To Speak the Truth: Reflections on the First Democracy Salon

“It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear.”
~Henry David Thoreau

It was the kind of dinner party I dream of. There were candles. And flowers. There was wine. And falafel and tabbouleh and kabobs from the legendary Nicholas Restaurant. And most importantly: nine super-smart people—each of them having been around the block a time or two—gathered around a cozy table for a conversation about the media and public trust. Some of them knew each other, but most did not. They came from journalism and government and civil society. They were lawyers and publishers and pollsters. They were non-profit leaders and professors and editors. Though they all live in Oregon now, they came by way of Minnesota and Texas and Ohio.

But happily, it was not a dream. It was real, and it was the first in a series of Democracy Salons hosted by Healthy Democracy. The idea behind the salons is that our democracy is facing some tough challenges and that frank and surprising conversations might go a long ways toward shoring things up. The hope is that participants will “forge new relationships, collaborate on projects, or simply get their wheels turning on tough topics.” And lucky me—I get to be both a participant in and writer-in-residence for the series.

After we got settled in with full plates and glasses, the first person to speak asked the question on virtually everybody’s mind: “What the hell is going on?” He went on to detail allegations and cross-allegations of fake news and lying and leaking and disloyalty, bemoaning the overall tone of political breathlessness. There were nods and then laughter all around. And with that, the ice was broken, and the group dove right in.

Though it was a free-ranging and high-spirited conversation, several important themes emerged. The first was trust. Trust in government. In journalism. In science. In facts. In one another. And though it was widely agreed that we say we don’t trust institutions—Congress, the media, banks, churches—one participant pointed out that we don’t necessarily act like a people living in a massively distrustful society. Violence is at a nearly historic low, and folks go about purchasing things and sending their kids to school and interacting with strangers in a myriad of casual ways without incident. And yet, record numbers of Americans report that they don’t trust virtually any of our foundational institutions. It made me wonder if we—as a culture—are indulging in a kind of widespread ornamental mistrust. Maybe it has become part of our political brand to be jaded, giving everyone else the side-eye to prove how smart and superior we are.

But as I indulged myself in that provocative rumination, the group showed a keen awareness that safety and social ease are not spread evenly across the society and that there are wide gaps between those who can trust that institutions will basically look after their interests and those who cannot. Of course, this convivial and curious group was not in any way attempting to reach resolution on the issue, but one person asked the question crisply and succinctly: “What is the appropriate balance between trust and skepticism in a pluralistic and free society?”

That, to me, seemed like the question of a lifetime, but the group kept galloping on, noting that both the speed and scale of the contemporary media landscape makes it very difficult for citizens—and here I use the word to mean all people involved in the public sphere, not just legal citizens—to wrap their minds around what matters and what doesn’t. There is just so much data coming at all of us at any given time, from so many diverse sources, that it is easy for the human organism to get overwhelmed and for us to decide the whole enterprise is either craven or rigged. Or both. For good or for ill, stories can blow up into a world-wide phenomenon within minutes—or if the last few weeks have been any indicator, seconds—making it almost impossible for journalists and editors to “think, frame, deliberate, or edit” and for the rest of us to determine what is important or even what is true. With so much information incoming from so many sources, there is no single trusted national (or international) news source and sometimes there is not even a regional or local one. Afterward, one participant wrote to me and said: “[T]here is no national conversation after everyone’s seen the same pictures on television; instead, those images are digested through a super-produced, super-opinionated media meat grinder.” All that hyper-partisan, highly produced shouting is far from people’s lived experience and felt truths, turning people off and creating a sense of profound disconnection from the conversation—if we can call it anything approximating a conversation—going on in the large-scale media. As one person asked at the table: “How do we create a sense of belonging and purpose in a mass society?”

But finally, because this was an optimistic and imaginative group, we started to ask what we can do about it all. Wisely, folks almost immediately turned to scale. There are promising practices at the local level, both amongst media players and in communities. One participant noted that there is an “engaged journalism” movement that centers the reader (or listener or watcher) and focuses on what information she might need to be a full participant in her community. And, there are plenty of places where ordinary people—assuming for the sake of discussion there is such a thing as an “ordinary person”—can come together around things they care about. “It is possible we are putting too much pressure on ideology and politics,” one participant posited. Maybe, several people suggested, we should think about creating non-political spaces where folks can encounter each other in a spirit of fun and relationship. Then later, if we want to, we can turn to politics.

Maybe not coincidentally, that sounds a little like a Democracy Salon. Though in this instance the topics were serious and complex and distinctly political, the atmosphere was light and joyful. Participants enjoyed the food, the company, and the conversation. As far as I could tell, folks felt free to think out loud and try out theories. The stakes were low, but the rewards—in terms of stimulation and connection and social pleasure—were high. And in the end, as people got up to return to their regular lives, there was much standing around and hugging and promises to keep in touch. Just, I suspect, what the good people from Healthy Democracy had hoped for.

—Wendy Willis
(Note that the observations here are mine alone. Because I have the pen—or in this case the cursor—the account of the evening is filtered through my particular perspective.)

Wendy Willis