A major theme in the Framing Challenge at the 2008 NCDD conference was the need to understand the specific concerns of conservatives.
The public engagement field and related fields struggle with the fact that many more progressives than conservatives are attracted to this work. The vast majority of practitioners are politically progressive, and it is typically more challenging to recruit people with more traditional or conservative views to participate in dialogue and deliberation programs.
During the conservative panel sub-plenary on the second day of the conference, panelists Joseph McCormick, Grover Norquist, Michael Ostrolenk and Pete Peterson mentioned several words that can turn conservative communities away from public engagement: grassroots, organizing (“I don’t want anyone to organize me”), consciousness and enlightenment (“something you have and I don’t?”).
In their workshop, Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events: Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives, Jacob Hess and Reverend Greg Johnson explained some of the sources of wariness of dialogue by many social conservatives. One is the fear of being asked to give up truth or absolutes, as dialogue can seem to assume that all truth is relative.
One participant wrote this reflection about Hess and Johnson’s powerful session:
“I had a big, big revelation [during your session]. At 64, I have thought my whole life that to be open-minded, all accepting, non-judgmental toward different people, beliefs, and values was an absolute good thing. How could it be bad to be tolerant, embracing, accepting all beliefs as valid? Wouldn’t everyone appreciate that attitude, since it includes everyone? What I heard from you is that having an absolute truth is fundamentally, critically important to you. It is the most important thing. It may be easier for you to deal with each other, or with others who have conflicting versions of the truth, than to do deal with someone like me who doesn’t seem to advocate any particular truth, but sees it all as relative.”
Others shared similar realizations after this workshop. Often, dialogue is said to bring people together whose viewpoints and experiences contribute important “pieces of the puzzle” for making progress on issues like racial inequity, education reform, and youth violence. But framing dialogue in relativist terms may backfire for some audiences. According to Hess and Johnson, it may be important to reassure conservatives that “truth Capital T is still welcome” – as long as they also agree to be open to learning more.
Another concern brought up in Hess and Johnson’s workshop is the fear of a hidden [liberal] agenda. Pete Peterson confirmed this on the conservatives panel, suggesting people with more traditional views might respond better when dialogue is framed as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. When dialogue is seen as a “tool,” the question arises from all sides “What is the hidden agenda? To change my mind so I agree with you? To challenge my beliefs or values?”
Peterson’s comment echoed another concern Hess and Johnson explored in their session: the fear of being changed. Dialogue can be seen by people with deep-rooted belief systems as something that might require them to compromise their beliefs somehow. Consider how a conservative Christian might feel when asked to participate in a dialogue on gay marriage aimed at “finding common ground” or moving forward in ways that “work for all” among people with disparate viewpoints. Panelist Grover Norquist, Founder of Americans for Tax Reform, likewise pointed out latent fear among some towards events seeking common ground.
There are many theories as to why progressives have shown more interest than conservatives in public engagement work, but the fact remains that the outcomes of public engagement projects cannot be easily categorized as serving left-wing or right-wing agendas. Participants sometimes recommend tax increases or new government programs to address the issue at hand; other times they call for business or nonprofit groups or take over tasks that had been the responsibility of government. Often, they call for citizens to take more direct responsibility for solving community problems.
Note from Sandy:
This is my third blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community. The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin: The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.
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