Episode 57: Joan Blades
Joan Blades is the co-founder of Living Room Conversations, a movement dedicated to fostering meaningful dialogue between Americans of different political ideologies. In addition to her work with Living Room Conversations, Joan was also a co-founder of MoveOn.org and MomsRising. She’s also partly to thank for the After Dark screensaver and flying toasters, which isn’t germane, but is damn cool.
I learned about Joan through Mark Mykleby and she immediately found a place on our “Must Interview” list because she was actually creating the very types of discussions Micah, Neil, and I had hoped to spark with The Conversation. Unsurprisingly, Joan and I talk extensively about the value of conversation, where it is (and isn’t) possible, and its limits. You’ll also hear a lot about American politics—a little more tangible than we usually get in The Conversation—and the role of media and corporate money in shaping thought.
Before jumping into the episode, Micah, Neil, and I would like to say hello and welcome back to all our listeners. I was derailed by a variety of things over the past year but I’ve returned to the land of the living and will, hopefully, be editing the final ten episodes over the next several months. After that, we’re going to discuss The Conversation’s future more seriously—which could involve sending the project out to sea in a burning longship, continuing it in a limited form, or something less predictable.
You tailor-made this episode just for me, didn’t you? It has all the things I ever could have wanted from you guys. <3
It never occurred to me what she said about people who may be active participants in dialogue with other groups having a decent chance of being subject to shunning by their own group. Perhaps that alone can account for what massive divisions between thought we now see.
I kind of wonder how such echo chambers form in the first place; she hinted at this issue when she said that online media is good for enabling conversation, but still isn't quite optimal at sustaining it. I've noticed in plenty of internet forums, groups of people will end up forming a strawman opponent for a topic on some topic-related outgroup when someone of such a position isn't immediately available to defend it. Eventually, when an actual person of that strawman arrives on the scene to present the much-belated viewpoint, they are already at a disadvantage to fight the bogeyman of their likeness that was manufactured in advance.
This opens up so many questions! If there is now entirely different realities people are operating in, what could be the trace of that? Do we need some metamethod for tracking the spread and evolution of various kinds of narrative, information, and misinformation throughout multiple social systems? Do we know any epistemologists who'd have that kind of thing?
One thing that struck me here is how Blades’s view is fundamentally conservative. She’s deeply distrustful of collective action as facilitated by any kind of central entity, especially government. From the long-term, Conversation with a capital ‘C’ POV, that seems to be a much more defining political stance than any particular political position. This is something I’ve often felt from Net Roots and its inheritors: their deep skepticism of organized politics and parties is a lot more resonant with a kind of libertarianism or, at best, bottom-up community organizing than the real functioning social democracies that seem to have actually enacted all the policies for which they advocate.
In this conversation Blades hinted at some potential large-scale emergent behavior that could happen if the Living Room Conversations idea spread widely enough (enabled by its bottom-up, digital, “open source” style), but didn’t really go into what that would entail? Did she say any more about that in the unedited conversation? Or is having explicit political goals that can only be achieved through collective action too divisive to allow for conversation?