Monday’s Mtg: How Should We Talk To the “Other Side” About Politics?

We all know a bit about why it’s gotten so hard to talk to the other side politically, having discussed polarization and its causes a number of times. I’ll list a few of the main culprits to open the meeting. We’ve also discussed how people are naturally resistant to being persuaded about politics. We’re all predisposed to “bias reinforcement;” i.e., to seek out opinions and facts we already agree with and to avoid or rationalize away any that cause us the trouble and psychic pain of self-examination. Hell, studies show that, among political partisans and those with well-formed ideologies, being exposed to contrary facts actually reinforces their opinions. How screwed does that make our politics?

Still, talking politics with someone from “The Other Side” politically can’t be totally, always futile, can it? I mean, an entire industry exists devoted to finding which rhetoric works best to persuade people in political advertising and in politicians’ speeches. Could we learn from their work and apply their techniques in our personal lives, when we’re in the situation and the mood to do so? Or, does talking politics with the other side just require using basic social skills and common courtesy that our political betters have forgotten in their rush to polarize us?

I’ve had to think about this topic a lot in recent years, from running Civilized Conversation and appearing in the San Diego Debate Club and (as Aaron does) on this ultra-conservative political TV show. So, indulge me for a few minutes on Monday and I’ll start us off with a few insights I think I’ve gathered. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you’re one of those dim-witted, evil, ridiculous idiots on the other side.


  1. WHY talk to someone on the other side; i.e., for what purpose? What should one’s goals be when engaging such a person? Like:  Persuasion, Defend your values, Find common ground, Censure or use them as a foil to persuade others within earshot?  How about to learn something about why they think what they think?
  2. What kind of arguments/appeals work in such settings? Like: Facts or logic, Personal stories, Appeals to authority, Appeals to community or patriotism, Citing your/their moral values, Citing public support , Cursing and screaming?
  3. How do the pros do it? Any lessons from politicians or political campaigners (Reagan/FDR, Atwater/Carville) or social scientists (Lakoff, Haight)
  4. Specific issues: Any ideas for talking with an opponent on, say, climate change, Obamacare, taxes, abortion, etc.?
  5. Specific settings: Dealing with family members, colleagues, strangers, very well-informed opponents, etc.


Next Week:  How did the West “beat the rest?”  Was it culturally superior?

Monday’s Mtg: Is There a Universal Human Nature?

This week we have a great crosscutting topic, suggested a while back by Aaron. Whether there is a universal human nature involves philosophy, neuroscience, biology, psychology, and nearly every other -ology I can think of. Politics is wrapped up in there, too. Believing in a particular variant of a universal human nature is the stepping stone to believing in a universal human morality, which leads to political philosophy and political principles.

I’m under the weather this weekend. So, here are some readings on some of the things selected philosophers and modern scientists think about the universality of human nature. If I had more time and felt better, I would try to summarize the works of major philosophers of human nature, particularly Hume and Aristotle. But, since my knowledge is slight on some of them, I’ll just open with something and then we can discuss.


Next Week: How Should We Talk to the “Other Side” About Politics?

Mtg Follow-Up: Utilities for Dummies

Unfortunately, Mike Aguirre could not attend last night.  I thought we had a good one, anyway, especially since John M. knew a lot on current issues related to SDG&E headaches.

Here are  the posts I used to improv my opening presentation.  They are from a great environmental and energy policy website called, Grist.



—  There are a dozen other posts in the series; many deal with community choice and other  21st century utility issues.


Monday’s Mtg: Why Do San Diegans Pay Such High Utility Rates?

This week we have a guest speaker, thanks to Bill!  Former San Diego City Attorney and current talk radio host Mike Aguirre will be joining us. Mike has been battling SDG&E and the other Big Energy powers that be in our region for years. He will give a little opening presentation on why we pay pretty much the nation’s highest electric utility rates and update us on the fight to keep consumers from paying the $3.3 billion costs of closing the San Onofre nuclear plant.

During discussion, there will be a fair amount to debate beyond rate rips-off. Having reliable access to energy that is both affordable and sustainable is vital to our region’s future. But, it’s not a simple matter. As with all natural resources, electric power generation, transport, and pricing come from a complex dance of market forces and government regulation. The public is very cynical about all of the major utility players after the deregulation fiasco of the 1990s and recent revelations about the coziness between Big Energy and state regulators. Still, if change to our energy system is to come, their acquiescence is required.

I’m looking forward to hear what Mike has to say. Below are some questions I have for him and the group, and some links to recent developments in our electricity rate-paying drama.


  1. Where does San Diego get its electric power and gas from?
  2. Who determines how much we pay for it: SDG&E? Local government? State government? How much public accountability is there, and who speaks for consumers?
  3. How do the rates we pay compare to other California and U.S. cities? Who in San Diego pays the most and least under the current rate structure?
  4. Why do San Diegans pay so much more? Is it just unavoidable market forces? Is it their absence (SDG&E’s monopoly)? Is it deregulation and/or  industry capture of regulators and politicians? What about high taxes or too much regulation, like environmental mandates?
  5. Are there ways to bring rates down in the future and/or distribute the burden more fairly or efficiently? Should rates go down, given the climate impact?
  6. Special issues:
    1. San Onofre: What’s up with customers paying $3.3B closure costs?
    2. Climate: What is San Diego’s Climate Action Plan and what impact will it have on future utility rates?


Next Week: Is there a universal human nature?

Monday’s Mtg: The Changing Definition of Whiteness

Did you know there is an academic field called, “Whiteness studies?” Here’s a primer. Well, Lace, who no doubt is familiar with the discipline, suggested we discuss the changing meaning of whiteness in America. Obviously, who qualifies as white and who does not has been one of the central battlefields of American history.  And for good reason. Being white has always conveyed enormous advantages in life relative to the circumstance of not being born white. The advantages of being white often were invisible to and unacknowledged by its beneficiaries throughout our history, of course. But the power of white privilege in the past is obvious from the endless, furious efforts made over 225 years to devise highly precise cultural – and even legal – racial categories and hierarchies. What about today, and tomorrow?  As you probably all know, the United States is poised within a few decades to become a “majority-minority” country; i.e., one in which whites are less than 50% of the population. Most Americans seem to sense that the country is changing pretty fast, even if they don’t know this demographic prediction. Some people think that fear of the loss of white privilege and the dilution of whiteness is a factor behind some of the bitter, apocalyptic opposition to President Obama’s policies (“the Redistributor-in-chief,” or Obamacare as “reparations?”) Hatred of illegal immigrants and extreme forms of fear and loathing of Muslims could be connected to this, as well. Maybe so, maybe not.  Even if you doubt the racial panic argument (and I think it’s too simplistic), I still think Monday will amount to a lot more than just a good history discussion.  Given the malleability of racial categories in our past, the future of them is up for grabs, too. Will our society enlarge the definition of whiteness to accommodate the more diverse country that’s coming? Or will racial identification in America slowly fade away, as it finally has begun to do in recent decades? I’ll open with something short and then we can do our thing. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How has the meaning of whiteness changed throughout American history? Was whiteness a construct of culture, politics, or law? What about science and religion?
  2. Who is considered White in America today and who is not? Why?
  3. So what? What privileges does being white convey – today? Has that privilege eroded over time, or are many white Americans exaggerating what they have lost?
  4. What is the future of whiteness in the United States? Will we ever have our melting pot, or will being white always be aspired to because it always will be a privileged status?


Next Week:  Why do San Diegans pay such high utility rates?

Monday’s Mtg: Will Pope Francis Transform Catholicism?

We first talked about Pope Francis in June 2013. Just a few months after he was elevated to the position. That meeting focused on the many problems facing Catholicism. In the pre-meeting post, I listed them as the:

  • Need to reconcile Church doctrine and practice with the modern world without alienating Catholics in traditional societies that now make up the bulk of Church membership.
  • Loss of moral authority stemming from the worldwide sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.
  • De-Christianization in Western countries, especially in Europe and especially among young people.
  • Loss of authority over American Catholics.
  • Shortages of priests, nuns, and other church officials.
  • Challenge in developing countries posed by other religions, particularly evangelical Christianity.

Certainly, no single pope could be expected to turn the tide against many of these long-term, structural problems. Also, the pope has limited freedom to make bold changes even if he wants to do so (opinions vary on how much fundamental change Francis really wants). Francis is constrained by the Vatican bureaucracy; the global network of Cardinals, Archbishops, and other Church officials; and public opinion of multiple laities all over the world.

Despite all of these obstacles, this pope has made a lot of bold moves and excited a lot of people with hints of broader reforms. I thought we could discuss some of these moves and what might and might not be coming.

I’ll try to sum up Francis’ biggest and most controversial actions to pen the meeting, assuming I’m able to do the reading. I think the Vatican is a great example of how hard it can be to make international organizations – even one that is not democratic – work.


  1. What have been Pope Francis’ biggest changes?
  2. How have others centers of power in the Church responded to Francis’ moves, and what does that say about the difficulties he faces?
  3. What changes has Francis signaled that he will NOT make?
  4. What will American Catholics think of Francis’ new-ish direction?  Will it go far enough for them?
  5. The Catholic Church’s center of gravity is moving from Europe and North America to the global South. How will that change the Church? How does that constrain and empower Francis?


Next Week:  The Changing Definition of Whiteness.

Monday’s Mtg: How Does Pornography Affect Our Perceptions of Sexuality?

Two psychology-related topics in a row!  And, one I’d considered for a while before Ali suggested. Porn is part of the fabric of modern culture, thanks to the internet. Porn is very widely viewed in the United States and around the world. Estimates are that up to 30% of daily U.S. internet bandwidth is used to download porn. It’s everywhere, and since so much of it is in cyberspace, it’s nowhere. This makes it almost impossible to regulate or control. Beyond its ubiquity, the biggest worry about our brave new porn world is that porn’s content may have changed, too. Opponents say it is much nastier today than in the pre-internet days. More violent and cruel. More misogynistic. More perverse, or at least much more varied in the sex acts it shows.

Ali asks, does all of that porn, viewed over and over from a young age by most men and boys (and some women, too) warp people’s view of sexuality? Intuitively, it seems like it must. We are a country where basic sex education is controversial. Kids may be using porn to learn the birds and the bees and infer what normal sexual behavior is. Yikes.

But, not every moral panic is appropriate. What we see in media is only one factor that shapes our views of intimate relationships. After all, they are still debating whether violence on TV and in the movies causes violent behavior, inures kids to violence, or has any ill effects at all. Our discussion on this topic should be as complicated and nuanced as any other.

Now, this is a delicate topic to discuss in a big group. I’ll try to keep us focused more on the discussion questions (below) than in most meetings, and let’s all try to keep our comments only moderately explicit. Fair warning: We will have to get into some of the details of what porn actually shows these days in order to explore how it might influence people. I will try to keep us R-rated at worst. But, if you are easily offended consider skipping this one.

Re: Jokes. We’re going to have some fun and get our share of one-liners, some from me. But, how about not so frequent that they kill the flow of discussion nor so crude they’re offensive?


  1. How much: How ubiquitous is porn today,, really? Does “everyone” really use it? What about women? Teens? Other groups?
  2. How bad: Is pornography really “worse” than it used to be?
  3. How mainstream:
    1. Is porn widely accepted in our culture now?
    2. Is the porn POV and themes surfacing in other parts of popular culture? How bad is that?
  4. How study: How do experts study pornography’s impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors?
  5. Impact on adults views of sexuality:
    1. Men’s view of women? Women’s views of men?
    2. Expectation in a relationship?
    3. What is normal sexual expectations or behavior and what is deviant? Homosexuality?
  6. Children/teens: Same Qs.
  7. Violence: Does porn promote misogyny and sexual violence?
  8. What to do:
    1. Are we panicking needlessly; e.g., teenage sex and sexual assaults are down, etc.
    2. If not, what should be done? Can anything be done?


Caution: Some have explicit descriptions – but NOT images! – of porn content.

Next Week March 2: Will Pope Francis Transform Catholicism?

Monday’s Mtg: What Does Science Tell Us About Good and Evil?

The field of study is called “moral psychology.” It’s the study of why we have a moral sense and why we depart from our moral values sometimes and not at other times. Mike suggested we discuss a topic related to – but not equivalent to, necessarily, at least in my opinion – the basic questions moral psychologists try to answer: What does science tell us about “good” and “evil?”

I think they’re not the same because I’m assuming (I’m not sure, not my field) that moral psychology is like all science: It sets aside the idea of whether there is a supernatural force that shapes the natural world. If God or the devil is the source of our acts of good and evil, science cannot know that by definition, right? That is a matter for philosophy or religion, isn’t it?

Still, I like this topic precisely because it begs the question of whether good and evil, in both its individual and societal-level manifestations, can be understood by any one way of thinking about the world. I’m a little dubious that psychology or neurology or any –ology that we have now can fully explain human morality and behavior.

But, Mike had me read this very interesting book on the subject (Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom.) Armed with at least a little knowledge now, I’m looking forward to our discussion and to Mike’s brief opening remarks.

A note on links this week. I found a bunch of stuff on the science of morality and linked to what seemed like good ones below. But, since I am an ignoramus on this subject, I cannot vouch for how mainstream or accepted the points-of-view are, or whether I am excluding any major points of view or key findings in the field.


Next Week: Is Pornography Changing Our Perceptions of Sexuality?

Gary’s Club

FYI, Gary’s Meeting of the Minds club has a new name (Philosophical Minds) and location.  You can find that info, and the group’s current schedule through April 7., by clicking on the “Philosophical Minds” page, above.

Monday’s Mtg: Who Runs the Republican Party?

Congressional leaders and state-level elected officials. Tea Party networks. Neocons, Theocons, and Reformicons (I’ll explain). Fox News and the rest of the conservative news-entertainment complex. Upscale libertarian voters. Downscale white working class voters. Southerners. Westerners. Big corporations and rich donors. The Republican National Committee and other formal party groups. “Shadow party” organizations controlled by the Koch brothers and other super-wealthy donors. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. Scott Walker. Rush Limbaugh. John Boehner (just kidding).

You get the idea. How can we possibly understand who’s in charge of the Republican Party? Political scientists have spent decades studying how American political parties function and they still disagree (academic paper, pdf) about how decisions get made. In a way, it’s an especially bad time to ask who’s running the GOP, since it’s had no president for six years, 25+ potential 2016 nominees, and a congressional leadership that cannot even control their caucus, much less anything larger.

Still, the 2014 election gave the Republican Party a lot of power, about as much as a party get without holding the presidency. The GOP controls Congress and more than one-half of all state governments. They have vast amounts of money, their own news media, and they are united ideologically (mostly). I think it’s a great time to debate who is setting the Party’s agenda and priorities.

I am not particularly well-versed on the polysci of how our parties operate, and ‘m having trouble finding good links on the subject. Still, I am working on it and on Monday I’ll open with a few remarks on the subject that I hope will help us to understand how different actors influence what the GOP stands for. Then, we can discuss whatever.

Note: I feel that some of our meetings have been a little unfocused lately. So, I’m going to try a little harder to keep us on topic this time. The topic is who runs the GOP and how that may be changing, not what do we think of conservative ideology. I’m going to crack down on people giving long history lessons and personal anecdotes, too.

Note II: A lot of links, but not much yet on the (1) polysci or (2) conservative POV.


  1. HOW: What does it mean to “run” or “control” a major American political party? How is that attempted and accomplished (e.g., via organizing, activism, money, promoting popular ideas, control of the news media, etc.)?
  2. WHO: What are the major factions in the Republican Party these days? On what do they agree and disagree?
  3. WHICH: Which faction has the most influence? Why? Are any major disagreements unresolved or finessed?
  4. TODAY: So, what does the Republican Party stand for? Has that changed recently? Was it because of new forces, or just the waxing and waning of old factions?
  5. TOMORROW: Will the factional balance of power within change? How? How will losing or winning the 2016 election contribute?
  6. How do conservative and liberal answers to these questions differ? Can we learn anything from the other side’s answers?


Who controls the GOP?

Which faction dominates?

Which Individuals Matter Most?

Next Week: What can science tell us about Good and Evil?


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