In what American change movement are you likely to find people who are interested in the Facebook page Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America alongside people who are interested in the Facebook page GUNVOTE? The former group advocates for gun control legislation while the latter oppose it. Gun control and the Second Amendment are among the most divisive issues in America. So what movement is common cause for people of each disposition?
The answer: Strong Towns.
Facebook provides a wealth of information on the collection of people who interact with a page. In the last thirty days, there were 45,000 different individuals who interacted with the Strong Towns facebook page that could be tracked by network analytics. When I look at the insights on that audience, Facebook tells me the pages, people, and movements that our particular collection of visitors has an affinity for. Moms and Gun Sense and GUNVOTE are one unique combo, but there are more.
For example, what news and media websites do readers of Strong Towns also like? Here are the top five currently being reported: Grist.org, FiveThirtyEight, The Real Patriots, Bradlee Dean, The Talk on Main St.
I’m familiar with Grist; they’ve published some of my writing in the past. I would categorize them as very partisan left-of-center. I’m also familiar with FiveThirtyEight, mostly from their sports reporting, but also during election seasons. I’m a fan of Nate Silver’s Signal and the Noise. I don’t have a real sense of where FiveThirtyEight falls on the media bias spectrum (although I appreciate their empathy for the Minnesota sports fan).
I have not heard of The Talk on Main Street, but briefly looking at their site, they seem pretty center-left in their take. The other two—The Real Patriots and Bradlee Dean—I’ve not heard of either, but at first glance they both seem very right-of-center. The Real Patriots seems partisan right-of-center, while Bradlee Dean seems to be affiliated with something called Sons of Liberty Radio, which seems to be its own flag/bible combo kind of thing.
My guess is that few people who share stuff from Grist or The Talk on Main Street on social media even are exposed to—let alone share themselves—stuff from The Real Patriots or Bradlee Dee. And visa-versa; there’s not a lot of Grist news showing up in the media bubbles of the Real Patriots or Bradlee Dee fans. Yet somehow they are all organically being exposed to Strong Towns.
Another example: in magazines, our audience shows an affinity for The Nation and National Review. The latest Media Bias Chart holds National Review as slightly—though just barely—more factual while also being modestly more rightward partisan than The Nation is leftward partisan. Essentially, these are two well-established publications, just with target audiences on very different parts of the political spectrum.
What Do We Read Into Other People’s Hearts?
I’m putting this out here because, as a culture, we just went through this very strange event with the Covington Catholic school kids, some Native American elders, and a group of Hebrew Israelites. I don’t want to get into the details of the event and opinions on who was in the right and who should be held accountable for what—and I’m going to ask you to resist doing that as well. There are lots of places having that discussion, and they’ll do it better than I will. What I want to focus on is how we treat each other, and the dialogue we have, in instances like these.
I’m one of these people who has been beaten into submission on social media. Besides happy family things and stuff directly related to Strong Towns or my work here in my hometown, I don’t share anything. I used to have a lot of conversations on issues of the day, and I eventually began to find them so hurtful and counterproductive that I quit. I still have conversations on serious issues—I’m a curious guy—but they are all in private now. I’ve given up thinking it was good to have them in public. I also generally now mute people who are all partisan, all the time.
I reacted to the incident at the Lincoln Memorial by making a statement I now regret. I don’t regret what I wrote but I regret the lost time, the anguish, and the anxiety in my life the reaction caused. If you want to read what I wrote, my feed is public and you can see it here. Basically, I felt that the incident was a Rorschach test, and the friends in my feed were overdosing on the early inflammatory coverage, pouring whatever hate they felt for the other into their interpretation of this situation.
I am guilty of this to a degree as well, although my sin was not in attacking the other but in rushing to judgement. In retrospect—and I’ve done a lot of introspection on this since last weekend—my immediate reaction to the photo and short video was embarrassment with the kids. I’m Catholic; these kids are Catholic; that’s not how we act. That’s not how anyone should act.
Then I got the unedited video, the one not snipped for spin, and now I felt empathetic toward those kids. I could see myself in them, quite frankly, and found myself lacking confidence in how I would react in a similar situation. I really have no real gripe with the Native American elders—I get that there are many complications there—and I also don’t go any lengths to take issue with the Hebrew Israelites, although I found their words discomforting and, in some instances, vile. Again, lots of complications I’m willing to accept.
My hope, very naïve in retrospect, was that we could all put ourselves in the shoes of the other, recognize that the events as they unfolded were not so horrible in and of themselves—nobody threw any punches—that what we were reacting to was what we were reading into people’s hearts, and that reading was more of a reflection of our own hearts than theirs. I still believe that: we’re too quick to hate and empower those who benefit from keeping us mobilized in a constant stage of rage.
My Facebook thread is currently up to 263 comments. Some of it has been worthwhile, but most of it has made me really sad. Worse, my Messenger inbox and email inbox are full of anger, frustration, and degrees of hate, things people didn’t want to say in a public forum but felt completely comfortable saying in a private message. The gist of the complaints is that there are NOT two ways to look at this situation—only one is valid—and by equivocating I’m giving license to the morally-outrageous views of the other. People even quit their Strong Towns memberships in protest of my comments.
Not a Movement of Moderation, but a Movement of Common Ground
I’m going to go back to where I started. Strong Towns is not a movement of moderation. We’re not a bunch of people prepared to split the baby, to meet in the middle. I’ve never called for that and I won’t. But while it’s unlikely Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and GUNVOTE would ever find a compromise on the issues central to their organizations, there is one place they will apparently find common ground: the Strong Towns movement.
We need to embrace that. We need to own that—it’s so rare today—but we only own it if we can talk to each other. We can’t have an international movement for change where the very people making things happen on the ground can’t have respectful and productive conversations with people they politically disagree with. It won’t work. We must take intentional steps to move beyond the current paradigm of dysfunctional conversation.
This movement has grown in ways, and at a pace, I never anticipated. Four years ago, we recognized internally that Strong Towns had a gender-balance problem. The demographics we could get our hands on suggested that our audience was at least 80% male. We are not going to become the movement we want—one that not only reflects, but is informed by, the broad American experience—with that kind of gender balance.
In a way that was authentic to our mission and to our goals for our movement, we made some substantive changes in how we do things. Much of this was behind the scenes, from font changes to our blind hiring process to how we spend our distribution budget, but some of it was forward-facing as well. The best information we have available to us today suggests that our audience is 50% male, 50% female. I’m not declaring victory, but I’m confident our conversation today reflects more than a merely male understanding of the world.
We struggle a lot more with racial diversity. Part of this is that we have no clue what the racial makeup of our audience is. The tools that would allow us to follow a similar outreach strategy for gender are not available to us for race. For reasons that are frustrating, our social-media platforms do not make them available—which means Russian bots are not allowed to discriminate by race, but neither can we use our small outreach budget to intentionally engage a mix of races. I could write a lot about our failed experiments in working around this. One chilling example: If you target your outreach to people who follow the Black Lives Matter page hoping to reach live black people, you will get a disproportionately high number of white law enforcement personnel commenting on your posts. This kind of thing complicates our ability to have the conversations we would like to have, and invite into them those whose perspectives we would like to include.
Anecdotally, we sense that our movement is becoming more racially diverse (and we even suspect our audience has greater overall racial diversity than other urbanist organizations), but we’re not where we want to be. Again, in an authentic way, we want the Strong Towns movement to reflect, and be informed by, the broad American experience. We’re not there yet when it comes to race, but we’re working on it.
There is one place, however, where Strong Towns has a level of diversity that is as rare as it is powerful among American organizations in 2019: ideological diversity. We have people who enthusiastically identify as politically left-of-center, and we have people who enthusiastically identify as right-of-center. When Strong Towns supporters get together, it is this crazy mix of people we don’t see in other places. We don’t occupy the center—this is not a movement of moderates. It’s something different.
I’m convinced that is the key to our rapid growth and long-term success. You can be passionate about fiscal responsibility and small business and love Strong Towns. You can be passionate about equitable transportation and environmental stewardship and love Strong Towns. And that love can be authentic because we can meet those shared goals with a Strong Towns approach. It’s not a gimmick, and the people coming here understand that.
We’re entering into what I anticipate will be the craziest, nastiest, most media-manipulated, dysfunctional campaign season any of us will hopefully ever be subjected to. Regardless of your political point of view, you are going to be pummeled with messages designed to fill you with outrage at the other. Some of it might be true, and your outrage might be justified, but much of it will be half-truths designed to mobilize you to action. There will be less and less room for context and nuance.
I’m not asking you to change your opinions. I’m not asking you to moderate your point of view. I’m not even asking you to equivocate and accept any opposing viewpoint as equally valid. All I’m asking you to do is to recognize that the greatest strength of our movement is our unique ideological diversity: that out there is someone who maybe disagrees with you on politics, but that person has a shared vision with you on making our cities, towns, and neighborhoods stronger. We need each other.
In our discourse, Strong Towns advocates must try to be the peacemakers. The ones who turn down the volume. We can disagree without the hate. We may even extend an assumption of good intentions, and hope for the same in return. We might be pleasantly surprised.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt shared a New Years Resolution for our age. I think it is the standard all Strong Towns advocates should strive to follow:
I will give less offense (i.e., be more polite)
I will take less offense (i.e., give others the benefit of the doubt)
I will pass on less offense (i.e., not be the sort of retweeter Russian trolls want me to be)
I have not always met this standard. It’s difficult, and I’m all too human. Today let’s promise each other that we will strive to do so, and then let’s hold each other accountable.