies to cram us into echo chambers. Tv “news” is doing that very effectively. Social media can enable this, as can Google search. We need to have the power to break out of those blinders. That means, sometimes, engaging with people we find horrible, deplorable, effete, vile, or just wrong.
Third, I fear that rampant othering and sides-taking is going to degrade our sense of each other. It is much, much easier to label someone an elite latte-quaffing Manhattanite or a no-nothing hillbilly than it is to actually have a conversation with them. Othering simplifies the complexity of a 320-million-person nation in the 21st century. Listening, listening hard, is challenging, as (some) psychologists, facilitators, researchers, parents, storytellers, and educators know. It’s part of the work of being human.
Fourth, it’s a futurist maxim that you need multiple information sources and viewpoints to do the work. If tunnel vision limits what you can do in the present, it clobbers your ability to do foresight. To look ahead we must draw on diverse information streams.
So I invite guests to the Future Trends Forum who occasionally disagree deeply with each other. This has included entrepreneurs and people who oppose the role of venture capital, educational technologists and faculty who think they’re too powerful, collaboration enthusiasts and those who think collaboration is useless. We’ve had a guest who wants to transform ed tech into an academic discipline, along with people very critical of that goal.
My RSS reader has feeds from the political left and right, from monetarist and Marxist economists, from security-focused IT people and data-must-be-free opponents, academics, nonprofiteers, and businesspeople. And my Facebook friends network includes libertarians, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, anarchists, at least one monarchist, alt-right-ist, at least one recently sitting Democratic politician, and Greens, not to mention supporters of Sanders, Clinton(s), Trump, Le Pen, and Corbyn. Over the past two weeks I MC’d conversations about scholarly communication including passionate representatives of… let’s just say one of the world’s leading scholarly publishers, and also passionate open access advocates.
Selfishly, egotistically, this makes my world richer. The diversity keeps me on my toes, since I get a variety of challenges. As a researcher, I learn more. And my facilitation work helps discussions occur, sometimes with tentative inquiry, and at other times with passionate disagreement.
I have certain advantages in doing this work. My gender, skin color, sexual orientation all help as privileges. I get that. My very hard-won academic pedigree and publishing record also help get attention. Unfortunately, I also struggle with major disadvantages. I’m an independent, unaffiliated with any institution for reputation or other support. This is a huge problem with a field like academia, which is laser-focused on institutional identity and ranking.
It also means I’m taking a hard financial gamble with every conversation, since every one can backfire, and I have no protective institutional buffer or fallback. This is an especially sharp problem this month, as our youngest decided on which university he’ll attend in the fall, and our eldest graduates (yes, another blog post to come). It would be much safer to only attend to Democrats. (Less so to Republicans, given academia’s politics, overall). It would be easier to engage only entrepreneurs, or open access supporters, or just people from the American Northeast.
Speaking of which, I live in a tiny rural state, which marginalizes me to some extent within the United States, as we Sanders supporters heard throughout the 2016 primaries. Vermont also throws up deep infrastructure challenges, which make any digital work problematic, as readers know. Perhaps worse, I’m wading into a polarized environment without being a full-time and active partisan for one side, which sounds like an almost comically bad idea.
Still, I think – I know – this approach is worth the costs.
Those are my reasons, and readers know the results. Should I keep doing this? Does this work do a disservice to education and the futures field? Is this work an arrogant assertion of some forms of privilege? Do the outcomes justify the personal risk?