follow my blog by providing your email

Monday, October 1, 2012

Towards Civil Discourse

Towards Civil Discourse:  A Political Myers-Briggs?

Words matter.  Our language has become brutal.  And our body politic is suffering.

Anger can be a great motivator if it leads to taking responsibility and collective action.  But when it just blames and calls names, it reverts to cynicism that is the loss of collective power and an invitation to nihilism and even violence.

It divides the “99%” and leaves the “1%” calling all the shots.  I saw this working in Chicago in the 60s when upwardly mobile working black families and white families were blaming each other and themselves for deteriorating neighborhoods while financial institutions, fronted by realty agents and backed by federal housing policy, were making great economic gains through scare and hate tactics that drove white families out of established neighborhoods into newly developed housing tracts in suburbs and then took recently disinvested and devastated center city land for new high priced condos by the lake. 

Today, beyond race being used to disempower, silence, and fragment the majority, it is life style—so-called liberal vs. conservative values.  In other words, culture again masks economic domination and political control.

So now we have Tea Partiers angered at government which they think is in the hands of the liberal gay-loving, free-thinking, atheistic abortionists.  And we have an Occupy Wall Streeters angered at corporations which they think are in the hands of the fascistic, ideological, bible-toting true believers.

As an old organizer, who accepts that people are motivated by 1) economic self-interest, 2) cultural values, 3) community recognition or affiliation, and 4) spiritual meaning (and the anger that arises when these are frustrated), I am searching for a tool that might contribute to the reestablishing of our commons, our citizenship, and our country.  I realize that for people to unite they have to recognize and understand where they come from, how different their stories are, and why they see the world the way they do.  Then they need to find the interests, values, affiliations, and meanings they share and to act together to strengthen their common space.  They need to transition from consumers of things and thoughts to citizens producing and thinking in concert.  This will only happen in association.  And I am looking for a tool that might help foster citizen association

I have found that a great tool for fostering teamwork in a family or work setting is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI)[1] especially when facilitated by a competent third party specialist.   It helps all members of the family or worksite understand their own and each other's acquired preferences in seeing and judging the world without any negativity and in fact with lots of affirmation for how differences contribute to the whole team, company, or project.

The tool starts with a self-test with which the participants answer and then score, a series of questions that ascertain whether they 1) process more interiorly or exteriorly (Introvert/Extravert), 2) focus more on facts or on vision (Sensing/Intuiting), 3) value more feelings or intellectual coherence (Feeling/Thinking), 4) are quick to make a decision or are more prone to keep looking at the evidence (Perceiving/Judging).  The participant considers the results and the description of the personality to which these results point to see if the shoe fits.  Then the participant shares the results with others to discuss what this means for the team or the family or the company.

There are no right or wrong answers.  Nor are there any pure types.  All of us find ourselves somewhere along the continuum of these four polarities.  This is not in any sense a "fix" of a personality type--again just an understanding of oneself and others in this here and now.

For example I found that I tend to process things out loud (high E) even well before any decision.  I learned that when I was the director of an organization, I needed to warn colleagues of my tendency so that they would not take what I was saying as what I really thought or wanted.  Also when I was director of a small planning organization, I realized that I had surrounded myself with big-picture visionaries (NTs), and I needed to value and add to the concrete, data based SPs to make our organization more effective.  The MBTI is merely a tool, but a good one for fostering relationships in the private sphere. 

Now can we devise a similar tool for our body politic—the public sphere?

The MBTI is based on a psychologist’s (Karl Jung) theory of personality.  I would like to suggest a tool based on a sociologist political thinker theory of sociality.  Here are the four polarities I propose. They relate to the four motivators of human behavior I mentioned above.

1.  Related to economic interests:  Free market/Social responsibility  (F-S)[2]

Are you more interested in an unrestricted marketplace where you need not look over your shoulder or consider implications or in how your producing and consuming is affecting yourself and others and society as a whole?

2.  Related to cultural values:  Relational/Traditional (R-T)[3]

Do you have fixed values that come from human nature and tradition or are your values more relative to the time, the situation, the persons, and the consequences.

3.  Related to affiliation in governance:  Authoritarian/Consensual (A-C)[4]

Are you more inclined to have a strong leader within institutions of authority or to have broad emerging leadership among changing institutions?

4.  Related to philosophy of life: Pragmatic materialist/Idealistic believer (P-I)[5]

Do you find meaning in day-to-day concrete process of living and acting or do you find meaning in a more idealized past or yet-to-come time and place?

As in the MBTI, I state the polarities without any negative judgment as ranges of political personality or, better, public character.  None of them are either-or.  Yes, pushed to extremes or "pure types" there might be some negativity inferred--again depending on your perspective and your own relative place along the continuum.

I think they can be applied to public officials, candidates for public office, to parties, to citizens, to advocacy or special interest groups, to political commentators, to lobbyists, to polls and pollsters, to communities and maybe even nations.  But again this is not a "fix." People and publics do change.

I am developing self and a group administered tests that could be used to ascertain the style or type or public character of a participant, group, or community.  As in the MBTI, I can identify sixteen political character types that we can use for self-knowledge and for working together.  I want to propose this instrument as a way to diminish accusation, blame, and name calling and inform citizens as to the style of themselves and of candidates so they can make a more informed decision based on what they judge to be best for the community or nation or public at this time and place. 

But perhaps that wishful thinking exposes my own preferences and public character.[6]

And certainly our body politic needs a balance-in-tension without going to the extremes of free-for-all marketeering or top-down controlled economy, libertine or state imposed culture, dictatorial or anarchic governance, one-dimensional or fantasy philosophy.  Perhaps a public character indicator instrument (PCI) could be a tool to promote this balance-in-tension.

I am hoping that with such a Public Character Indicator instrument, we can foster a better public space and return power ("the ability to act in concert") to all of us.

Such an instrument could be used in focus groups and relational interviews to tell our stories and express our preferences, our way of seeing and singing our social world.  I have no illusion that it could be used in situations where people are at the extremes and have no desire for dialogue or learning.  I doubt that politicians, including congressional committees and political action committees, could use it because they are already committed to their positions.  I seriously doubt that Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or James Carville and their dittoheads could ever use it. 

But I do think that interfaith groups, neighborhood groups, and community organizations might use it in order to get past likes and dislikes to what is essential.  It could even be a tool for the compromise and consensus that a republic needs.

My next steps are to get some feedback on this from colleagues, try out the instrument (including the questionnaire and the description of types) on a group, change the instrument based on the feedback and trial.

I welcome any help. 

Next steps:

Sixteen Political Character Types


Description of types.
Examples of public figures alive and dead who might represent these types.
Questionnaire for determining predominant political character type.

[1] See the Myers-Briggs Foundation at
[2] Here I am using the theory of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and classical economics.
[3] Reinhold Neibuhr and Paul Tillich are my teachers here.
[4] I accept the political thought of Hannah Arendt for this polarity.  George Lakoff’s work on the difference between Republican and Democratic framing is useful here.  My problem with Lakoff (“authoritarian father” and “nourishing parent”) is that he neglected the other tensions and thus oversimplified.
[5] John Dewey, his disciple, Richard Rorty, French thinker Merleau-Ponty and those who followed steered for me the path between idealism and realism.
[6] So let me come to terms with that so that I can reduce the influence of my biases in developing the tool.

Without yet taking my undeveloped test, I would guess that I am an SRCP; i.e. I usually and habitually stress social responsibility over free market, values relative to the situation over values from human nature or tradition, community consensus over hierarchical organization, and pragmatic materialism over spiritual ideals.  I know I tend to be a social democrat ("socialist") economically, culturally a "libertarian" relegating sexual orientation, methods of birth control, free sex, and religious principles to the private realm without public significance, politically a "republican" promoting interdependent publics rather than a populist ruled by a strong executive, and a progressive "pragmatist" eschewing religious or philosophical doctrines that claim the truth or any absolute considered ideal.

But that's me.  In a republic, it is important that I recognize that my qualities are also limitations and I need around me others who are less like me.  I do need people who listen and respect my preferences but also who challenge them.  At times and places we need to accept deregulation of the market and less government sponsored social welfare.  At times and places, we should be less tolerant of certain behaviors like pornography or circumcision that are often not really victimless.  At times and places, our community needs a stronger executive less prone to compromise, polls, and interest groups. At times and places, I do admire those who are intending an ideal future or take their ideals from tradition.

Post a Comment