The Architecture of Trust
A quick glance at today’s hyperventilated political climate delivers an unmistakable message: We don’t know how to talk with each other anymore. A linguistics expert searches for ways that Americans of different beliefs can start believing in each other again.
By MICHAEL ERARD
It is tempting to see the political strife marking America these days as unprecedented, but history shows this country riven by conflict between regions, classes, races, and ideologies for centuries. One might even say that the anger and divides of the current moment are an outgrowth of what’s come before.
Throughout those battles, antidotes to our civic poisons have always run through the American bloodstream too. Americans have continually found ways to neutralize their discord and catalyze diversity, turning them into sources of strength. In a sense, the country has made it this far because its conflicts always have been counteracted by positive sentiments of equal force: shared traditions, and shared ideas about the future.
Despite our constant emails, texts, and tweets, our social circles are shrinking. And our relationships outside those circles are growing increasingly superficial.
Some of these traditions, such as the protections of the Bill of Rights, are enshrined in law; others come from less tangible but still commonly held values around core American ideals such as religious tolerance and personal freedom. In the words of the late political writer Molly Ivins, “it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”
Today, these antidotes seem weakened; some remedies might still pack some punch, but few of us know how to employ them anymore. It’s as though we’ve forgotten the basic craft of conversation.
In the midst of this chaos, projects are springing up across the country to connect people across political and racial differences in an effort to strengthen our natural defenses. “After the election, people have been coming at us with their hair on fire,” said Liz Joyner, who is the executive director of a civic engagement project, the Village Square, that was founded 11 years ago in Tallahassee. The project has already built a reputation for tackling controversial topics, such as energy, race, and faith, in public events that attract a socially and politically diverse crowd of followers.
Village Square has its roots in the experiences of three friends who, in 2006, found themselves on different sides of a proposed coal power plant—yet remained friends. “We’d have full cage-match discussions and then go for a run or a beer,” said Bryan Desloge, a county commissioner from Leon County. The plant didn’t go through, but each member of the trio was struck by the fact that their friendships survived the debate. So were their other friends. Liz Joyner, who had worked in election campaigns for Democrats and had a background as a social worker, soon became the group’s executive director and spooled it up. Since that time, Village Square has put on hundreds of events and opened chapters in Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Fort Lauderdale.
Communication researchers have discovered that when people talk to each other face to face, they coordinate aspects of their behavior—all unconsciously. They begin to use the same words. They talk at the same rate.
Village Square’s philosophy, not surprisingly, is centered on talking—not just any talking, but across political differences. Its website features a fable-like origin story for American democracy, which (as the story goes) was a form of government created by people who “believed that when common folk can talk to each other and think for themselves, they come up with some pretty good ideas and can be their own bosses.” Then, as technology developed, trouble arose. “Soon enough there was a box that pretty much everyone could buy that had people inside it who talked. It wasn’t long before the people in the box talked every single minute of every single day. Watching the box got to be more fun than a barrel o’ monkeys and that country of non-stop talkers, sort of just stopped talking.”
Joyner imagines American democracy as a 100-story skyscraper that people want to build even taller, except that the foundation is crumbling and the building is now wobbling. “There’s something foundationally wrong with the levers of how democracy works,” she told me. “Our belief very strongly is that it’s because we don’t have as many vibrant relationships as we used to.”
Those are big, thorny claims—many of us probably believe our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers are pretty good. And, if anything, Americans talk now more than ever. But Joyner is pointing to deeper problems. Despite our constant emails, texts, and tweets, our social circles are shrinking. And our relationships outside those circles are growing increasingly superficial. The result has been a wall of mistrust between people of different belief systems—not only in Washington but among our citizenry—that seems increasingly insurmountable.
Village Square seems to have figured out some novel ways to climb this wall, at least for the community of Tallahasee. After 10 years of effort, it reliably offers a familiar experience of togetherness where uplift is always on the menu, a sort of civic church where religious believers aren’t scorned. One key ingredient is to offer a variety of options for how citizens can use language.
In order to participate in the political sphere, people often are expected to be public speakers, but not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of crowds. Knowing this, Desloge led his county government to partner with Village Square to host opportunities for people in Leon County to meet elected officials in churches, coffee shops, music halls, even bars. This approach fits into a more convivial mode of political life that is emerging all over the country. “You have to stop and break a little bread, look people in the eyeballs,” Joyner said. She wants to revive the idea that you can chitchat with someone on the opposing side of an issue “and leave the room feeling like, ‘hey, I kind of like that person.”
Why would this make much difference?
In numerous studies, language and communication researchers have discovered that when people talk to each other face to face, they coordinate aspects of their behavior—all unconsciously. They begin to use the same words. They talk at the same rate. They take on the same postures and gestures. It’s even possible to predict how pairs of people in a laboratory will cooperate in games by how closely their rate of speech is matched. Something physiological happens too: when people who trust each other interact in person, their levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress levels) decrease, while oxytocin levels (a hormone associated with feelings of social connectedness) go up. Interestingly, one study from 2012 showed that girls who talked to their mothers on the phone had elevated oxytocin rates—but not when they communicated by texting.
This is not to suggest that the woes of American democracy can be reduced to hormone deficits, to be solved by civic hugfests. Look at the damage that’s been done to our social fabric as documented in books such as Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (2000); Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2012); and Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (2016). All of these books describe various aspects of erosion in our social cohesion and longstanding norms of everyday life. Their findings connect directly to Bill Bishop’s in “The Big Sort” (2008), where he documents the many ways that Americans have begun to isolate themselves culturally, religiously, and geographically.
A team of political scientists at the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California have a name for the trend that Bishop identified: “ideological migration.” In essence, to satisfy the need to belong, Americans now move to be among others like them. Strangely, our increasingly easy access to airlines has only deepened our isolation. There’s a reason that most of America’s landscape is now described as “flyover country.”
And that’s not the end of it. When it comes to the interactions we do have, a good many are now outsourced to social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which extend our social reach but also atrophy our social skills. What’s worse, after logging in, we’re led away from opportunities to engage with others unlike us (or at least with what they post) by algorithms designed to give us more of what we’ve demonstrated an interest in—not more of what we need. The civic poison this creates is then intensified by partisan media like FOX and Breitbart on the right, and Huffington Post and MSNBC on the left. All of them sequester audiences from the full range of facts that truly well-informed citizens need. They also undermine the possibility of a shared universe of experience and knowledge.
It turns out that the capacities for informed, open-minded conversations are cultural muscles; if not exercised, those skills atrophy. Returning them to health therefore requires careful and gradual rehabilitation.
Into this mix steps the work of Village Square, which is now an established player in the burgeoning civic engagement-industrial complex. It’s been joined by groups such as Living Room Conversations, started in 2010 by Joan Blades, a co-founder of MoveOn.org, and AllSides.org, a technology project founded by Blades and a former Republican aide. A similar technology project is Table Tribes, founded by Hosan Lee, a designer and entrepreneur. Table Tribes says it “closes the online + offline gap” by encouraging conversations in real life based on digital media pieces delivered to them via an app.
It seems strange that we need conversational prosthetics like apps, talking points, guides, and rules of engagement. Aren’t conversations natural? After all, we arrive as infants with an instinct to interact. As it turns out, the capacities for informed, open-minded conversations are cultural muscles; if not exercised, those skills atrophy. Returning them to health therefore requires careful and gradual rehabilitation.
Village Square has several modes for providing this therapy. At one dinner program event in 2016, “Created Equal and Breathing Free,” Joyner paired a young Catholic priest with a gay performance artist to talk in front of a mixed liberal-conservative audience of 160 people. (As usual, there were more liberals in the audience—Tallahassee, a college town, is a blue city in a sea of red.) The goal was to create empathy: Joyner said they wanted to make liberals better understand the conservative concern that religious liberties were being curtailed, and to expand conservatives’ understanding of the struggles of minorities, especially around marriage equality.
Before the event, Joyner went for coffee with the facilitator, the priest (Father Tim Holeda), and the performance artist (Terry Galloway), which helped warm the relationship. “We have one thing in common,” Galloway told the priest. “We both wear black.” That, Joyner remembered, broke the ice. For the evening itself, the organizers brought the regular set of Village Square conversation tools.
Two people were identified in advance, one representing the left and one representing the right, and given bells to ring—“civility bells,” they are called—if a speaker becomes insulting. That night, as often happens, the bell ringers served more as props. Joyner knew that these topics in particular put people in tribal mode, so she added a feature to get them feeling safe giving up their loyalties: the priest and the artist were given black Keds sneakers in the other’s size. “What we want to illustrate here is not to win people to our side, but to promote greater understanding,” said the facilitator. Then he gave Holeda and Galloway a “get-out-of-jail” card to allow them to take a pass on an uncomfortable question. (Neither one had to play this card.)
The audience gathered in the parquet-floored parish hall of St. John’s Episcopal Church, warming up with a meal of Greek salad and chicken. After dinner, Holeda and Galloway fielded questions from the facilitator, then bantered back and forth for a while before taking questions from the audience. Joyner herself isn’t usually on stage; she plays the Phil Donahue role, working the crowd with a microphone.
Before and after the event, audience members were asked to fill out evaluation forms, then the data were analyzed by Ravi Iyer, the executive director of Civil Politics, a group that applies moral psychology to public discourse and partners often with Village Square. Iyer found that liberals in the audience had increased their positive attitudes about conservatives—but none had changed their minds on the specific issues. There were fewer conservatives in the audience than liberals, but they still showed a disproportionately smaller positive gain in attitudes about the liberals. “We’ve done these evaluations at other meetings for other organizations and consistently get the same result,” Iyer said. “People don’t change their opinions on issues, but they do change their opinions about people on the other side.” And, at least in this case, liberals were more willing to have conservatives as friends and neighbors.
There’s a possibility that the positive shift by conservatives was lower because they were turned off by profanity that Galloway used as part of her irreverent performance. “That’s part of the risk when you hold events like this,” Joyner said. Obviously, there’s a fine line between promoting civility and shutting down difficult conversations. Avoiding the dull and curating some irreverence is part of the special sauce.
In that regard, the event seemed to be a resounding success. One participant, a friend of Galloway’s named Susan Gage, came primarily to be entertained. “You’re going to put Terry on the stage with a Roman Catholic priest?” she said in a phone call. “Okay, I’m going to bring popcorn.”
After the event was over, Jerri Hanna, an ordained deacon in a liberal Baptist church and a frequent Village Square participant, had this to say about Father Tim’s perspective: “I can live alongside it as long as I don’t have to live with it.”
Over the last several years, Village Square has become the do-tank to the one-man think tank of Jonathan Haidt, a New York University moral psychologist. Haidt has become a prominent commentator on America’s difficulties with public discourse, and his work is devoted to the notion that each of us occupies a specific “moral matrix.”
In Haidt’s view (which appears in his book, The Righteous Mind), that matrix is a culture-bound combination of five universal “moral modules”: care and avoidance of harm; fairness and a sense of reciprocity; loyalty to one’s own group; respect for authority; and a belief in purity and sanctity. In his research, Haidt found that liberals value “care” and “fairness” highly but not the other three frameworks; conservatives, meanwhile, give all five equal weight.
In an effort to make those moral modules visible, Haidt and Village Square teamed up in 2014 to form the “Asteroids Club” (the asteroid being a metaphor for some looming threat). The club’s motto: “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.” One of the club’s activities is to pair friends with differing views, and get them to seed meetings or dinner parties with a politically diverse group.
But that’s only step one; after getting together, you have to orchestrate a successful conversation.
When I asked activists and political dialogue experts what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conversations that get into the “moral matrices” of others, the key, they said, is to be nonjudgmental—and to really listen. Conversations of this nature take time, and the productive ones come from relationships established over time. If you are a true master at this game, you find a way to frame issues according to the other person’s moral values, not your own.
A prime example of this tactic was once used by Marc Hyden, who coordinates advocacy efforts for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. When talking one day with a man who supported the death penalty, Hyden said, “But the death penalty is a government program, and I don’t trust our government with the death penalty.” The man’s reply: “Well, I’m against the death penalty then. I don’t trust the government to fill potholes.”
As promising as all these conversations and exercises sound, they only work if all participants are open to them. Unfortunately, as Ravi Iyer of Civil Politics acknowledges, civic dialogues favor liberals because being open to others, and seeing the world from another’s perspective—what social scientists call “perspective taking”—is a more liberal trait than a conservative one. In contrast, conservatives tend to operate in terms of competition more than cooperation. So, in a sense, the current polarization suits conservatives, because it signifies that they’re winning, or at least in a game that lies inside their comfort zone. Widening the divide still further is the fact that conservatives tend to fit a more authoritarian profile. And authoritarians, psychologist Thomas Pettigrew at the University of California has found, actually go out of their way to avoid contact with outgroups.
At this point, both ideological camps seem to be caught in a feedback loop: to overcome their biases, they first have to overcome their biases.
One reason for the conservatives’ isolation may be that many in this camp have little desire to connect to more people, largely because their social needs are already being satisfied—in church. As Jacob Hess, a Village Square dialogue organizer in Salt Lake City, put it, “Many religious people say ‘I’ve got the truth I need, why would I want to spend my time with somebody else?”
And liberals don’t always help matters. For starters, they tend to assume that almost any social problem can be fixed with an infusion of facts and evidence. This commitment to the empirical can make them think they’re ready for any asteroid, but that ignores Haidt’s point—that conservatives see legitimate threats in the realm of moral values and emotional perceptions. Even when liberals acknowledge these sentiments, they have a hard time seeing them as problems worthy of attention. So what’s the point of listening to others’ views about them?
All in all, both sides seem to be caught in a feedback loop: to overcome their biases, they first have to overcome their biases.
In 1900, then president Teddy Roosevelt argued, in a journal called “Century,” that “fellow-feeling” was critical to political and social health. “Civic life,” he wrote, cannot achieve its potential “unless it is marked by fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the common duties and common interests” that arise when people “take the trouble to understand one another.” Roosevelt went on to say that “a large share of the rancor in political and social strife” comes from either “misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another” or from the fact that various groups “are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions…”
Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, has come to understand what Roosevelt feared, a development that she calls “the empathy wall.” After spending five years researching her book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Hochschild composed a metaphor to explain the deep resentment she sensed in the community she had been studying in Louisiana. It was as though these people were standing in line somewhere, waiting for something they’d worked for their entire lives. Suddenly a bunch of strangers—minorities, gays, immigrants—were cutting in front of them, getting all of the goodies. And they felt cheated. Those strangers, of course, would identify with a rather different metaphor. And here we are.
Despite this stalemate, Hochschild sees potential solutions. She has suggested that Americans might go on exchange programs, particularly between coastal and interior communities. The hope is that if people from different regions spent a few weeks, say, building a park or school together, Americans might get to know each other again. (Such a program might also help overcome the urban bias of the civic dialogue industry. Apart from a few exceptions, it is centered largely in cities—yet another reason that rural voters don’t believe that people in other regions are much interested in them.)
Ultimately, Liz Joyner believes, changing minds is less important than rebuilding the architecture of trust between America’s myriad tribes. New structures, of course, aren’t created overnight—they’re built slowly, layer by careful layer. But Joyner is convinced that this task is achievable. “We have to change our habits of thought. In our current political climate, too many people think the country would be better if the others we disagree with were gone or out of power. But democracy requires difference of opinion—that really is valuable.” These seem like basic principles that everyone ought to get. But sometimes it helps to go back to the basics.