Maybe We Need Connection — A Post Too Far?

My post, “Maybe We Need Taxes — A Bridge Too Far,” incited a lot of comment and a lot of emotions, in readers and in me.

What’s most striking about all of this is the anger — in my post and in many responses. And most heartening were the rare moments when a few of us left the anger behind and actually listened to one another. 

So the communications lesson here, if I can learn it (again and again), might be — don’t say things in a way that only those who agree with you can hear. If I want to preach beyond the choir, I gotta stop preaching. And of course it’s a balancing act — I want to have the courage to say things that others won’t like. To say things that are challenging and thought-provoking without being cheap shots for effect is probably the answer. The irony is that my recent post, “Have You Forgotten?”, was about seeing things from another person’s point of view. Hard to do.

So, Ryan Evans, Arclightzero, if you’re still reading our blog — wanna have lunch? We’d disagree and maybe anger each other, but it might be fun. To get to know someone who sees the world quite differently. And to find the places where we see things a bit the same. And to touch that place again where we listened.

I’ve questioned over the last two days whether it was right to post my views so quickly, a few hours after the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi. Some of our regular readers also said it was too soon to inject politics into the tragedy, that we should take time to grieve and feel what happened, and give some space to the victims and their families. This blogging thing is intoxicating — you can say your say, hit the “publish” button, and get a rush. I felt deeply that the event illustrated a larger problem, and felt the need to raise the issue. And I think it was OK, actually, to go to the larger context while the horror was still in the air. The horror could prompt us to think.

I said the bridge collapse may be an illustration of too many years of “no new taxes,” not collecting or spending enough money to maintain a state and a country that work. I got a ton of criticism, in two themes: that I was heartless and lacking in human decency to use this calamity to push my political view, especially while bodies were still in the river; and on the political view itself, that it was typical liberal tripe, thinking that big government and more taxes are the answer to everything.

I admit I was stung by the criticism that I was heartless, and depressed by the vitriol in the criticism. I liked that people where chiming in on our blog with rowdily dissenting views, though, and I really liked reading much of what the critics said — much of it was clever, and a great deal of it was passionate.

The most touching part of all this was when my wife, Lisa DJ on the blog, asked the conservatives what they were so angry about. One poster, Arclightzero, responded to her in much calmer language, and some civil discourse actually happened. I responded on Arclightzero’s blog to some of the criticism, and he and I said some calm and humane things to one another. I felt a connection then with Ryan Evans (in later posts he, Arclightzero, signed his name, and that helped). I actually read and thought carefully about his and other critics’ posts and positions; and Ryan may have done the same — he certainly heard me when I talked about the tone, the anger and hate, of the posts. And both of our tones changed.

We stood down the anger, each of us, and, for a few minutes, heard one another. And it was far more satisfying than when we were just blasting our viewpoints at one another.

Ryan’s blog is “A [Sometimes] Logical View of the Illogical.” I’ve been reading it these past two days. I don’t like a lot of it, don’t agree with much of it, but I kind of like reading it.

A couple conservative sites along with Arclightzero’s picked up what I wrote, and roundly criticized it. There were some great points made — the underlying infrastructure problem may not be not enough tax money for maintenance, but just bad management of the bridges and the available money. Maybe not enough inspections, maybe bad decisions. Many people said the money spent on mass transit should instead be spent on maintaining roads and bridges. I disagree, and believe mass transit is essential to a fair society that I believe should be using less energy, but that’s just my view. I think I’m right, but the blogger critics think I’m dead wrong.

There was some real heat on these sites. One person said I should be beaten to a bloody pulp. Another said people like me should be taken to an underground bunker and have the crap scared out of us with a mock interrogation. Yikes. But, I’ve said some pretty creepy things about Richard Nixon in my day, for example — “he should be ground up and fed to dogs” was one I used, no doubt, too often.

Where’s the anger come from, Lisa DJ asked Ryan Evans. And I’ll ask myself where mine comes from. I want things to work in this country, and the world. I want everyone to have a fair chance. I’m angry at wealthy people and companies that dodge taxes. Yes there’s waste, and money isn’t always the answer, but we should all pay our fair share for the common good. Katrina hammered me — it showed how many people we’re leaving behind. I see so many things going wrong. But in my anger I have to realize that I don’t always have the right ideas on how to help create a fair-chance country.

In a book called “Difficult Conservations“, smart people from the Harvard Negotiating Project talk about how each person has a story — on how taxes should be raised and spent, for example, or on why there’s conflict in a marriage or at work. And if all I do is keep telling my story and loudly trying to convince the other person that I’m right, I don’t have much of a chance. But if I listen to the other person’s story — like mine, neither right nor wrong but just how he or she sees things — there might be a chance we can find some common ground.

Lunch, Ryan?

Bruce Benidt

16 thoughts on “Maybe We Need Connection — A Post Too Far?

  1. Bruce, you’ve run into the divide that inspired me to start blogging back in 2004. Ever since, I’ve been trying to broach it, with limited success. The blogosphere is really an inhospitable place for the kind of dialogue you’re seeking; you’re right to try working face to face.

    I’ve developed some ideas for how to get beyond the anger to more meaningful exchanges online. But it will involve a lot of work, especially if we hope to make compelling blog content out of the process. Frankly, it’s going to take people on both sides of the divide who are more interested in finding some common ground than in scoring political points. It’ll take trust.

    If Ryan or someone else is game, let’s not allow the opportunity to pass.

  2. Is there any argument in the world that a Diet Coke and cheeseburger can’t fix? Look, the thing is, blogs serve as a portal to share viewpoints. That means some will agree and some won’t. You can take the attitude of “screw those who are so blind that they refuse to see my side of things,” or you can do what Bruce so aptly attempts to do – understand, discuss, and provide a willingness to hear out the voices of those who, ultimately want the same basic thing from the world – peace, fairness, and an engaged, educated and savvy citizenry. It may not start here, folks, but it can further itself at The Same Rowdy Crowd.

  3. Kelly Groehler says:

    Applied social science – this is why I continue to enjoy visiting and engaging with others here. Thank you, Ryan, Bruce, and everyone.

  4. Bruce, I am with you on this one. I think that we both really made the other stop and think hard about things, and while we certainly didn’t change one another’s mind, I don’t think that was the goal. As far as I am concerned, the greatest accomplishment was that we could take polarizing views yet meet in the middle to “agree to disagree” so to speak, which I think is actually a far more noble goal than changing one another’s minds.

    Thank you for the offer, and I would certainly enjoy catching some lunch and conversation. I think it would be interesting to be able to put keyboards and monitors behind us and simply be frank.

  5. micky2 says:

    “Another said people like me should be taken to an underground bunker and have the crap scared out of us with a mock interrogation.”

    It was yours truly who said that. And I was refering to people who claim to have knowledge of certain individuals whereabouts { Bin Laden}
    or conspiracy freaks that spread untruths.

    I still think you could of waited a day or two before placing blame with only an assumption, now that I think about it , do you know something that no one else knows ?
    At least you didnt blame it on the war

  6. Micky2, of course I don’t have knowledge that no one else has on this (and I love the posts from the iron worker on the original “Bridge Too Far” piece — wouldn’t it be great if the reporters went to ironworkers, who do have knowledge, to help us learn about what keeps bridges up).
    I hear you on the rush to judgment. And I guess I was placing blame, not just raising a question. Better to be truly raising questions and not jamming assumptions in.
    What we’ve learned since about an inspection report that the state sent back for more options does raise the issue of funding playing too big a role in judging safety. That will continue to be explored, and rightly so. Let’s get real knowledge out there.

  7. micky2 says:

    I hear you and Ryan will have lunch today, I wish you both luck in understanding each other better.
    Dont mind me half the time, I use synical and sometimes scary humor to vent.
    I am all for folks meeting in the middle, if not on my side, heh heh.

  8. EMM says:

    I’ve been without internet access..my choice..for the past five days. How interesting to get back to “the real world” and read this post.

    From a new perspective, some thoughts:

    Bruce, the fundamental communication problem you may have made in your first posting (Aug. 1 speculation about ‘no new taxes funding being somehow partially responsible for the I-35 bridge collapse) was this: when the facts are not in, when emotions are raw, when lives are lost, when loved ones are injured and others in peril, SAY NOTHING.

    This advice should be followed not only by bloggers, of course, but by professors such as myself who love to hear themselves talk. THAT’S the fundamental danger of blogging and IM’ing..it’s so tempting to shoot your opinions into cyberspace with little or no time for reflection, culling, tempering.

    ALSO, TO CORPORATE AND AGENCY P.R. PEOPLE: the same advice applies to you. I’m not advocating a heartless “no comment” response that legal may legitimately ask you to adopt in the first 24 hours following an emergency for liability reasons. I’m advocating you, also, “knowing” what YOU’RE talking about before you issue a statement to the media..and immediately correcting any misstatements of fact when they become known to and by you.
    Telling a reporter you can’t answer that question now, but you’ll get back to her when you can, is an OK thing to do..and better serves the “truth.”

    SECOND: Blogging still does NOT equal true communication. For example, Bruce, the iron worker on the original “Bridge Too Far” you refer to IS mickey2. We need to read carefully and deliberately on these blogs..and that’s hard to do when your mind is screaming, “This chick’s an idiot!” Cognitive dissonance.

    THIRD: to mickey2 I just want to say this: My two grandfathers, my father, my uncle and now my brother-in-law were/are miners on the Iron Range in Minnesota; another brother-in-law is a top-flight construction worker and manager. So, I appreciate how hard you’ve worked in your life. The rest of us have a tendency to sit on our kiesters in air-conditioned offices and sometimes say too much, too frequently.

    This disaster also reminds me of the incredible pride I felt after 9-11-2001 when I watched police, fire, EMT and steelworkers..men and women..who had come from all over the nation as they risked their own lives to scurry over and through still-smoking debris 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 8 months. THAT was America at her greatest.

    Ellen Mrja

  9. Bruce & Ryan, and others,

    I was on the phone this afternoon with a client, creating tools to help people have difficult conversations, and he mentioned that our book, “Difficult Conversations,” was referenced in “this terrific blog.”

    “Have a minute?” he asked. “Check it out.”

    I did. And I sit here now admiring the courage and the time you guys are taking to have a conversation that might actually result in understanding and problem-solving, rather than fist shaking at others and patting ourselves on the back for our point-scoring or cleverness.

    One great virtue of the blogosphere is the opportunity to connect over issues that we all care about. One great challenge is that the setup encourages all of us to “preach to the choir” (as you aptly put it) rather than actually engage with any individual who might have a different view, and think about something you hadn’t considered, or see their story for the sense it makes, rather than the attacks you can mount.

    And these days, when public issues are so critically important, and emotions and views about them so heated, this dynamic polarizes us. I often feel discouraged listening (or reading) because we end up sounding like we disagree more than we actually do when we actually get down to really understanding where we differ and why.

    I’m a Democrat. I’m married to a Republican. We both teach negotiation and difficult conversations for a living. And we have the “opportunity” to try to walk our talk every night at the dinner table, whether it’s over Iraq, Bush, taxes, the presidential race, or the bridge. Much of the time I can follow my own advice. Sometimes I totally screw it up. But making things better means being able to come back to own up to that, and once again say, “tell me more about why you’re upset….” just like your wife did so skillfully when it was hardest to do.

    My 100 year old grandmother still lives in the house my dad grew up in in north Minneapolis. I was there this past week when the bridge fell. A friend of our extended family is one of the missing. We sit in Boston and grieve with you for both the families affected, and for the way that public discourse these days makes actually addressing our most important problems so difficult.

    Thanks for being on the front lines of trying to change that. It will happen one conversation at a time.

    Sheila Heen
    Co-author, “Difficult Conversations”

  10. micky2 says:

    Thanks EMM, We all like being appreciated.
    But what also should be appreciated is people like you that can stop for a minute and make sense.

  11. Ellen M. says:

    No thanks necessary at all, mickey2. But I have to make certain I get this on the record: my friend Bruce and his wife Lisa are two of the greatest people I’ve ever met, with hearts as wide as a Montana sky.

    Sheila: It doesn’t surprise me at all that Lisa recommended your book. She’s been a true source of healing for many people for years.

    All the best, to us all…

    Ellen

  12. bbenidt says:

    Shiela, thanks for your smart words, in the book and on this blog. Ryan and I are meeting for lunch today. Re-reading your post gives me an approach — rather than listening for opportunities to score points or mount attacks, he and I can maybe understand not just where we differ but why. Why do you feel that way? as an actual question, not just a launching pad for explaining why the other person is wrong, can lead to understanding, to underlying feelings and values, and maybe to some common ground.

    And Ellen, also very smart words. I’d suggest a revision to your advice — “Say only what you know.” As reporters we learned to write only what we know to be true. “Someone shot John,” a witness might say. We couldn’t write “John was shot,” because it might not be true. What’s true is that a witness said John was shot. So PR people — and bloggers — should say only what they know to be true, and, as you say, freely use “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when we find out.” “We don’t know what has caused this accident. We do know we have started an internal investigation, and the sheriff has also started an investigation. And we do know we’re putting together a central location where families can come to get what information we do have and to get some counseling if they’d like.”

    On the blog, I could have written right off the bat about my own fears and anger when the bridge fell. “I’m afraid our priorities are wrong, that we’re not spending our tax money in the right places, and that we’re endangering ourselves and our neighbors.” Different tone, less self-righteous, maybe more inviting to people with different views but with similar fears and hopes.

  13. jloveland says:

    The rub is that a civil blog is generally a boring blog. The hyperbolic, black-and-white language used on the most polarizing blogs is more entertaining than NPR-speak. If we strive to be a civil blog, we will achieve even greater obscurity than we have to date.

  14. Civil is most certainly boring, that’s for sure 🙂 But being fiery and outspoken must be tempered with the ability to listen as much as you speak and being able to deal rationally with dissenting opinion. Get that down and you’ve got it made. Stray too far and you become Daily Kos. Stray too much the other way and you become boring and obscure.

    With that said, Bruce and I had a phenomenal lunch. I will let him post on it as he sees fit, as I will do the same after I’ve fully digested it, but all in all it went great. Except for the fist fight… Just kidding.

    Seriously though, if we can get past this polarized left vs. right thing and realize that we can disagree while realizing we may actually agree with the fundamentals of the issues, perhaps we can actually make some progress.

  15. “The rub is that a civil blog is generally a boring blog.”

    Jloveland,

    With all due respect, this is just rubbish.
    Personal attacks, name calling, pointless arguements are the true bore.
    What makes a blog ultimatly interesting is when an understanding, compromise or solution comes about. As opposed to a uncivil blog being entertaining, my best blogs are where I have made friends.
    I mostly like to run around and chop up what I think is wrong or stupid, and it can be fun without being uncivil. Sometimes it gets intimidating, but I always try to maintain civility, if I slip, I apologize.

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