The Real Questions on Rogers' Healthcare Testimony

November 20, 2009

A response by Public Conversation's Dave Joseph to Rep. Rogers' much talked about comments on healthcare

Having watched Congressman Rogers' testimony several times, a few things stand out. 

The first is Congressman Rogers' depth of sincerity and conviction.  He believes what he is saying, he experiences this issue as an existential threat to a number of his core values, as his language makes clear ("abandon our principles...unprecedented power...we give up, it's just too hard or all" etc.).  He experiences "the other side" as advocating truly dangerous policies that threaten the lives of Americans ("I will not punish American women...  Sorry honey, you have less chance of survival").

The second concerns his defining terms and framing of the argument.  Once Rogers gets to define the terms (e.g. "innovation," "principles;" "punish"), his conclusions follow logically and understandably.  This is where George Lakoff's work (“Don’t Think of  an Elephant”) around the power of language to frame the argument comes into play.  If I get to define the terms and frame the argument, you're out of luck.  Mediators recognize this as "the power of the first speaker," the fact that whichever party speaks first gets to present their case; the other party is put in the position of responding.

Let's also consider the fact that this is rhetoric (i.e. speech for the purpose of persuasion and convincing), not deliberation.  Its purpose is to build a case, to convince, not to promote reflection, deeper consideration and a wise decision that takes into account diverse viewpoints and multiple interests.  It is specifically designed to appeal to emotions ("we give up, it's just too hard") and to trigger the "lizard brain" that surfaces within all of us when we feel threatened.

Neuropsychologists have identified that when we feel threatened, we begin to slide back down Maslow's hierarchy of needs and focus on maintaining our sense of safety.  Strong emotions narrow our perceptions of possible solutions, of our own capabilities, of the richness and complexity of the situation, and lead us toward polarization.  The stakes become higher as our choices seem more binary and we see fewer shades of gray in the landscape.  I'm reminded of a friend who insisted that he could see two sides of every problem, his side and the wrong side.

One of the inherent dangers of this is our difficulty identifying ways that we may be contributing to the situation by our actions.  This "system blindness" comes to mind when I experience my own wish to "correct" Congressman Rogers' claims, which would only lead to "more of the same."  In a wonderful book written almost forty years ago by Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution) the authors distinguish between "first-order change" and "second-order change."  The former refers to problems that are readily amenable to solution and to which "more of the same" (trying the same thing but harder) will result in solution.  The latter are sometimes called "wicked problems" and “more of the same” just continues or exacerbates them.  They demand a "second-order solution," like Einstein's famous aphorism "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

In my opinion, it's likely that differing worldviews will always exist between thoughtful people.  The idea that some people don't let facts get in the way of their opinions obscures the reality that Fox News' "facts" are somewhat different from MSNBC's "facts."  I'm not a total relativist, but we live in a world that MIT's Nicholas Negroponte recently dubbed "The Daily Me," which was echoed by Nicholas Kristof.  This describes our tendency to choose and attend to news, opinions, and facts that validate our own beliefs.

So ultimately the challenge becomes how do we retain a sense of connection, curiosity and community with those with whom we disagree profoundly?  Dialogue processes can make an important contribution to the sense of a shared world that encompasses complexity, mutual respect and caring for each other.  Dialogue work contributes to the creation and deepening of relationships, which makes possible a tectonic shift in how we address our differences, while not surrendering our deeply-held core values and worldviews.  So I'm left with the following questions:


  • How can we work together to decrease stereotypes, while contributing to an appreciation of the complexity of each other and of the challenges we face together?
  • What kind of processes can we employ that promote mutual understanding and relationships based on a respect for differences?
  • How can we better convey the value of such processes?
  • What role do such processes play and what is their relationship to more deliberative processes?
  • How can dialogue processes improve the quality of deliberation?