Joan Blades: Do you have politically diverse friends? What do you talk about with them? I'm a progressive; I live in a town full of progressives, and 15 years ago, I didn't have any conservative friends. Now I have a wonderful mix of friends, and they include John.
John Gable: I am not a progressive. I'm a Republican who grew up in a Republican family in the conservative South, and even worked in Republican politics, locally and at the national level. But the last 24 years, I've been in technology and living in a very progressive area. So I have a lot of progressive friends, including Joan.
JB: I was born in Berkeley, California, a notoriously progressive college town. And I live there now. In 1998, six months into the Monica Lewinsky-Clinton impeachment scandal, I helped cofound MoveOn.org with a one-sentence petition: "Congress must immediately censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the nation." Now, that was actually a very unifying petition in many ways. You could love Clinton or hate Clinton and agree that the best thing for the country was to move on.
As the leader of MoveOn, I saw the polarization just continue. And I found myself wondering why I saw things so differently than many people in other parts of the country. So in 2005, when I had an opportunity to get together with grassroots leaders across the political divide, I grabbed it. And I became friends with a lot of people I never had a chance to talk to before. And that included leadership in the Christian Coalition, often seen as on the right the way MoveOn is seen as on the left. And this lead to me showing up on Capitol Hill with one of the Christian Coalition leaders, my friend, to lobby for net neutrality. That was powerful. We turned heads. So this work was transformational for me. And I found myself wondering: How could vast numbers of people have the opportunity to really connect with people that have very different views?
JG: I was born Oneida, Tennessee, right across the state border from a small coal mining town, Stearns, Kentucky. And I lived there for the first few years of my life, before moving to another small town, Frankfort, Kentucky. Basically, I grew up in small-town America, conservative at its heart. Now, Stearns and Berkeley — they're a little different.
So in the '90s I moved out west to a progressive area to work in technology — worked at Microsoft, worked at Netscape. I actually became the product manager lead for Netscape Navigator, the first popular web browser. Now in the early days of the internet, we were just moved and inspired by a vision: when we're connected to all these different people around the world and all these different ideas, we'll be able to make great decisions, and we'll be able to appreciate each other for the beautiful diversity that the whole world has to offer. Now I also, 20 years ago, gave a speech saying it might not work out that way, that we might actually be trained to discriminate against each other in new ways.
So what happened? It's not like we just woke up one day and decided to hate each other more. Here's what happened. There's just too much noise — too many people, too many ideas — so we use technology to filter it out a little bit. And what happens? It lets in ideas I already agree with. It lets in the popular ideas, it lets in people just like me who think just like me. That sounds kind of good, right? Well, not necessarily, because two very scary things happen when we have such narrow worldviews. First, we become more extreme in our beliefs. Second, we become less tolerant of anybody who's different than we are. Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like modern America? The modern world?
Well, the good news is that technology is changing, and it could change for the better. And that's, in fact, why I started AllSides.com — to create technologies and services to free us from these filter bubbles. The very first thing we did was create technology that identifies bias, so we could show different perspectives side by side to free us from the filter bubbles of news media. And then I met Joan.
JB: So I met John outside of Washington, DC, with an idealistic group of cross-partisan bridge builders, and we wanted to re-weave the fabric of our communities. We believe that our differences can be a strength, that our values can be complimentary and that we have to overcome the fight so that we can honor everyone's values and not lose any of our own. I went for this wonderful walk with John, where I started learning about the work he was doing to pierce the filter bubble. It was powerful; it was brilliant. Living in separate narratives is not good. We can't even have a conversation or do collaborative problem-solving when we don't share the same facts.
JG: So one thing you take away from today is if Joan Blades asks you to go on a walk, go on that walk.
It changed things. It really changed the way I was thinking about things. To free ourselves from the filter bubbles, we can't just think about information filter bubbles, but also relationship and social filter bubbles. You see, we human beings — we're not nearly as smart as we think we are. We don't generally make decisions intellectually. We make them emotionally, intuitively, and then we use our big old brains to rationalize anything we want to rationalize. We're not really like Vulcans like Mr. Spock, we're more like bold cowboys like Captain Kirk, or passionate idealists like Dr. McCoy. OK, for those of y'all who prefer the new "Star Trek" crew, here you go.
JB: Don't forget the strong women!
JG: Come on, strong women. OK.
JB: All right.
John and I are both "Star Trek" fans. What's not to love about a future with that kind of optimism?
JG: And having a good future in mind is a big deal — very important. And understanding what the problem is is very important. But we have to do something. So what do we do? It's actually not that hard. We have to add diversity to our lives — not just information, but relationship diversity. And by diversity, I mean big "D" diversity, not just racial and gender, which are very important, but also ... diversity of age, like young and old; rural and urban; liberal and conservative; in the US, Democrat and Republican. Now, one of the great examples of somebody freeing themselves from their filter bubbles and getting a more diverse life is, once again, next to me — Joan.
JB: So the question is: Who among you has had relationships lost or harmed due to differences in politics, religion or whatever? Raise your hands. Yeah. This year I have talked to so many people that have experienced that kind of loss. I've seen tears well up in people's eyes as they talk about family members from whom they're estranged.
Living Room Conversations were designed to begin to heal political and personal differences. They're simple conversations where two friends with different viewpoints each invite two friends for structured conversation, where everyone's agreed to some simple ground rules: curiosity, listening, respect, taking turns — everything we learned in kindergarten, right? Really easy. So by the time you're talking about the topic you've agreed to talk about, you actually have the sense that, "You know, I kind of like this person," and you listen to each other differently. That's kind of a human condition; we listen differently to people we care about. And then there's reflection and possibly next steps. This is a deep listening practice; it's never a debate. And that's incredibly powerful. These conversations in our own living rooms with people who have different viewpoints are an incredible adventure. We rediscover that we can respect and even love people that are different from us. And it's powerful.
JG: So, what are you curious about?
JB: What's the conversation you yearn to have?
JG: Let's do this together. Together.
JB and JG: Thank you.