A Placemaking Journal

Stop Making Sense: A new strategy for community outreach

Okay, I’m not confident David Byrne would be all that excited about turning an ironic subtitle from the Talking Heads’ 1984 tune into a community engagement tactic. But stay with me here.

Over the last few months, the urban planning universe has been all atwitter (literally) with concern over how “those people,” the Agenda 21ers and Tea Party folks, have been making life tough in public meetings and planning processes. In February, a “Facing the Critics” session at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego attracted a standing-room-only crowd desperate for solutions to out-of-control meetings. (You can download presentations from that session here.) And in just the last couple weeks, I’ve attended meetings in Boston and Burlington, Vermont with similar topics on the agenda.


Soon, the American Planning Association will release a survey it commissioned to explore gaps between planning perceptions among citizens who self-identify themselves along the liberal-to-conservative continuum. And there will be a panel at the upcoming Congress for the New Urbanism on new challenges for charrette processes.

A lot of the talk is about “reframing the message,” which tends to focus too narrowly, I believe, on coming up with new words to say the same thing. Instead, maybe we should be talking about a reframing of perspectives, particularly from liberal handwringers who tend to be of the “why don’t these guys get it?” mindset.

The Boston conference I attended was the annual Journalists Forum on Land and the Built Environment, co-sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Since it was full of journalists and recovering journalists (like me), the room probably tilted left of center and definitely left of right. But the Forum planners invited Samuel Staley, now in Florida State University’s planning department but best known for his work with the libertarian Reason Foundation. And Staley made the case for Tea Partiers and others “coming from a different planet ideologically,” compared to liberal planning advocates. You can see and hear Staley in the short video below and read his take on the Forum panel here.

Even if you don’t agree with his grounding of the Tea Party movement in the broader strains of American libertarianism, it’s hard to disagree with Staley’s core point: “These people” evaluate what’s right and wrong, what’s fair and unfair, and what’s likely to bring success to individuals and to businesses differently than most professional planners. Fortunately, that disconnect is getting a lot of attention from social scientists who might help us do a lot better job of closing the communications gaps and getting some important stuff done in our communities.

The fastest route to understanding contributions from the psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists is the new book by psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt has been working this territory for most of his career. Watch his summation of the core arguments in a 2008 TED talk here.

The Haidt mantra is “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Which is pretty much the opposite of the way many of us confront opposing viewpoints. Especially those of us who’ve been rewarded throughout our careers for fashioning methodical, logical arguments to defend our intentions.

Backed by loads of research over decades, Haidt makes the case for evolution having written what amounts to a first draft of an intuitional guidance system that influences — if not determines — our moral choices. And while we can overcome these “pre-wired” intuitions, we’re still likely to default to them when we’re pressed to make quick decisions about whom and what to trust. The logical lawyer mind comes into play to defend the intuited choice and to convince others of its worthiness.

Haidt makes the point that much of our species’ evolutionary success is tied to adaptive behaviors related to teaming up, in forming bonds beyond the kinds of kinship ties that allow other animals to work cooperatively. But that teaming up process requires implicit, oftentimes unconscious, agreements about the right way to look at the world and the right way to evaluate choices. Faced with threats to our positions, we’re likely to rally round our teams’ claims and discount the other guys’, even if evidence mounts that our positions are being undermined by unfolding events.

No problem in seeing this blind spot in the “other” team, right? We can shape tight, logical briefs to argue in the court of public opinion against the opponents of climate change research, against defenders of sprawl, against those who’re convinced the United Nations is out to herd citizens into hobbit-sized units in overcrowded cities. But judgments by the public are not constrained by traditions of objectivity we strive for in legal proceedings and in science. They’re driven by intuition first, reason second. As are many of the judgments those of us on the opposing team defend as purely objective.

One of Haidt’s best contributions to this whole discussion is his willingness to apply his arguments to his own team, educated professionals who fought challenges to their own sacred doctrines. Check out this narrated PowerPoint from Haidt’s presentation last year before colleagues in the Society for Personal and Social Psychology.

So this gets us back to “Stop Making Sense.” If we’re not going to win a competition by out-debating people who disagree with us, what should the strategy be?

Well, maybe we should open ourselves up to the idea that we all share a similar intuition-favored operating system. That requires, says Haidt, “stepping out of the Matrix” that frames delusions of pure objectivity. And if we’re to break through barriers to consensus we’d best figure out which of those intuition buttons we have to honor, in what combination, and to what degree.

Haidt identifies five hot-button “receptors.” They are categories that invite choices about what’s fair and what amounts to cheating; about what constitutes caring or harm to others; about loyalty and betrayal; about respect for authority or subversion of authority; and about what is sacred or degrading.

In a series of online surveys, Haidt and his colleagues asked questions of volunteers who rated themselves along the liberal to conservative spectrum. The questions got at how important those five moral receptors were to the values of respondents. People who called themselves liberals scored very high on valuing caring and fairness but were prone to value the other three categories less. Though they were moved less by fairness and caring priorities, conservatives responded about the same to all five moral receptors.

I think that suggests liberal-leading educated professionals are handicapping themselves in discussions with conservatives. They’re operating on 40 percent of the power needed to inspire trust in those who don’t already agree with them and, therefore, to truly engage with a broader community.

For more PlaceMakers’ perspectives on this topic:

Nathan Norris on giving respect to the Tea Party.

Scott Doyon on online engagement and the public process.

Scott Doyon on civic engagement and social media.

Ben Brown and Scott Doyon on the surprising goal of disengagement.

Ben Brown on the half-life of anger.

Ben Brown on zoning as spiritual practice.

–Ben Brown

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