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Archive for June, 2010

For the past three months, I have been working on an AmericaSpeaks project, Our Budget, Our Economy. OBOE will link 19 sites across the county in a National Town Meeting about the Federal budget, specifically the unsustainable growing debt. We recently got some great press from a blog from Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist.org) on the SFGate.com City Brights Blog. But there were three words (four if you count a hyphenated word as two) that struck me.

Please fact-check me

I started to think back on how many times I’ve suffered writer’s block or felt incapable of joining a conversation because I was afraid I didn’t have enough information or that someone would expose my ignorance. How often have you sat quietly in a lively conversation unsure about whether or not you had enough information to fully participate? Have you ever chosen silence because it was more comfortable than taking the risk that you might be wrong?

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?

I worry about those silent masses who are too overwhelmed by the details of public policies and too insecure to speak up even though they may be adversely affected by decisions made on their behalf.

But I also worry about those who have no problem belting out unsubstantiated “facts” carefully selected to confirm their previously held conclusions. With mind made up, they readily find data that proves their point while blindly missing anything that should cause pause and reflection. Their positions seem questionable, but their declarations are so assured that no one mounts a serious challenge. Or they are confronted by someone from another side equally armed with a set of “facts” that they vehemently use to prove exactly the opposite “truth”.

So what could perhaps help change the conversation in the midst of a “fact war” that silences some and incites others to hysteria?

What if we quit fighting about who’s facts are correct and started talking about what we value and share? What if we had an “out” that would allow the inhibited to speak from the heart without fear of being called a fool? And what if we were less focused on fighting for our preferred version of the facts and more open to different interpretations? What if we could find a way to move forward and not get mired in the details?

On June 26, thousands of people across the country will gather to talk about our federal debt. AmericaSpeaks has worked with an impressive team of National Advisors and a smaller content team to construct printed materials that will provide a Federal Budget 101 education for participants and a discussion guide (forthcoming) that will frame the conversation. These materials have been vetted for fairness and balance by institutions and individuals of diverse perspectives. And the materials explicitly address the assumptions and rationale for the projections that have been used in the framing.

These materials will be valuable for people willing to study and able to grasp the complex intricacies of our federal budget process. And I commend the crew for tackling this behemoth task. Job well done. But it won’t be enough – could never be enough – for many of us to feel like we are expert enough to propose solutions. Others may read the materials finely picking through the data to make sure that their “obvious answer” is supported. Not finding a strong argument to support their preferred solutions, they will be ready to pounce.

So here’s what I propose…

On June 26, let’s add another element to this already grand and challenging experiment. Let’s allow ourselves to just say, “Please fact-check me.” This could provide an opening for those who feel less informed to share their concerns and ideas without fear of ridicule. It would remind the falsely self-assured that NO ONE really has all of the answers, especially when we don’t agree on the issues or the circumstances that led us here.

Please fact-check me.

But please do it later. In the meantime, let us get on with the important deliberation about what we value, how we will make tough decisions, what message we want to send to our elected leaders, what kind of economy we want to leave to our kids, and what kind of sacrifices we are willing to make to get the results we want.

Yeah, the facts, the data, the projections are all important. But let’s not let our obsession with being right and being an expert keep some silent. And hopefully, those who hold strong opinions based on their slice of expertise will be willing to suspend the need to be right long enough to entertain new possibilities.

As I understand it, the consequences of inaction on the federal budget are too dire to let the problem continue while we engage in a fact war.

But please, fact-check me.

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