No Diatribes Allowed

Liz Joyner encourages political opposites to disagree in a civilized mannerNo Diatribes AllowedThe Village Square Offers a Venue for People to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable Click to enlarge

Liz Joyner is the founder of The Village Square, a nonprofit organization that coordinates public forums where Tallahassee residents can discuss timely topics ranging from global warming to health care reform.
The idea is to put people who disagree politically, such as conservatives and liberals, in a room together to debate important issues without devolving into shouts and name-calling.

Tallahassee Magazine writer Lilly Rockwell recently spoke with Joyner about her efforts to tame our nation’s increasingly fiery civil discourse, one forum at a time. Here is some of what Joyner had to say:

I was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered for some political campaigns, and I’ve always been civically minded. When I helped City Commissioner Allan Katz’s re-election campaign, I noticed that in Tallahassee, people had a unique capacity to disagree, sometimes vehemently, without it becoming personal.

There was true statesmanship here locally, but not a trace of it nationally.

I got more and more disturbed as I watched the national civic dialogue go down the tubes. We’ve turned our civic dialogue over to entrepreneurial yellers who make big money keeping us angry at each other.

Demographic trends consistently show that we are becoming more and more isolated in our ideological bubbles, whether it’s the TV we watch, the church we go to, or even the neighborhood we choose to live in.

Without the personal connection with people that you don’t see eye-to-eye with, it’s very easy to begin to vilify them.

There is an elegant and natural solution: revive good, old-fashioned community, where neighbors are connected and engaged with each other despite the fact that they disagree.

I would liken a good civic conversation to capitalism in the marketplace. By having competing — and sometimes opposing — ideas, it helps you solve problems.

We try to balance our panels with conservatives and liberals, and our board is split down the middle — 50 percent lean conservative and the other half leans liberal.

I was very lucky to have really smart people who were willing to kind of stake their reputation on this, whether I messed it up or not. One of the things I learned in working with people who are very busy and are leaders is they have to have nerve.

That first time, we started out with all of our questions written from the audience because we were a little afraid. We now mix it up. Some are written and some are asked.

We introduced civility bells at our dinners. The idea was to ring them whenever anyone was getting out of line. They were given to my co-chairs at our first dinner, one conservative and one liberal. In the current political environment, that sounds like a pretty flimsy thing between you and 150 people to keep the peace, but they have been amazingly successful.

One rule we try to follow is we ask people not to do team clapping. You see that in national town-hall debates, where one side claps after someone is done making a point they believe in. It does more to cement an idea than it does to deepen anybody’s understanding.

Usually we pick one theme for the entire year and have four dinners on different aspects of that theme. Last year was the faith and politics season.

If you really threw yourself into what we’re doing at The Village Square and came to a bunch of forums, I believe if you are a conservative you’ll become more liberal and if you’re a liberal you’ll become more conservative. I tend to be politically more liberal, and I would say my views have moderated a little bit to the right.

It’s difficult to get people to come when the topic sounds like eating vegetables. In the process of leading responsible adult lives, there are plenty of things that are important to do that we don’t really love to do. But the more that we come together as a community, the more we understand.

Tallahassee is a great community, and it’s got just the right building blocks to make this happen.

For more information about The Village Square and its activities, visit

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