Published September 26th, 2014 at 9:08 AM
Allan Katz has spent the better part of a decade trying to solve a big problem in politics and has recently moved his fight to Kansas City. He wants to do the seemingly impossible: teach Kansas Citians on both sides of the aisle to “disagree agreeably.” Katz is the co-founder of the Village Square, a non-partisan public education forum.
He described the program from his new office at UMKC’s Bloch School, where he is distinguished professor of public affairs and political science.
“It’s undertaking people who don’t agree politically and bringing them together in an atmosphere so they can discuss very difficult issues in a calm, fact-based and civil way,” he said.
Seven years ago, Katz founded the Village Square with friend Bill Law in Tallahassee, Florida.
“What I believe is that there are people in the extremes to the left (and) right,” he said. “We’ve always had that in this country, but what’s happened in recent years is that they’ve gone ahead and they’ve hijacked the megaphone. Therefore, people who are center-right or center-left who disagree with each other about certain issues — there’s really no space for them in the public conversation because the extremists have taken it over in the left and right.”
Exposing participants to opinions they may not agree with leads to a more informed community, Katz said.
“We sometime fall into the trap of thinking that our opinions are fact,” he said. “If no one that we are around challenges us, then we have a tendency to be that way.”
The goal of a Village Square conversation isn’t, however, to make participants agree, said Peggy Dunn, mayor of Leawood, Kansas, and co-chair of the Village Square’s new Kansas City chapter.
“It isn’t about coming to consensus on an issue,” she said. “It’s really sitting and listening with respect for someone who thinks and believes very differently than you.”
Katz said that he and other Village Square moderators do not allow incivility — community members are only allowed to participate if they agree to the ground rule of remaining civil. He said this is enforced with civility bells: one Democrat and one Republican participant are charged with ringing the bell if civility is breached — examples of incivility include interrupting or raising voices.
The topics discussed at upcoming Village Square events will cover a wide range. Previous topics in various markets — other Village Squares operate in Tallahassee; Sacramento, California; and St. Petersburg, Florida — have included the future of the media, life in America after 9/11, health care solutions and feminism. Some of the topics are political, to be sure. But Dunn said they don’t all have to be: Speaking about contentious issues in a respectful way should go beyond politics. She said the topics are apolitical.
What’s important, she said, is “having the ability to hear what they’re saying without interruption and without necessarily agreeing, but perhaps hopefully learning something.”
“The Price of Incivility” is the theme planned for the first Village Square KC event, Oct. 9 at the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library. The dinner and discussion is first in a series of “Dinner at the Square” events Village Square will host.
Katz said the format is informal and interactive. Audience members will be invited to ask questions of moderator Katz and three panelists: David Obey, former Wisconsin congressman, John Bluford, the recently retired CEO of Kansas City’s Truman Medical Center, and Bryan Desloge, president of the national association of counties.
Katz said the presence of food has a civilizing effect: It’s hard to argue with someone while breaking bread together. Discussing the issue at hand will also be accompanied by talk of kids, houses and pets, which can lead to a sense of friendship and respect, he said.
Agreeing on controversial issues isn’t necessary for a successful friendship, Katz said. He and his Village Square co-founder, Bill Law, “disagree on most things.” And he remembers going on runs with Law in Tallahassee, where they would argue the whole way.
It seems that Katz and Law have learned how to disagree agreeably — a crucial part of civil discourse on the Village Square.
Visit the Village Square KC website for more information on the organization and the upcoming dinner at the square. Reservations are required.