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What the world needs now is Peace, Love and… Political Screaming Matches?

Joan Blades emailed me a few days ago with a link to a new website we weren’t sure made us want to laugh or to cry — www.politicalscreamingmatch.com.  I’ve been working with Joan lately (and Amanda Roman, Mary Jacksteit, and Barbara Simonetti) to explore how we might promote and support the launch of Living Room Conversations within the dialogue and deliberation community.

Living Room Conversations are intimate dialogues among friends, neighbors, and friends-of-friends from both sides of the political divide. They’re designed to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind our fellow Americans of the power and beauty of civil discourse.  I also think they could be a great way to introduce many more people to the power and potential of dialogue.

Joan emailed our group with the link, simply asking “our antithesis?”  I checked out the site, and have to admit I was floored!

“Grab your phone and get your debate on!”, the site exclaims.

Have an animated political discussion with a perfect stranger right now!

All conversations are anonymous and the other party will *not* receive your phone number (unless you give it to them over the phone).

All calls are recorded, the best ones will be posted to the Political Screaming Match blog periodically. You must keep your browser open to receive a call.

It’s ok to be animated, but please – no threats or inappropriate name-calling (appropriate name calling is fine).

The site has virtually no “about” info, so I imagined the site must be created by some kid who likes the kind of quick-to-flame and openly hateful discussion you see on many popular YouTube videos.  I got another email from John Stephens tonight sending me to an NPR article on the site that tells another tale…

By now, a couple of generations of moviegoers are familiar with the disembodied voice in a cornfield that leads Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to risk all for a baseball diamond. Web developer Pascal Rettig is not in as precarious a position as that fictional farmer, yet he has challenged himself by constructing a social stadium of sorts.

Political Screaming Match is a digital seed sower’s attempt to answer his own question: “If I build it, will they scream?” The website asks visitors to input their phone number and select their position on “Obamacare.” They are then connected to an anonymous phone call with a user of the opposing view.

Rettig, the chief technology officer of Fundraise.com and a seasoned computer consultant, had long been observing the theatrics of heated television round tables with skepticism. “I have very strong opinions on all these things — but I don’t think I would ever get into a screaming match about it,” he says…

“I want to see if we create a platform that pushes it as far to the extreme as possible, how will people react to that … what [will] people do?” Rettig says. He hypothesizes that genuine screams would be few and far between.

“I don’t think that’s how normal people talk and discuss,” says Rettig.

So it appears that www.politicalscreamingmatch.com may be a big experiment in uncivil one-on-one discussion?  Perhaps to show that people don’t truly want to have screaming debates with those they disagree with on contentious political issues?

I’m not sure I buy that at this point, but I’ll be interested to see what happens.  What do you think?  Read the full NPR article here, and share your thoughts below.  One thing is clear to me… no matter what the site’s true intensions are, it WILL be a great example for us to use to show what our work in this field is NOT trying to do.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Kim Crowley says:

    Wow! I’m envisioning triage: places for screamers, places for people who want to engage in problem solving, and places for those who want to avoid both.

    Some people who get into political discussion aren’t at all interested in solving problems. They want to vent on someone who is too far away to deliver direct consequences or send back disconfirming evidence. In the best of cases, those people will have a place to go where they can get needs met without disrupting other processes. And who knows? Maybe after the catharting they’ll be ready for something new.

    I’m also thinking about the possibility that the videos that come out of this site might in some way help mainstream culture develop process vocabulary and move in another direction.

  2. John Backman says:

    It’s far more difficult to scream at people (or even dismiss them) when you interact face to face and can see their humanness more clearly. Is it similarly more difficult to dismiss people when you interact voice to voice? Perhaps this site will work best as a test of that question.

  3. The key design principle here is the pairing of participants. This site may choose the “shouting match” frame but other projects could use a more constructive setting.

    Pairing might take place using all kinds of technology: web chat, text messages, phone, Skype, Google hangouts etc.

    Assuming that under the right conditions most people are capable of 1-on-1 dialogue, this is a promising and to date rather underexplored option for online dialogue and participation.

    I know of two previous examples. Please leave a note if you’ve seen this elsewhere. Thanks!

  4. My guess is that something called a “screaming match” will lead to more civil discourse than what happens during many online comment exchanges. Personally, I’m looking forward to learning what can happen in this forum which makes transparent our own nastiness.

  5. Jennifer Stone says:

    Apart from the lack of transparency on the site about its origins and intent, there’s much to like here. The ‘invite’ is immediate without extraneous text to be put off by, and gives an immediate sense that I can say what I really think. The Screaming Match tag is somewhat jolting and almost invites participants to have a wry laugh at themselves. I’d be keen to understand how difficult and expensive the technology is, and can see potential useful applications. What I particularly like about these sorts of approaches is they open up a deeper understanding of the real issues and concerns and prejudices that sit underneath our strongly held opinions – being able to capture and mine that is gold in terms of being able to work through contentious and difficult decision-making. Thanks Sandy for the link and starting this conversation – would love to see progress reports re the site if possible.

    • The other red flag for me is that in one sentence, the site says “All conversations are anonymous and the other party will *not* receive your phone number (unless you give it to them over the phone).” And in the next sentence it says “All calls are recorded, the best ones will be posted to the Political Screaming Match blog periodically.” That doesn’t feel anonymous, private, or safe to me.

      • Jennifer Stone says:

        Agree Sandy re concern about needing more detail re how it all works and privacy protection. The statement re all calls being recorded would rein-in some people’s behavior.

  6. I’m pretty surprised at how open most people who responded are to the idea of providing space for one-on-one political “screaming matches.” I actually expected people in our field to express more distrust in this, and sadness at the prospect that people will be encouraged to verbally attack each other over the phone, based only on their political stance on “Obamacare.”

    This community never ceases to surprise me!

    • Jennifer Stone says:

      Hi again Sandy – I’m wondering if in Australia we’re more comfortable using informal and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ language, and therefore see the language of ‘screaming matches’ as more playful and an ice-breaker. In my experience, people who engage in verbally abusive behavior during consultative and other engagement processes tend to like an audience bigger than just one other person.

      • You may be right about that, Jennifer! To me, actual “screaming matches” are a very real thing, and I don’t find the term playful at all. But it could very well be that that’s the intent.

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