Guns: An American Conversation

Guns: An American Conversation

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Problems and Purpose

 

History

The issue of gun violence is one that divides Americans, and has so for many years.  This division leads to shouting matches from opposing sides, where not much substance of the issue is discussed, leading to little progress being made in tackling it. Yet rarely do people sustain a real conversation on guns, not just with people who share the same views, but with those who don’t (Diane Tsai, 2018).  In order to engage American citizens in the conversation, “a coalition of American newsrooms owned by Advance Local launched Guns: An American Conversation with the journalism organization Spaceship Media” (Oregonian, 2018).  This project would start off with a small group of 21 people with differing views on guns, meeting in Washington DC during the weekend of the March for Our Lives rally – March 23-24.  Then expanding to include another 130 people in a closed, moderated Facebook group that would last till the beginning of May 2018 (Local, 2018).  It would enable participants to build a strong empathetic relationship with others with differing views; and most importantly to understand to each other’s views without judgement.  Michelle Holmes, project director, explains that now is the time to find common territory and to ask ourselves: “How can we break through the shouting and the noise?” and “How can we hear one another’s hearts speaking?” (Diane Tsai, 2018).

Originating Entities and Funding

This project was set up by Advance Local who collaborated with Spaceship Media, both parties are interested in creating a deeper connection in communities that ease polarization and bring about a meaningful dialogue between individuals.  Other collaborators include TIME magazine, Essential Partners and the Newseum, with the latter hosting the two-day workshop for the closed-group of 21 individuals (Media, 2018).  As the project expanded to incorporate 130 more individuals on the Facebook group, there was the need for more moderators to moderate the conversations.  There is no evidence of any funding used to include more moderators as the project was carried out on Facebook - a free social media platform – and moderators would moderate during their free time whilst working their day jobs.  This is evident with the example of one moderator Brittany Walter Pettigrew, being part of the moderating body for the Facebook group whilst also working as a child-welfare manager in Oakland, California (Kelly Benham French, 2018).  

Participant Selection

The organizers process of recruiting participants was totally random, as ordinary citizens were asked to put their names forward.  Altogether, more than 800 applications were sent in via email and internet application to Advance Local.com (Institute, 2018). The applications received by those interested were moving and genuine stories from real-life citizens, wanting to be part of this important conversation.  One had been a victim of armed rape and has “been an advocate of more gun control” because of their experience whilst another applicant had explained that their family “own and operate a ‘mom and pop’ gun shop…this issue directly affects my family’s ability to live the American dream” (Institute, 2018). 

In the end, 21 people were selected for the two-day workshop in Washington, whilst another 130 people were added to the closed moderated Facebook group.  There was a diverse range of individuals “who have vastly different perspectives on the role of guns” who were selected to participate at the workshop (Local, 2018).  There were “teachers, gun-rights advocates, hunters, police officers, mothers and fathers who hailed from New Jersey to Alabama to Portland” at the workshop  (Diane Tsai, 2018).   In the online group, people were invited to post a picture of themselves and to write a little bit about why they are in this group and what they want out of this conversation (Lavin, 2018).

Methods and Tools Used

Guns: An American Conversation is an example of the practice of mini publics to engage citizens in a structured deliberation of a given topic.  The concept of random selection emphasises this in two ways. Firstly, it is able to “produce a descriptively representative sample” whilst also bringing about a more “deliberative quality” to the conversation.  This drowns out the shouting matches between different sides generating a “more nuanced debate with a group of random citizens”.[1]

Organizers – Advance Local and Spaceship Media – work together in this experiment with the use of ‘dialogue journalism’ specially developed by Spaceship Media.  Its main focus is to encourage “listening and lead to content that reflects the rich experience of tackling tough issues” (Media, 2018).  For Guns: An American Conversation, the goal wasn’t about changing people’s mind on guns, but about using the tools of dialogue journalism to “humanize each other” so that this can be the beginning of no more “breakdowns in public spaces for civil discourse” (Kelly Benham French, 2018).

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

During the two-day workshop in Washington, the 21 participants were guided throughout the two days by moderators from ‘essential Partners’ – John Sarrouf and Parisa Parsa.  For the first few hours on the first day, nothing was discussed about the gun issue. The sole focus was about people opening up “to each other about who they were” and coaching them on “asking better questions, to avoid marginalizing words” so they no one was offended by the question (Kelly Benham French, 2018; Lavin, 2018).  Once everybody had opened up about themselves, the issue of guns was introduced and there was no need for shouting or name-calling from the participants.  Participants had started to get to know each other without knowing their beliefs on guns, generating “empathy for each other and understanding their points of view” (Lavin, 2018).

As the project moved onto the online Facebook group and included an additional 130 online conversants, moderators noticed it was harder for individuals to connect empathetically, making it harder for some to understand others beliefs.  The worry was with the inclusion of additional individuals, the extreme ends of the gun-control discussion would dominate the conversation, diverting away from the goal of the project.  However, the group showed that they were more than willing “to have a serious conversation about guns”  (Lavin, 2018). When confronted with difficult or aggressive communication styles from certain individuals, moderators could have easily kicked them off the group but saw another way to deal with the situation.  They felt it would have been easier to engage with individuals in one-on-one conversations via phone call or even Facebook messenger.  It led to greater online engagement as there was a sense that being known by a few individuals in the large group, even if they didn’t share the same views, they had this feeling of understanding each other views (Parsa, 2018).

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Once the online project came to a close at the beginning of May, there was a general consensus around the group of the importance of reflecting and giving people a chance to have their say.  It shows that in order to give people a chance to better understand one another we should do the simplest of things, and that is to listen.  For participant – Alexis Intili – she learnt a great deal from listening to others.  Before the start of the project, she admitted to being a “closed-minded, bubble dwelling name caller” but has now supressed that reflex whenever in a disagreement with a work colleague, and instead asks them why they feel that way (Kelly Benham French, 2018).  Furthermore, Alexis is using the lessons she learnt from this project and is hoping to repeat what she learnt with her “stubborn leaders” hoping to bring about a true conversation in her community (Kelly Benham French, 2018).  Even though this project wasn’t about winning an argument or changing minds because whilst “we may not always agree, understanding is key” (Lavin, 2018).  Having that desire to understand and feeling that same connection, leads to the possibility of wanting to do something about that issue.  For that reason, moderators noticed that they could have kept the online conversation going for months to fully reach a consensus of understanding that could have then been used for “productive inroads and proposals surfaced for potential continued work on the issue” (Parsa, 2018).  It was clear that this project helped American citizens to engage in structured deliberation across such a sensitive issue. They now have the ability to question others view but most importantly, they should understand their views.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Guns: An American Conversation uses the institutional conditions of a deliberative democracy through the format of mini publics.  This is because citizens are engaged in a structured deliberation with an inclusive and representative subgroup of an affected population (Smith, 2014).  Fung criticises that the function of mini publics like Guns: An American Conversation that uses the intermediate definition of it, as it leads to different forms of deliberation amongst the group.  As the conversation between participants is more reasoned, this affects the quality of deliberation (Smith, 2014).  Yet, there is little empirical verification of this, because there is little known about how to best measure deliberation within mini publics because of the different definitions of it.  Furthermore, deliberative democrats are particularly interested in mini-publics because participants are orientated towards considering the public good with no representative in the way to correct them.  For that reason, they should be genuinely representative enough to be genuinely democratic (Dryzek, 2006).  However, the extent of mini publics being considered democratic enough is debated by those who consider deliberative democracy to not be fully concerned with the structural features of the wider society, hence cannot be genuinely considered democratic (Pateman, 2012). As Guns: An American Conversation was about an issue that was on every Americans mind, you’d expect more people to be involved in this issue wanting to have a conversation, though this was initially difficult.  At first, the conversation was dominated by white males without much input from others and was not genuinely representative of the wider community, but moderators would “nudge women and young people to speak up” (Kelly Benham French, 2018).   If it wasn’t for the facilitation of the moderators, would the women and young people in the group have spoken up?  It could be argued that within the use of mini publics, those who participate more and dominate the conversation tend to be white males because they have participated in politics in other ways whereas women and young people would not have done so as much. Additionally, there are significant issues regarding the transferability and publicity of mini-publics to a much broader public sphere.  In today’s political climate, this connection between the public and the mini-public participants is particularly sensitive “between the protected democratic space and the action and interactions of the media” (Smith, 2014, p. 24).  Often news media will tend to favour conflict and polarisation rather than virtues of deliberation whilst also the classification of such a hot topic like guns, can be sensitive to the politically salient cleavages of  American society.  

Secondary Sources

Diane Tsai, F. T. &. S. S., 2018. What Happens When You Reimagine the Difficult Conversation About Guns. [Online] 
Available at: http://time.com/5226590/guns-conversation-america/
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Dryzek, R. G. &. J., 2006. Deliberative Impacts: The Macro-Political Uptake of Mini-Publics. Politics & Society, 34(2), pp. 219-244.

Institute, T. P., 2018. New 'dialogue journalism' project will immerse itself in gun debate. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.poynter.org/news/new-dialogue-journalism-project-will-immers...
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Kelly Benham French, T. F. &. B. M., 2018. 21 Americans With Opposing Views on Guns Sat Down to Talk to Each Other. Here's what they discovered.. [Online] 
Available at: http://time.com/longform/both-sides-gun-control/
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Lavin, E., 2018. I moderated a conversation about guns with 150 Americans. How we found common ground. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/06/i_moderated_a_conversation_...
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Local, A., 2018. Guns: An American Conversation Launches in Washington, DC. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.advancelocal.com/guns-an-america-conversation-launches-in-wa...
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Media, S., 2018. Projects - Guns: An American Conversation. [Online] 
Available at: https://spaceshipmedia.org/projects/
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Media, S., 2018. What We Do?. [Online] 
Available at: https://spaceshipmedia.org/#aus
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Oregonian, T., 2018. 'Guns: An American Conversation' How the Project Came Together. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2018/06/guns_an_american_conv...
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Parsa, P., 2018. Guns: An American Conversation. [Online]
Available at: https://whatisessential.org/blog/guns-american-conversation
[Accessed 28 November 2018].

Pateman, C., 2012. Participatory democracy revisted. Perspectives on Politics, 10(1), pp. 7-19.

Smith, M. R. &. G., 2014. Defining Mini-Publics. In: A. B. a. M. S. Kimmo Grönlund, ed. Deliberative mini-publics: involving citizens in the democratic process. Colchester: ECPR Press, pp. 9-27.

 

External Links

 

Notes

 

Case Data

Overview

General Issue(s): 
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Location

Geolocation: 
Washington DC
United States
US
Geographical Scope: 
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History

Start Date: 
Thursday, March 22, 2018
End Date: 
Monday, April 30, 2018
Ongoing: 
No
Number of Meeting Days: 
33.00

Participants

Total Number of Participants: 
151
Targeted Participants (Demographics): 
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Method of Recruitment: 

Process

Methods: 
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Facilitation?: 
Yes
Facetoface, Online or Both: 
Face-to-Face
Online
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Organizers

Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
Advance Local & Spaceship Media
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Who else supported the initiative? : 
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Resources

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