Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
This Changes Everything: The World-Turning Power of Ideas
Featuring Joan Blades and Steven Pinker
Ideas start wars and movements, undergird societies and governments, and shape the daily experiences of our personal lives. We ignore or underestimate the power of ideas to our detriment. And yet they can feel slippery to reckon with; difficult to see, tougher still to understand their complex movement through the world.
Join The Progress Network for a wide-ranging discussion on ideas—which ones are significant now, which may be significant in the future, and how we can participate in ideas’ power ourselves—with Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations and MoveOn.org, and public intellectual Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now and several other books. Zachary Karabell, founder of The Progress Network, moderates.
This conversation was recorded on May 12, 2021.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Hi, everybody. Welcome to This Changes Everything: The World-Turning Power of Ideas. There’s often a lag between when we go live and when people are let into the room. So I’m just going to repeat myself one more time. If you’re looking for This Changes Everything: The World-Turning Power of Ideas, you’re in the right place. Hopefully you are in the right place, and a big, warm welcome from us. I’m Emma Varvaloucas. I’m the executive director of The Progress Network, and we hold these events monthly. They are conversations between our members on a variety of topics, but it’s always with an eye towards bettering the future.
So I’m going to introduce our two illustrious network members that we’re here with tonight. The first is Joan Blades. She’s the cofounder of several organizations that you may have heard of like MomsRising.org and MoveOn.org. She’s also the cofounder of Living Room Conversations, which facilitates dialogue across divides. So, you know, if you have any trouble within your family and maybe with your neighbors or friends who have opposing political points of view, opposing religious beliefs, what have you, definitely check out Living Room Conversations. They publish conversational guides on a variety of fraught issues. And she’s also the coauthor of two books: “The Custom-Fit Workplace” and “The Motherhood Manifesto.”
And then our other panelist and network member here with us tonight is Steven Pinker. He’s an experimental psychologist currently at Harvard, and he’s also taught at Stanford and MIT. He is the author of a bevy of books, most recently “Enlightenment Now,” which I suspect many of you in the audience are probably familiar with. And I do know that he’s working on his next book on rationality. So if you look out in the world and you’re thinking to yourself, “why does rationality seem to be in such short supply?” Uh we’re going to be looking to Steven for answers on that soon.
And then our moderator here tonight is Zachary Karabell. He’s the founder of The Progress Network, also an investor and a prolific author and writer. He also has a bevy of books under his belt, and he has a new one coming out next week, which I think is number 12. It’s called “Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power.” Uh if you’re interested in sustainable capitalism, this might be a book that will interest you. So keep your eye out for that coming out next week. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Zachary. Enjoy, everyone.
Zachary Karabell (ZK): Thank you, Emma. And thank you, Steven and Joan for joining a conversation tonight. And this I guess is the first conversation we’ve had that is purely about ideas, which is interesting, given that this is largely an idea network. But most of the conversations we’ve had to date have been more subject-oriented rather than idea-oriented. And I have to say, I grew up enamored with the idea of a public intellectual who weaves ideas into the warp and woof of society. And you know, as much as I’ve lived some of that life, I’m also a little less enamored of it because it’s become, at least to me ever more unclear what the relationship is between ideas and action, or ideas and how they shape society, except at times, you know, more toxic ideas and how those can shape movements.
The philosopher Karl Popper writes that “the possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say it’s our duty to remain optimists, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do. We are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty not to prophecy evil, but rather to fight for a better world.” What I love about that is his point that the future is not written. We are all of us in the process every day of writing it. If you go too far in the assumption that doom is impending, you inscribe that doom into the future. Which is totally different than identifying problems that are real and tractional in the present—I don’t think Popper or any of us in the Network would say that naming real problems is in any way anything other than essential. The problem is the assumption that those problems are the tip of a downward spiral, and then adding fuel to that spiral.
Popper is saying, if there’s a problem that is manifest, it is our responsibility to, in an idea framework, think about what the constructive pathway is out of that. I wanted to frame that, because in a lot of ways, that’s the point of an idea network of people who are more focused on what do we do with our present and not on the assumption that our present portends a very clear, inalterable, and specific future, and that future is grim and negative.
What exactly do ideas do in an incredibly noisy world, where every idea is jockeying for attention? Do ideas actually change things, and how?
Steven Pinker (SP): It’s intriguing to hear a philosopher of science like Popper talk about ideas as having causal power, because there is a tendency among scientists to think that in traditional history and humanities in general, there are these airy-fairy things like ideas and trends, but if we really want to understand human history, we have to look at measurable things like economic resources, military weaponry strategies, and power. Because how could something as wispy as an idea actually cause human history?
I’m a cognitive psychologist, so I’m in the science that claims to study human ideas and their source. I don’t find it at all mystical that ideas could change history, because ideas are patterns of activity in the brain. We have a means to share them, namely language. Ideas can jump from brain to brain. They can go viral. They can affect an entire society. People act out of their beliefs and their expectations. It is not only eminently possible, but also kind of obvious that a lot of history cannot be predicted by technology, availability of resources, climate, and so on. Things happen. Marxism becomes popular. Abolitionism becomes popular. Christianity becomes popular. I don’t think anyone could have predicted any of that from the climate. But there’s nothing mystical about it when you have cognitive creatures such as ourselves that live by shared norms and values and knowledge.
So there is a scope for ideas to change history, and echoing Popper, the space of conceivable ideas is so, so vast. It’s a combinatorial explosion. You could have one idea that could combine with any of ten other ideas, which in turn could combine with any ten other ideas. The set of ideas out there is literally mind-boggling. By being cognitive creatures that can explore the realm of ideas, of formulas, of recipes, of algorithms, of hypotheses, then the future, if not technically infinite, is for all intents and purposes infinite. There are solutions out there to many of our problems. There’s no guarantee that we’ll blunder our way into solving them, but the more we can direct our search in the space of possible ideas, the likelihood is that we will find such solutions.
ZK: To make the statement that it’s up to each of us to write the future assumes a degree of agency. And we do all have some degree of capacity in whatever sphere, small or large. But I think you’ve experienced, Joan, that not everyone believes that. How does one inculcate that sense of agency?
Joan Blades (JB): I wish I had the answer to that! One of the interesting things about this conversation is the science that says facts don’t convince people. We keep thinking that we’re rational beings—and we are capable of being rational beings—but most people are first and foremost emotional beings, which means our context is much more predictive of our beliefs than individual exploration and understanding, by and large. Whereas we like to think that we go based upon our excellent judgment, in so many cases, it’s the context of your social setting that is going to be most predictive of what you believe and what you do.
Believing that we have agency is essential. There’s a learned helplessness that we’ve all got. It feels so impossible sometimes to make changes when it seems like there are obstacles that are so much bigger than us. But we do have to create our future—I’m a passionate believer that that’s right. Finding the ways to help make it so people own the future and see how critical they are to creating it is why I’ve headed in the direction I’ve headed. As a founder of MoveOn, I’ve seen the political space where each side is trying to overwhelm the other for a couple decades now. It’s a wrecking ball of sorts. If we are going to come to real progress and solutions, we actually have to have everyone’s best ideas in the room. And we have to have the agility that is created when you have a relationship that has some trust and respect, so that you can do more of what’s working and less of what’s not, and not just get in a defensive pose.
ZK: Steven, I want to push you for a minute, because you’ve tried to make a rationalist argument for positive change, and at times I think it has surprised and bothered you the degree to which so many people, as Joan said, react emotionally to the world as opposed to factually. You can give them chapter and verse of all these things, and people will still say, “yeah, well, I don’t feel that.” What do you do about that?
SP: Even Joan, I think, in downplaying the extent to which we deploy rationality, said that people are capable of it, which is a major theme of my next book, Rationality. And they do it all the time in their everyday lives. When the fridge is empty, we don’t think, “Oh, it sucks that I have no food in the fridge. I really hate that. I’m going to wish there to be food.” No—we go out to the grocery store, we buy the food, we bring it back. We put gas in the car when the tank is empty, we clothe the kids, we get them to school on time. We couldn’t do any of those things if we were utterly incapable of rationality, if we just surrendered to our emotions and to wishful thinking and to hoping that the world will be the way we want it to be.
There is a zone in life in which we are completely rational, and that’s how we transformed the planet and had technology and science and medicine and all the rest. The thing is that there are other zones where the whole Enlightenment and scientific revolution hasn’t really sunk in. When it comes to things like deep history, metaphysics, what happens in remote corridors of power and how the microscopic processes work—if we don’t see them with our own eyes, if they don’t affect our day-to-day life, they’re in a zone more of mythology than factual reality, where beliefs are evaluated in terms of how uplifting they are, how energizing they are to your coalition, how much they glorify or demonize the other side.
Until the scientific revolution, we had no way of knowing what happened 10,000 years ago. How atoms work, how bacteria work—no one could find out. And so it didn’t matter, really, what you thought in terms of how you lived your life. But you could have theories that you shared within your tribe that could make your tribe look good, that could embolden them to stand up to its enemies. And I think a lot of that psychology is still with us. So what we have to do is look at the border between the zones in which people are driven by uplifting myths as opposed to empirical facts, and try to push the boundaries, so that more and more of what people already treat rationally is encompassed by that mindset. With highly politicized issues, it is true that people can be completely mule-headed. They can simply ratify what makes their own political party, their own religion look good. But there is a flexibility—when people see a graph, they will often change their mind. When they’re told, “Get into a skeptical mindset, do you think this is really true or not?” they can exercise that kind of skepticism, and it can extend to other beliefs. It doesn’t happen enough, but the capability does exist.
JB: I’m not suggesting for a minute that it doesn’t exist. But facts don’t convince people until you have a connection. If someone I distrust tells me something, it totally passes me by. Persuasion, perversely enough, is much less effective at changing people’s views than really listening and asking some good questions, and developing that connection where you have an exchange where trust and a relationship are built. That’s actually where I was going with that. That’s my quintessential example of the need for having that relationship to be able to make progress, to be an effective actor.
I’m focused on the US political situation. If everybody in DC woke up tomorrow morning with whatever your top issue is—for me, climate change is way out in front—as their top priority, I do not think it would mean that our leadership would be particularly effective. I look at healthcare, where we’ve had affordable high-quality healthcare as a priority for decades. And we’ve got the most expensive healthcare in the world, and it’s not even in the top ten in terms of outcomes. So it’s that combination of creating good human dynamics that allows the facts to then be incredibly effective. But we tend to want to skip that human part and go right to the facts, and then we don’t get anywhere.
SP: I couldn’t agree more with that. Trust is essential in aligning conventional wisdom to our best understanding of the truth. There are studies on people who disagree on politicized issues like climate change and evolution. The people who are what we would consider to be on the right side of the issue really do believe that human activity is warming the planet. But probe their understanding of climate change, and they’re out to lunch. These are our fellow climate change acceptors. The average person will say, “well, it has something to do with the ozone hole, maybe. And maybe if we clean up toxic waste dumps and stop throwing plastic straws in the ocean. . .” They have a general sense of green being good and pollution being bad. The reason that people end up on what I would consider to be the correct side of this issue is because they trust the people who do have the apparatus that vets hypotheses for the best claim of being true. If you trust those people, and you don’t trust the AM talk radio hosts, the celebrities, and so on, then your opinion will tend to align more with the truth, even if you yourself have a shallow comprehension of scientific facts. Which is true of almost everyone.
ZK: Although, this gets to the challenge of for most of history, and certainly most of history when it came to ideas, ideas were things that elites had, that either others were told to embrace or were not really given much voice in the embracing of that. Religion certainly was the grandest set of ideas—this is not a debate about whether or not there’s ultimate spiritual truth in that, I’m just saying religion as articulated as a series of ideas were written down and transmitted in exactly the way Steven talked about. We have been acutely aware, I think in recent years of, you know, ideas that have become destructive, right, or ideas that have turned into global movements that have had, at best, a mixed legacy.
We talk about Marx as a great 19th-century intellectual who happened to be the Marx who also gives birth to a whole series of political movements, some of which, maybe on the more socialist side, have had a constructive legacy, and some of which on the more authoritarian, communist side have had a largely destructive one. But we don’t talk as much today about constructive idea movements, right? And we don’t seem to focus as much on the absence of those constructive idea movements as being potentially limiting. And I wonder if maybe some of it has to do with the democratization part, right? We don’t want to listen to elites—”we” getting all of us; even elites don’t want to listen to each other. What does one do about that? I mean, I think ideas are, you know… Everything we’ve talked about started with a set of ideas. Everybody talks about the Constitution, right? It’s just a set of ideas about how society should organize that was then implemented. It wasn’t implemented, and then an idea, you know, fleshed it out. So I don’t know, I mean, Joan, you’ve been more engaged, I think, in helping people navigate conflict, right, or to some degree now and before. I mean, MoveOn was certainly “how do you turn a passion and an idea and a perspective into a political force,” right?
JB: What was MoveOn? It actually started around a one-sentence petition during the Clinton impeachment scandal with Monica Lewinsky. It was essential that the president move on to pressing issues facing the nation. And you could hate Clinton or love Clinton and agree that the best thing for the country was to do that. At that time, I thought polarization was just terrible. Now that looks relatively good to me. So it was actually, you know, we had thousands of Republicans signing that initial petition. And so that was… Our viral moments have been around things that are pretty unifying and positive, honestly. It was the Clinton impeachment scandal. And then the next was, you know, let the inspections work, asking, you know, trying to avoid the Iraq War. And one of the fascinating things about that, and something that still breaks my heart, is I think that was the largest anti-war movement in the history of the world. Worldwide. And it did not succeed. We have… That’s something I want to figure out.
And I think one of the things, you know, the place I am right now is, I believe we need to be in right relationship with people we disagree with. When we start seeing people as other, “I don’t even want to talk to them,” then that’s a very dark path that you start going down. Bad things happen on that path. And finding ways to create more nuance and understanding, I think, is the first step. And so, honestly, I’m very happy if people talk about anything.
We have a technology and relationships conversation, where the big difference there is age. And I am, you know… We have intergenerational conversations, we have political conversations, we have race and ethnicity conversations, and wherever people are ready. We have a conversation on money and values—you have a book coming out, and it’s a great place to allow people to be intentional and get in touch with what are their deeper values around whatever… We have over a hundred topic guides, all of them reviewed by diverse people so that there’ll be as welcoming across the political or other spectrums as possible.
ZK: Yeah. It’s interesting, Steven, what Joan says about what she’s trying to do, create these sort of forums for ideas, right? Which, in many ways, should be, at least in theory, one of the places where that exists is in higher education. We had a forum a month ago on the nature of higher education today. Do you feel those conversations are still at home in academia, you know, where people have genuinely heated, presumably non-agreements about those things? About privacy and technology, ethnicity and race and the role of that, all the things you’ve just described, Joan, right? These are not kumbaya discussions. These are people grappling with difference.
JB: Though some are kumbaya discussions. I’m good with those, too.
ZK: Right. Well, you could also have a kumbaya discussion of difference. But is the university… Do ideas still have a home in the university?
SP: In a lot of topics, yes. In some, absolutely not. There are some issues that are just not discussable in the university, and for that matter in our mainstream journalistic outlets. And I think I think we know what they are, and perhaps a sign of how taboo many of them are is that I’m skittish about mentioning them, because mentioning them can be tantamount to endorsing a position in them. But you, Zachary, mentioned one in passing which I won’t repeat, but those of you who have sufficient radar picked it up.
But Joan’s suggestion that if we open up forums to honest exploration of ideas, and one hopes that they go in a constructive direction. And it raises the issue of, is there any kind of directionality to the world of ideas themselves, such that if disagreements are aired, if hypotheses can be tested, then, in the long run, the truth will win out, or at least we’ll approach the truth, even though we’ll never get there or never realize we get there.
But our ideas will get better and better. And In some ways, such as science, that is clearly true. We really do understand how life works and how matter works better than our our ancestors. When it comes to political change and societal change, there it’s a tougher question to answer. One could say that there are certain ideas that, once they’re opened up, they will tend to move in a certain direction; they have a kind of momentum. So for example, the philosopher Peter Singer, in his book “The Expanding Circle” suggests that there is… As long as ideas can be aired, shared, and discussed, there’ll be an expansion in the circle of concern, of empathy, of sympathy, that a process was set in motion as soon as the philosophers of the Greek city-states said, “well, we should be nice, not just to our fellow Athenians, but to all Greeks,” well then, why not, you know, all Europeans? And then, you know, why not all Caucasians, and then why not all human beings, and then why not women as well as men, why not gay as well as straight, why not sentient creatures other than humans? And there is a kind of self-inflating property to that kind of idea.
There may be others that we’re in the midst of. We’re seeing drugs being decriminalized. There are movements to decriminalize sex work, and the change in our laws from criminalizing consensual activity, because they violate some intuition of purity or normality, may be another case where the ideas will take on a life of their own. The expansion of rights to transgender people, just in the last few years, as a kind of natural extension of the extension of rights to gay people. It’s not at all clear that, in other realms, that ideas will have their own directionality.
And I’ve had a friendly disagreement with political scientist John Mueller over trends that both of us have recognized: the decline of war, and the spread of democracy. I have cited a literature that tries to look for antecedents to those trends. What is it that made war, the lethality of wars decline? What made democracy spread? And there are political scientists who will feed variables into equations to, say, see if, for example, affluent countries are more likely to become democratic, or better educated people, people with a longer, more ethnically homogeneous, in the case of war, does interstate commerce facilitate peace and disincentivize war, do democracies… Are democracies less likely to go to war? I’ve cited this literature. And John says you know, the main cause of war becoming less popular is that the idea of war went out of style.
Likewise, the reason that democracy spread was people started to think that democracies were a good idea. And I said, well, isn’t that just saying war became less popular because people dislike the idea of war? Isn’t that kind of unsatisfying as a cause and effect explanation? And he said, yeah, that is, that’s kind of what I’m saying. And I said, well, do we expect, like, war to make a comeback? And he said, well, do you expect the [inaudible] to make a comeback? I think at least on some days he’s willing to push the idea, or the better idea, that ideas are like fashions. They come into vogue, they go out of vogue. There may not be much rhyme or reason. We can do what we want to stop kids from wearing their baseball caps with the brim in the back, or to stop getting them tattooed. But resistance is futile, and changes just happen by an internal dynamic.
And I’m not sure if he believes that thesis of history in that strong of form, but it is something that we have to contend with. We do know that there are some changes in, we call them fashion or style, that really are unpredictable. They’re literally viral. There’s no algorithm for having a viral TikTok video or a viral meme. Some people are lucky, maybe they had what it takes, but we can only identify it after it’s taken place. Let’s hope that it is not that arbitrary and that there are certain kinds of directionalities to ideas that we can then encourage by providing, by making the reasons for them clearer.
ZK: Joan, in response to something like that, you’ve created these Living Room Conversations with the goal of… Explain it. Like, “the goal of bringing people together to talk about these things is…” What?
JB: Is to build skills for having good, healthy conflict, you know, good listening skills—the power of listening is remarkable and easy to forget. To have relationships with people that they might not otherwise, so that they do expand their circle of care. And the conversations are designed to be massively reproducible so that, you know, 10,000 people could choose to host Living Room Conversations in a weekend because, you know, the goal is ultimately to be a society where we have norms of valuing each other and finding ways to live with each other in the most productive and, you know, good-future-looking way possible. That’s the dream.
ZK: Well, that’s kind of hard to argue with.
JB: Yeah. I think so.
ZK: I mean, I guess we could. I mean, otherwise it’s like, Steven and Joan, will be be getting into, like, fist fights over their disagreements about the reasons for the decline of war. But are there ideas… I don’t want to, like, you know, unnecessarily plunge into whatever hot-button stuff, but I mean, are there ideas that shouldn’t be discussed? I mean, yes, like, you probably shouldn’t discuss whether the Holocaust was a good thing or a bad thing, right? That is probably not a discussion that has a fruitful outcome.
JB: It’s unlikely that people of goodwill would be attracted to that conversation.
ZK: Right. The problem is, once you get out of the few things that we can all kind of go, “yeah, that’s right.” You know, there’s not a one hand on the other hand on that particular set of issues. Where the lines of like acceptable ideas and unacceptable ideas gets drawn end up being part of the reason why people can’t have these conversations in the first place, right? Because people draw those lines very differently. I mean, it’s very hard for a set of evolutionists and a set of, you know… A set of creationists and a set of evolutionary scientists to get into a room together and have a…
JB: This is a one step at a time kind of experience. We now have conversation pathways. We actually have a conversation called Encountering Controversial Ideas in Higher Education, which is because there is this question of what’s appropriate. And it’s not for anyone to say, “this is what’s appropriate.” It’s for people to reflect on what their own values are and hear other people’s values and start to get what the opportunities and what the dynamics are that cause us to have challenges in this area. So it’s not the destination, but it’s…
ZK: It’s interesting about what’s acceptable and what’s not: So, if you think about only once a large loss of society became more secular was it easier to have what we would now call interfaith dialogues, where different faiths could sit down and go “look, I don’t agree that, you know, the Koran is this, and I don’t necessarily agree that the Bible’s that or the Upanishads are this.” And there’ve been incredibly fruitful, interfaith dialogues over the past 50, 60 years by religious leaders of faiths that are, at least in theory, kind of inimical to one another. I mean, if you’re saying “I have the only truth,” and you’re saying, “I have the only truth,” that’s why you have wars of religion. Because there’s not a lot of good there. Once the war part was taken out of the equation, people started having really, really interesting conversations.
In our worlds today, that same intensity is reserved for some cultural issues and a lot of political ones. And Steven, you’ve tried to basically say we can all have heated debates over you know, politics and life and what we think, but we shouldn’t be having heated debates over facts, right? So if you’re telling me that everything has gotten worse in the following way, and I can show you factually that it hasn’t, that should be a starting ground. But what about people who say, “I don’t believe that.”
SP: Well, if that’s what they say, then I can do my best to persuade them with facts, and they would have every right to question the facts, the reliability of the data their scope. The problem is more if they say you are a fascist or you are evil for saying that, and I’m going to fire you for saying that—that is really where the problem comes.
ZK: So, let me try to push a little further on this. I live in New York right now, and over the past six months, there’s been an increasing kind of tension between those who perceive the reality of the city right now, where there are in fact more shootings, there’s a rise in gun violence. But if you show someone a statistic put out by the New York City Police Department, breaking it down by every known crime—I’m not saying this is fun reading; I’m just saying, if you do this—and you look at 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, 2015, 2020 you know, we’re kind of back to about 2015, just in terms of statistical realities of these things. And it’s like so far beyond the levels that were true in 1990, meaning there’s like so much less crime. And this would be true in the Bay area relative to, you know, the mean streets of San Francisco, it would be true in Boston and the Combat Zone. But if you tell people that, who are convinced now that New York has become a, you know, you’re like tripping over homeless people at every corner, and you’re going to get shot if you go to Times Square, it’s like all the stats in the world don’t seem to penetrate a widely held perception. I don’t know if they would in a Living Room Conversation. But what does one do about that?
SP: Well, yeah, I think it is a vital issue because there was a I think a failure to acknowledge the huge burst of violent crime in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, which only began to turn around in the nineties. There’s another faction has not really acknowledged the Great American Crime Decline in the 1990s. And then another droop after 2006, 2007, or for that matter, the fact that there’s been a pretty noticeable uptick in the past year. In the year 2020, rates of violent crime increased by 25 to 30% in a number of cities. You’re right. That doesn’t bring us back up to 1992, from which crime declined 50 to 75%. So it hasn’t completely done a U-turn, but it has done a partial U-turn in the past year. And that’s an uncomfortable fact that a lot of people would rather not know about.
So what do we do about people being whipsawed by having their conventional wisdom upset by data nerds who say “you’re worried about increasing crime, but it’s gone down,” or “you’re complacent about crime, but it’s gone up”? I personally think that journalism should be more aware of the way that they systematically spread disinformation by the reporting of vivid stories and anecdotes tying into what cognitive psychologists call the availability bias. Namely, if there is a vivid example that you could readily call to mind, you think it’s everywhere. That’s our shortcut to judging frequency. And of course, it works in everyday life in a lot of day-to-day context. It doesn’t work when you’ve got the machine, mainly journalism, that gives a highly non-random sample of the most dramatic, the most violent, the most colorful events of the day. Now, in order to have more of a culture that is rooted in actual trends, developments, both positive and negative, when they occur, I would like to see journalism take a leaf out of the page of the sports section, or the weather section, or the business section, and have a continually updated dashboard of major indicators of the world.
What is the crime rate this year? When you report a crime, like a school shooting, a police shooting, a terrorist attack, why not show a graph of the trends in homicide over the last 10, 20, 30 years? Why not indicate the relative risk of dying from various causes, and continually update it? Why don’t we have a continually updated graph on greenhouse gas emissions, on violence against women, on violence against children, instead of a particular event where one child was kidnapped, or one child was beaten. And I know a lot of journalists say, “Oh, well, people… You’ll never sell papers that way. You’ll never get eyeballs and clicks. People hate numbers. They want pictures, they want stories.” But you know, the sports section does fine with numbers, with tables every single day chock full of numbers. The business pages do. The weather section does. It would be far more responsible if the mission of journalism was much more rooted in data and trends, and the events of the day were put into context of those overall patterns.
ZK: So, if I am… If you’re moderating a discussion, Joan, where… So taking my contemporary… And this is not just true of New York, it’s true of a whole bunch of places, and it’s true on the flip side of “everybody’s moving to Miami,” right? That’s like, just, “everybody’s moving to Miami.” And if you were to sit in a room with people, going, you know, “everybody’s moving to Miami and Austin,” and you had someone living there going, “actually, that’s not my experience that everyone’s moving there; there are a few people moving there.” Or crime, and you know, that urban areas after the pandemic that were really rigidly shut down, like New York or San Francisco or Boston, are crime ridden, you know, homeless laden, drug abuse like every two blocks you have to duck for cover. If two people came into one of the conversations that you’re trying to create those tools for and had very night and day experiences of the same lived reality, how do you help them bridge that? I mean, I can listen to it. I can hear the other perspective.
JB: A Living Room Conversation is a very structured conversation. It’s not free-form and it’s not facilitated. The facilitation is the structure. So, you know, we have a guns and responsibility Living Room Conversation, and you’ll notice it’s not gun control, it’s not gun safety; it’s guns and responsibility, which fits a broader audience. And we’ve had people with radically different experiences sit down and have that conversation. The questions they’re asked, as soon as we get into the data points, people go into their political trance, and, you know, when’s the last time anyone’s persuaded someone that has a really different viewpoint than them. It’s not something I hear about, honestly. But what happens when people listen to each other’s stories and talk about, you know, “what’s been your experience with guns, how did you first learn about them,” is they start to gain a feeling for where other people are coming from. And it’s a time to just listen to different viewpoints. And then the close is reflection on what you’ve listened to and next steps. And it’s not about solving a problem. It’s not about persuasion. It’s about starting to build that connection, understanding nuance, because anything that’s significant, in terms of our differences, isn’t going to get taken care of in a single conversation. I mean, it’s about us becoming more… Owning our own piece of the puzzle.
SP: Joan, can I ask you a question? In these structured conversations, assuming that there’s a facilitator or a mediator, do they say… There isn’t? Okay. But at what point can someone say “let’s go to Wikipedia,” or “let’s go to Our World in Data,” so that if someone says, “well, my aunt was killed by an illegal immigrant who ran her over on a street corner, so we’ve really got to keep these Mexicans out of the country,” and they could give a heart-rending story about how awful it is to have your aunt killed by an illegal immigrant. And perhaps that would persuade people, yes, we’ve gotta build the wall. We don’t really want that to happen.
JB: It’s not going there. That’s not the… I mean, the containers… There’s a structure that’s about listening to people’s personal stories and not to data. After the conversation, people can go to data, they can go to free-form conversation. We had a conversation… I was part of a conversation in Utah a number of years ago about climate, and the conversation went till nine, and then people had to be kicked out at 11 because they hadn’t had the chance to talk across the differences they were exposed to in that conversation. But the conversation itself created that first part of the connection. And then people are able to carry it on in whatever way it makes sense for them. Then you go to that.
SP: Can I kind of press you on that? Because it seems to be that individual conversations and individual lived experience can actually be a rather misleading way to make the kind of collective decisions that we have to make in a democracy. You know, if someone were to say, “well, my cousin got inoculated but he caught COVID anyway, and I’ve gone out without a mask at night, look at me, I’m fine.” You could delve into people’s lived experiences and come up with a highly misleading set of opinions on policy if you’re swayed by the emotions of one guy who has undergone one event. How do you prevent that from happening from it just being…
JB: It’s not a decision-making process. It doesn’t pretend to be. We have faith communities, libraries, bookstores having… Many of them do the conversations monthly. And so it’s about building a, you know, a deepening experience of connecting with people that have very different views and starting to understand how people are seeing things. And people almost never totally change their viewpoint. You know, we had the immigration conversation and it was just what we needed to see afterwards. It wasn’t that people had changed how they saw what was going on with immigration all together, but they started to see each other’s viewpoint and have some appreciation for it. I mean, this is one step at a time. We’re not going to solve big problems in a single 60- or 90-minute conversation. We’re going to start having the connections. And then you may go to a facilitated process, where you do bring in data, or you bring together a citizens jury. This is, you know, inviting some missing voices, starting to get curious, nurturing the growth of trust and connection and nuance. And then it, it goes where it needs to go from their Living Room Conversations are not the destination, but a really rich place to start.
ZK: And I think this is, I mean, you know, part of what you’re doing is so vital because so much of the world that we are in is very specific outcome oriented, and not process oriented. And if you’ve got the wrong process, it’s hard to get to the right outcome, which scientists know all the time, right? But we don’t think about that in terms of how do we sort of collectively problem solve or how do we translate ideas and opposition into some degree of cohesion because we’re so focused on the outcome. And so we’ve kind of, we’ve under-invested in process, as it were, educationally, collectively, individually.
So there were a whole bunch of questions, although frankly, a lot of them we have dealt with, from the Q&A from the audience, about, you know, what do you do about facts? What do you do about people trusting sources? You know, that’s a whole… We’ve touched on that. I want to ask you both one question, then take a couple of these questions specifically. Actually, what I’ll do is I will ask you that question as an end thing. One question, which is, I think for both of you, is, it’s phrased by the questioner as “what does the average person do to try to contribute to this kind of arc of progress or constructiveness?” I suppose one thing would be to join the Living Room Conversation. But in addition to that, you know, what do you both think about… Not everyone’s in the, you know, in the idea business, so I think the question is more, you know, what can one do if one is not doing that professionally? Thoughts, either of you?
SP: Yeah. I would like to see a… We all have certain norms that proliferate through a society that are are not terribly controllable from the top down, but happen and often in a benevolent direction. When I was a teenager, ethnic jokes were quite popular, including on broadcast television “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” would have recurring jokes that made fun of how stupid Polish Americans were. That would be, you know, really thinkable today. No one legislated it, but if did happen in terms of just what a decent person does or says in public.
Ideally you’d have those kinds of norms—value, active open-mindedness, being willing to listen to opinions that you disagree with, being willing to go to the data to settle disputes—as opposed to kind of war of all against all, prosecuting the argument that is most likely to get your side to win as a kind of norm of ordinary conversation. How to do that is a question like “how do we get people to get tattoos or to stop getting tattoos?” There’s a certain amount of grassroots proliferation that we can’t control, but each of us can do our part by a little bit of a nudge in that direction.
ZK: Joan, you’ve answered some of that in terms of learning to engage.
JB: The work I’m doing right now is all about trying to create new societal norms. You know, honoring the divinity of everyone is what I’ve learned from my faith communities. I think of it more as human dignity, respect, and how to have healthy conflict. So yeah, I’m very much at the relationship process point, and I believe that the solutions, sometimes they appear in a conversation, but often it’s just the entry point to being ready to go and start work on solutions in a way that might actually work, as opposed to, right now, I think we’re doing a very poor job of creating solutions because we haven’t done this work of being deeply committed to each other on some level, even when we disagree.
ZK: So I’m going to ask you both the $64,000 end question. Is a belief in the idea of progress a necessary prerequisite to the reality of progress? And progress, you know, defined, I think, as we would all try to define it, which is in whatever definitional sense that tomorrow shows material, spiritual, individual movement in a positive sense over today, you know, collectively, individually, globally, you name it. But I guess it’s an interesting question. There was a long period of time in the 19th century where most people believed that progress was this inchoate thing that we were creating. I think increasingly fewer people believe that today, at least certainly in the Western world, certainly in the United States. Is that belief a necessary prerequisite to progress, or can progress happen even under conditions of great kind of conflict and contention and maybe even some degree of despair?
SP: Well, it’s been said that optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy and pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So certainly if you think that it’s futile to improve conditions, if the system is just so corrupt decadent that it’s due to collapse, and we may as well give it a push because anything that rises out of the bubble is better than what we have now, then you probably won’t attempt to find solutions and to persuade people that they’re valuable and to implement them. They’ll be more likely to want to smash the machine or just eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Let’s just have a good time because there’s nothing we can do to forestall disaster.
On the other hand, the 19th-century idea that progress is a thing, is the natural way, could not be more wrong. There’s no force in the universe that just carries us ever upward, that makes things better and better. Quite the contrary, the laws of the universe to grind us down. And here I’ve been influenced by David Deutsch, who you referenced at the beginning of our conversation, who said that unless a state of affairs is ruled out by the laws of physics, it is attainable, given the right knowledge. It doesn’t happen by itself. Problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and solutions create new problems, which then must be solved in their turn. If we have that kind of mindset, yeah, there are unquestionably problems. And if we don’t identify them, we won’t know what to solve. We won’t know when we’ve solved them. So we do have to be completely cognizant of injustice and suffering and disaster wherever they occur, under the banner that we look for solutions. But we have to realize that solutions exist. And it’s a question of finding them to give us the energy and the [inaudible]…
JB: Optimism is my preference by far. And there’s always going to be a mix of it out there. And the more we can be bending towards the optimism, I think it leads towards more progress. But we do have some dynamics in our media right now that push towards fear, anger, and anxiety. And that’s why we have to start owning our media and owning our way of being in the world, because that’s the part we do have control of. And so it starts with us. And optimism is by far and away, a lot more fun.
ZK: And there’s an element of it that I’ve also felt where—and you know, giving a nod again to Deutsch—but that optimism is also inherently somewhat more humble because it allows for the openness of future outcomes. And pessimism doesn’t. Pessimism has a certitude to it. And, kind of back to Steven’s point, in a world being shaped by humans and not by some master plan of design, so that progress is like this ineluctable force pushing us forward willy-nilly the humbleness about future outcomes and the knowledge that, you know, everything we do now is part and parcel of what that will be I think is also radically important in a world where, you know, it’s too easy, just in a media and political culture to rise above the noise and the fray by table-thumping one’s inherent rightness, which is the opposite of humbleness.
So as much as I celebrate everything, you know, that this collective that I’m trying to assemble is doing, it’s all very much in the spirit of, none of us really know. And none of us have a sole access to the Truth, capital T. And I do think optimism is a… At best, it reflects the unfolding, as opposed to, “I know what is, and I know what will be.” And there’s very little give in the latter. And I hope that there’s a lot of give in the former.
We are at our time. I’ve tried to address as many of the questions, again, a lot of the questions, the conversation actually flowed very nicely into our conversation. I recognize this was an amorphous conversation, which is probably totally appropriate given the amorphous nature of ideas, which are, you know, they’re like pebbles on a pond: you throw them in, the ripples, go out, you don’t know when they’re going to hit the hither shore, but you know for certain that they will. And that’s the best one can hope from good ideas, and you are both exemplary propagators of wonderful ideas and great processes. And thank you for joining The Progress Network. And thank you for joining me tonight. And thank you as always to Emma Varvaloucas for leading all of this.
JB: Thank you so much for having us.
ZK: And this will all be up on YouTube, of course, and in short order. So, Emma, shall you bring us to a close?
EV: Thanks, everyone, for joining us. And as Zachary mentioned, the recordings going to be up on YouTube and our website. If you haven’t unsubscribed to our mailing list, you’re going to get an email when that recording is out. So, thanks, everyone. Stay safe.
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