Monthly Archives: September 2021

What Is Common Ground and How Do You Find It

You will never go wrong telling the parties to a conflict to “find common ground.” Common ground is a powerful proposition that is the basis for discussion and debate. And common ground is related to “shared understanding” which can be described as a naïve and idealistic state (a sort of fantasy) that doesn’t exist because of powerful social and cultural forces that make for diverse groups and perspectives. Common ground is a remnant of the striving for consensus in solving problems.

There are two senses of common ground. One is a technical feat which involves a reliance on common ground in order to make sense of an utterance. The pronominal system of a language is a key component here. Consider the following utterance:

A: John played with his new computer game yesterday.

B: That must’ve been fun.

A common understanding of the pronominal system is necessary to understand the necessary antecedents. Speaker B assumes a common understanding of how pronouns refer to previous terms.

But a second sense of common ground looks for more general meanings. The best way to find common ground here is to (a) raise the level of abstraction, (b) define words, or (c) pay attention to moral implications by asking questions. Raising the level of abstraction means to widen the concept so it’s more inclusive. So, rather than have two conflicting parties argue about specifics of land or resources, raise the level abstraction by having them discuss peace which both of them desire and agree upon. Defining words clarifies issues such that if I described someone as “conservative” we should know what we mean by the use of that term. And asking questions, especially open-ended questions, in order to ferret out moral implications, helps move the parties toward more common understanding of concepts and ideas.

For example, if I accuse Republicans of being indifferent to the plight of the poor my argument will fail unless I find common ground. In other words, I must raise the level of abstraction by focusing on the common goals of both sides (responding legislatively to the poor) defining the concept of “Republican;” that is, who are we talking about, and asking questions about moral responsibility as well as questions that clarify confusion and differences.

Originally, group decision-making, problem-solving, and deliberative processes set “consensus” as their primary goal. Participants in any of these decision-making processes should engage in vigorous debate and contestation that results in the opening up and change of perspectives leading to overlapping conceptions and ideas about an issue. This is the stuff of common ground. But even though consensus is considered the gold standard of discussion and deliberation, the drive for consensus was considered exclusionary, inappropriate, and unfair given different pathologies and cultural practices.

When we talk to people we know, we start from shared assumptions and knowledge that we have built up over time, based on what we each know about the other and on our earlier interactions. Shared or mutual knowledge is a necessary component of communication. This shared knowledge is now generally referred to as common ground, and it plays a critical role in how we process and accumulate information in the course of communicative interactions. Common ground can be characterized by the range of shared knowledge that is involved. With communal common ground, for example, people share information at the community level, information about such topics as nationality, language, religion, or schooling. But they also share common ground with specific individuals. This personal common ground comprises information shared by two or more individuals over and above any communal common ground. It could include details of where each person grew up, their favorite writers, the time one of them takes to run a mile, the restaurant they last had a meal in together, and so on. For each individual, both communal and personal common ground accumulate over time, within the community, and in relation to particular individuals. With grounding, information known to the speaker becomes accepted and recognized by the listener.

Finally, all of these issues related to common ground are more robust if the conflicting parties are treating each other as noble adversaries rather than mortal enemies.

The New Polarization: Tribalism-Populism

It is now common enough to describe so many social dilemmas as a consequence of polarization, or a sharp division between two groups (e.g. conservative-liberal, Republican-Democrat, authoritarian-permissive).

Tribalism is characterized by a powerful cultural or ethnic identity that separates groups. It is based on strong relations of proximity and imagined kinship, as well as a relations rooted in the mutual survival of both the individual members and the group or tribe.

This tribalism and group identification leads to an authoritarianism that can, of course, be dangerous and violent. But what’s particularly interesting is the gravitational pull of some ideological groups. For example, a couple of decades ago scholars and public intellectuals alike would have described U. S. progress as expanding liberalism, and values focused on democracy, capitalism, and freedom. But if you look around today you will find increased authoritarianism – fortified by the presence of God – as well as more botched democracies.

What’s interesting is the new and expanded role of religion in these tribal and polarized times. From a statistical standpoint, religion is losing ground, and has been losing ground for some time. Church attendance is down and fewer people report membership and identification with religious groups. The actual appeal of religion is diminished.

Populism is not reliant on tribalism but still seeks to appeal to the “average” citizen who feels that his or her needs and values are ignored or disrespected. But right wing populism marries nationalism with populist ideology that places cultural blame on  elites. Right wing populism also relies on charismatic leaders. Consequently, Donald Trump fails by any standard of competency and decency

But religion maintains its hold on many people and continues to be a symbol of power and psychological identity. The religion-secular divide is one of the most prominent. There are of course “holy” wars in Islam which are integrated into Islamic political life. Islamic holy wars are perhaps the most specific example of a religious-secular divide and the power of the motivating force of religion. The divide between the Islamic holy warrior and other tribal groups is the most sharp, and the least likely to be influenced by some moderating influence.

Other cultures have interestingly incorporated religious traditions into justifications consistent with modern authoritarian governments. China skillfully draws on Confucianism aligned with Marxism in order to justify its core social-secular values with religious traditions.

Given the exactitude and “correctness” associated with religion, it is often used to communicate strength and truth. So, violent and politically extreme groups incorporate religious symbols to communicate their seriousness and sense of strength. It is not uncommon to see crosses on helmets or other paraphernalia. The skull and cross bones printed across the back of a leather jacket has little or nothing to do with the ideology of a particular group but much to do with the expression of the group’s sense of itself as serious – as serious as death.

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