The One-Sided Argument

When reading or listening to “news” on-line, on television, or in print, we usually see or hear information designed to persuade us to accept one point of view or another. Opinion has never been confined to a specific page of a newspaper, and it is completely ubiquitous on the Internet and television. We see or hear what someone wants us to see or hear.

I don’t think exposure to different points of view or opinions is a bad thing, but I worry that too many of us (including me) gravitate toward sources that reinforce what we already believe. Ideally, we would seek out enough different opinions and factual information to make our own judgments. I think it’s unfortunate, however, how easy it is to accept opinion as fact and then fortify it with more opinion from readily accessible sources.

I have seen research that suggests our brains react differently to information that supports our own views as opposed to news that contradicts what we believe. I suppose my agreement with that research is based on the fact that it supports what I had already concluded. In short, we seem to be programmed to like opinions that are similar to our own and dislike those that contradict us. Just as our bodies seem to be attracted to foods that fatten us up, our heads are attracted to information that makes us fatheaded.

Part of the antidote, if one is needed, is reliable data obtained from sources that have no vested interest in what the data says. Given that most sources have some degree of bias, I think the better answer is to seek information from many different sources and compare it. If we always watch one television network or read one newspaper, I think we run the risk of seeing the same opinions articulated in different ways. I see this manifested on social media where my conservative friends only post information from conservative sources while my liberal friends only share views from liberal places. I sometimes wonder if any of them ever take the time to read the other’s postings.

A benefit of being a city manager is exposure to many different opinions every day and the need to be respectful of most of them. I have learned from my own experience and from watching others that public employees who become ideologues have a difficult time in our profession. We are entitled to our own opinions, and I don’t think we should feel constrained about expressing them. I think, however, we have a special obligation to consider and respect different opinions. The value of avoiding the one-sided argument is the richer understanding of the people around us and the better outcomes that result from considering a variety of alternatives.


Thank You

I’m going to avoid using any names in this column because there are too many to list. I would just like to say “Thank you” to everyone who played a part in passing a bond measure to help build a new police station and fire hall in Albany. These facilities represent an investment in our future and should serve the community for many years to come.

I believe the success of this measure was due in large part to strong leadership, not just from the City Council, but from many respected voices in the community. I’m sure voters asked themselves why so many people from such varied backgrounds contributed their time, talents, and money to help pass the bond measure. The only answer I have that makes sense is that they believe we need the facilities to help ensure quality emergency services now and in the future. Some of those who contributed may never need those services, but they realize a community’s health depends on its civic infrastructure. Voters this week chose the same path that citizens followed when they built Central Elementary School, the Linn County Courthouse, Albany City Hall, and the many other facilities that have served our community well for decades.

Opponents of the measure also played an important role in the process by focusing attention on questions related to cost, location, and need. The measure that passed this week earned voter approval by withstanding rigorous scrutiny and criticism. I think all of those who will be involved in the building of the new stations appreciate the importance of constructing high quality buildings within a well-managed budget. We accomplished that goal with the Albany Public Library, and I am confident we will do it again with these facilities.

I have noted before that one of the great benefits of doing this work is the opportunity to see so many selfless people working to better their community with no thought of financial compensation, celebrity, or other tangible benefits. Whether it’s a mayor who is willing to meet with anyone to discuss concerns or a retiree who volunteers to drive senior citizens to medical appointments, I see people everyday who dedicate themselves to helping others. I feel privileged to live and work in a place that inspires these contributions and provides such a great example for people like me. Albany is special because people care enough to keep investing themselves in making it better.

Conflict Resolution

Marilyn Smith passed along a wonderful cartoon from The New Yorker magazine a few months ago that pictures two opposing armies carrying banners emblazoned with an animal’s head. The caption quotes one army’s general saying, “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God.” The pictures on the banners, of course, can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. The cartoon is amusing and insightful at many different levels. Column 051515

Too often, we look at the same set of facts and circumstances and reach different conclusions based on our own beliefs and biases. My duck is your rabbit, and we are prepared to fight to prove that our view is the only correct one, regardless of whether the difference really matters. I have seen far too many conflicts develop and grow because the need to be right outweighed the importance of doing what was best for all parties.

Usually these conflicts are fueled by finger pointing, name calling, and other equally bad techniques that may provide momentary satisfaction at the expense of understanding. Aggrieved parties then begin to look for opportunities to be offended, rather than more productively working to find solutions. Without positive intervention, the dispute ends up in court or in the worst cases, violence.

I recognize that every dispute has its own dynamic, where a resolution technique that worked well in one situation is a complete failure in another. I believe, however, that there are practices that can help us get past disagreement without poisoning future relationships. Basic respect is almost always a useful tool in getting past differences. I may not like what another person is saying, and I may even dislike the person; but I still feel obligated to be polite whether that courtesy is reciprocated or not.

I also begin with the assumption that the other person wants a positive outcome for both parties as much as I do. If we talk and share information, we should be able to find a place where we can agree. Questioning another’s motives usually just makes them mad and cuts off communication. I have seen many disputes where one or both parties stopped talking, escalated the conflict, and then claimed the other party wouldn’t listen. My experience is that most people hear well, but they don’t necessarily like what they’re hearing. Rephrasing or paraphrasing can be a useful way to put an issue in a different perspective. The duck and the rabbit head are easier to see from different angles.

Humor can help break down barriers and allow us to see things differently if it’s used with good judgment. It’s harder to stay angry or belligerent if you can see the humor in a situation and use it to relieve tension.

If all else fails, I prefer an arbitration or litigation to lining up armies. Courts are expensive, but they can resolve a situation with at least some attempt at fairness and impartiality. These processes also allow the parties to the dispute to part company without acrimony if they choose to do so. My hope is that we will develop more resources to resolve disputes without the financial and emotional costs of litigation. It would be even better if we could figure out how to resolve all our conflicts with our own goodwill, sound judgment, and the ability to understand the other person’s point of view.