Am I a fascist of optimism?

CBC commentator, new media personality and consultant Jesse Hirsh responded to a TorCamp email list posting I left about an upcoming event I’m facilitating. In his reply, he claimed that I exclude, discourage, edit or otherwise censor critical dis…

CBC commentator, new media personality and consultant Jesse Hirsh responded to a TorCamp email list posting I left about an upcoming event I’m facilitating. In his reply, he claimed that I exclude, discourage, edit or otherwise censor critical discourse at events that I facilitate.

Actually Mark, it means I know that you’ll exclude any critical discourse as
not being constructive or solutions-oriented.

On Thu, Nov 26, 2009 at 3:35 PM, Mark Kuznicki <mark.kuzni@gmail.com>wrote:

> This event may be of interest to TorCampers. It’s about the digital media
> industry and community in Toronto and how to propel it into the future.> Disclosure: I’ve been hired by CDMN to facilitate. So you know it’ll be
> good. 😉

Is Jesse alone? I don’t think he is. I take Jesse’s statement seriously. Not that I can’t handle criticism of my work, or imagining that somebody out there might just not like me. I’m ok with both of those.

My concern is that the success of my work depends on dialogue, and dialogue requires critical insight and reflection as an ingredient. People like Jesse are great additions to these kinds of dialogues. But are they put off by the friendly, positive and solutions-oriented language that I use? Is my approach too touchy feely for them?

I often go back to the mantra I coined for TransitCamp in my work today: “This is not a complaints department, it is a solutions playground.”  Is this mantra of playful seriousness off-putting for people who are serious, intellectual and are looking for a good debate?

What is the right balance between, roles of and relationship between criticism and co-creation?

If you have some thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

23 thoughts on “Am I a fascist of optimism?”

  1. Have you censored critical discourse at events that you’ve facilitated? I don’t think so.Personally, I think people take these types of events FAR too seriously. And while their topical focus is important, and while these discussions need to be had, I also feel that life is too short to be getting all worked up about the facilitation style of others.The fact is, people who attend these events with the intent to complain instead of coming up with solutions, are often those that have nothing of value to offer to other attendees and those that can effect change. They seem to think that complaining is the easier road to getting what they want, when in fact it only makes people less likely to listen to them. Complaints are one-sided and aggressive conversations; they raise the backs (and the stress levels) of those listening and don’t really solve anything.A solutions-oriented is much more effective. If you can influence and inform guests about the environment before they arrive, then the event will be much more fruitful in terms of getting things done.Personally, I think the playful seriousness is a welcome addition. I like it. And you shouldn’t change it for anyone.

  2. Thanks for the comment @jkozuch. But I wonder, aren’t we missing something if we don’t have the edgiest of edge voices? I don’t think that the particular individual matters, but I am always concerned about diversity and mix of the people who come to these kinds of open collaborative events. It’s part of the magic.

  3. "This is not a complaints department, it is a solutions playground."I know the intent here, particularly with TransitCamp and Metronauts, was to make sure people were working to move the discussion forward rather than coming to bitch about the same old transportation issues that, for some reason, the TTC can’t wrap their heads around (ridiculous fares, needlessly restrictive transfer rules, one-way trips, worker attitude, and so on). I don’t see that as being the target of Jesse’s criticism. I believe Jesse is referring to the facilitators role in making specific decisions to move off topics in order to drive a conversation forward. I’m referring to scenarios where time limited discussions can get sidetracked by a dissenting voice, while others (usually the majority) are ready to make something happen. When you’re limited to 45 minutes, a half day, or whatever, at some point the facilitator needs to say no more and move on or nothing will get accomplished. I don’t see that as a lack if interest in critical discourse; I see it as an interest in accomplishing something. In this scenario, it’s an issue of time and place. And there’s a balance to what can and can’t be explored given the environment. I don’t believe for a minute that you’re not interested in engaging in critical discourse, Mark, but I do believe that you’ve made firm decisions to move forward in specific situations where, given the opportunity, it would be ideal to continue to explore other alternatives. It’s a judgement call that a facilitator needs to make, and you’re more inclined to move towards a solution than use the time up discussion unexplored alternatives. If there’s enough passion to continue exploring alternatives or issues with a given solution, this should be happening outside the framework of the "solutions playground". Which brings up the difficulty of maintaining engagement and ongoing conversation following an (un)conference. I certainly see the value of making yourself available for post-conference discussions for anyone who didn’t feel their voice was heard. As a facilitator or organizer, I’d see this as great value to you and the cause. What’s the framework for something like this to happen? Acknowledging when someone is cut off that you’re interested in engaging with them through the Google Group, email, etc., but it’s time now to move on might be the best plan of attack.And, of course, I could be on another wavelength than Jesse on this topic. Jesse?

  4. "This is not a complaints department, it is a solutions playground."I know the intent here, particularly with TransitCamp and Metronauts, was to make sure people were working to move the discussion forward rather than coming to bitch about the same old transportation issues that, for some reason, the TTC can’t wrap their heads around (ridiculous fares, needlessly restrictive transfer rules, one-way trips, worker attitude, and so on). I don’t see that as being the target of Jesse’s criticism.I believe Jesse is referring to the facilitators role in making specific decisions to move off topics in order to drive a conversation forward. I’m referring to scenarios where time limited discussions can get sidetracked by a dissenting voice, while others (usually the majority) are ready to make something happen. When you’re limited to 45 minutes, a half day, or whatever, at some point the facilitator needs to say no more and move on or nothing will get accomplished. I don’t see that as a lack if interest in critical discourse; I see it as an interest in accomplishing something.In this scenario, it’s an issue of time and place. And there’s a balance to what can and can’t be explored given the environment. I don’t believe for a minute that you’re not interested in engaging in critical discourse, Mark, but I do believe that you’ve made firm decisions to move forward in specific situations where, given the opportunity, it would be ideal to continue to explore other alternatives. It’s a judgement call that a facilitator needs to make, and you’re more inclined to move towards a solution than use the time up discussion unexplored alternatives.If there’s enough passion to continue exploring alternatives or issues with a given solution, this should be happening outside the framework of the "solutions playground". Which brings up the difficulty of maintaining engagement and ongoing conversation following an (un)conference. I certainly see the value of making yourself available for post-conference discussions for anyone who didn’t feel their voice was heard. As a facilitator or organizer, I’d see this as great value to you and the cause. What’s the framework for something like this to happen? Acknowledging when someone is cut off that you’re interested in engaging with them through the Google Group, email, etc., but it’s time now to move on might be the best plan of attack.And, of course, I could be on another wavelength than Jesse on this topic. Jesse?

  5. I fully endorse the addition of the edgiest, most controversial people who will play devils’ advocate, as long as they do so with the end goal in mind: to help solve a problem through a calm, rational discussion. No tempers, no one hot under the collar, no attitudes."… I am always concerned about diversity and mix of the people who come to these kinds of open collaborative events. It’s part of the magic."Concerned in which way?

  6. Thanks for the comment Lee. I tagged this post "reflection" because it’s a great opportunity for it.Post-event engagement continues to be the #1 challenge in this work. For client work, I am continually amazed how clients will happily participate and engage at an event, but have so much difficulty participating and nurturing ongoing discussion online. Not only do they not have the skills, capacity, orientation, etc, but they often don’t see the value in those capabilities and will not invest in order to develop them. With a limited budget, community management is often the first thing to drop. It’s sad, and a lost opportunity.So I reflect on how I can better connect these capabilities, communicate the value and practice of after-care to clients and offer that service either directly or through partners.

  7. Justin, I’m concerned in that I constantly think about diverse communities and how to best engage and optimize for diversity. Innovation happens at the edge and at the collision of edges. That’s the spark that I’m looking for.

  8. I think I understand where you are coming from. You’re looking for the sweet spot.Find the communities that would be interested in those discussions (even if they are not the types of communities that usually discuss those topics) and engage them. You might be surprised at what happens. You could find some very passionate people in those space.

  9. I quite seriously doubt I ever uttered the phrase ???fascist of optimism,?????which you attributed to me in a Twit. (I scarcely ever use the term ???fascist.??? A bit too loaded, don???t you think? And don???t your parents remember the War?) You do in fact want everything positive at all times. You just culled every curmudgeon out of your life, for example.

  10. Welcome Joe Clark to the conversation, glad you joined us! Oh wait, there goes that cloying positivity again.There’s no question that I have a bias for positivity. It’s how I choose live my life, a choice I do not apologize for.But those who know me know that I’m also incredibly patient and accepting of those who see the glass of the world as half-empty, because a lot of the time I believe that they’re right but mostly because I (perhaps mistakenly) believe that I can convert them to the power of positive thinking.Maybe "The Secret" made an impact on me. (Not a big one). Maybe it was Peter Block. Or Otto Scharmer. Or the Buddha. For whatever reason, I believe that the world can be a better place if we all can marshal our attention and intentions toward possibility rather than deficit. I believe language is powerful, and how we use words is critical to creating space for a better future.I recognize that we are surrounded by failure, entrenched power, vapidity, incuriosity and all forms of exclusion. I have eyes. It is profound dissatisfaction with the status quo that is the reason why I am working to effect change and community transformation.Perhaps I don’t articulate this enough, but I have chosen to effect change by bending these forces in whatever small ways I can towards possibility.I believe that positive engagement has always been more effective at profound social change than physical or verbal violence. This is the space that I have chosen to operate with in.Others are much better able effect change through battle than I am. I prefer to do so through dialogue. That is my choice. It is who I am.

  11. Yes, but we???re talking not about your life philosophy but your facilitation of groups, where, Jesse alleges, anyone who just isn???t as positive and cheerful as you feels squelched. My experience with fractious groups has been that they are taxing and unpleasant. It hasn???t been that they can???t come to an agreement. It tends to take the entire time allotted to the event, however. Just as an example, W3C meetings. Some systems have practical benefits in managing anger during meetings, like a speakers??? queue you can join and leave.But more broadly, what Jesse is saying is that you are at the very far end of the scale of Normals, who find people like me and Jesse just impossible because we walk into the place with criticisms to air. Even though we are perfectly civil while we???re there. Toronto <i>does not like dissent</i>.

  12. My life philosophy is built into that mantra "not a complaints department, a solutions playground", so my philosophy and my facilitation style are absolutely linked.Joe, I remember when you played the role of a stakeholder in a Design Slam event organized by Bryce Johnson, which was setup along the lines of a solutions playground. That experience in part inspired me and gave birth to that mantra. Was that a bad event or experience for you or others?I understand that it takes many people a lot of time to get to the place of trust that allows for this kind of productive play. This is why I find Otto Scharmer’s <a href="http://www.presencing.com/presencing-theoryu/theoryu.shtml">Theory U process</a> to be so powerful in the context of longer and deeper processes of individual, group and community change. From Open Mind to Open Heart to Open Will. Very powerful. I want to start applying it.In the open community context it is noone’s job or work assignment to show up and engage. There is no specific pre-determined work outcome (as W3C meetings would have) other than engagement and dialogue. In this context, I choose to create a seriously playful frame from the beginning. People are giving up a day of their lives to engage around a question, and it doesn’t have to be painful. These large group dialogues are speculative explorations to see what emerges. People self-select if they want to explore in this way, some will not and that’s ok. Open doesn’t mean everyone. The outcome isn’t a defined set of standards or a specific work product. Rather, the outcomes are new relationships between people and ideas and the digital artifacts that they leave behind.If the DigitalMediaCamp event, for example, were to spawn a deeper, longer-term and intentional change process, then I would absolutely go back to Theory U and take a much longer time to bring opposing views to the place where they can at least get to Open Mind. But that is only a milestone toward Open Heart and Open Will. Open Will is where the magic lies. And from that place of magic, the future that wants to be can emerge. And after spending some time in that place, we would begin the work of bringing that future into being. I’d love to be part of a process like that. DigitalMediaCamp is not that process. At least, not yet.

  13. Devil’s advocate is good and all, but it doesn’t have a spot in the place where we are coming up with creative ideas and exploring possibilities.I’m not sure how this would work in something like Transit Camp but in the area of digital media, where the time it takes to actually take an idea, test it, and see if it actually works or not is so short, it makes no sense to stifle other peoples ideas because you "know" won’t work.But there is a difference between that and just letting people talk about what they think, going on and on about realities that don’t exist and forgoing critical factual errors they’ve made in their arguments (so annoying).Just some guesses. Now I need to actually sit through and participate in one or your sessions. Maybe then I can provide some more relevant feedback.

  14. "Devil’s advocate is good and all, but it doesn’t have a spot in the place where we are coming up with creative ideas and exploring possibilities."I couldn’t disagree more. As I said in my comment above, a Devil’s advocate position is an essential part of the conversation, as long as they do so with the end goal in mind: to help solve a problem through the delivery of calm, rational, well thought-out points. You can be a Devil’s advocate without being unprofessional, but it takes a special kind of person to do that (I don’t profess to be that kind of person; I’ve not yet developed the professional skills to say so).

  15. You???ve got a few contradictions going here.First of all, not every conference was, is, or should be an unconference. You should be running more <i>conferences</i>. (Toughen you up.) Why do so many milquetoasts and Normals show up to your unconferences? Because unconferences repel other types. Nobody who exhibits what you people call ???negativity??? fits in there. You people think people like me and Hirsh have nothing but negativity. Sorry, but we contain multitudes.Second, yes, open has to mean everyone or it isn???t open. Did you really write that?If your unconference ends up just with more people who follow each other???s Twits, well, let me be the first to tell you your unconference has failed. This isn???t a mixer in freshman year. You need to get something done. That thing doesn???t have to be specified at the outset, but just spinning your wheels while everyone you ordinarily know solely by usernames happens to be in one place does not constitute progress.Again to be blunt about it, leave process to the lesbians. Process needs to be in service of something. ???New relationships??? are not a sufficient outcome. I see this as a synonym of the popular catchphrase ???join the conversation.?????Some of us want results, not conversation. (More of us than you think.)Besides, I don???t think you really mean all this. You always want your unconference participants to get something done, set a plan to get something done post-conference, or at least identify what needs to get done. Let???s look at examples. TransitCamp: We actually demonstrated our projects. (We <i>had</i> projects!) DemoCamps: We demonstrate our projects. Neither result was new relationships. They may have happened along the way. Eliminate those and the events would still be success. Eliminate our <i>actions</i> and the events wouldn???t be.When I show up at a conference, I don???t expect ???A Course in Miracles.?????I expect us to do something. People expect the same at unconferences, I strongly suspect. If you actually asked them they might honestly answer thus.???I???m just here to make friends?????is a face-saving setting that people check when they sign up at eHarmony, not a goal for conference attendance.At a later time we could have a discussion about some other hallmarks of unconferences that are actually deterrents, like ???Leave a session if you???re not learning??? and ???No bystanders.???Also, I might as well take this opportunity to explain to Normals that a lot of the people you find the most difficult, or whom you like to accuse of being difficult via the pseudonymity and distance of blog comment fields, are the smartest and most knowledgeable and get the most done. How do you think we got this way? It ain???t all bluster.A lot of nice bland people can???t produce. If that???s the tradeoff you???d like to make, fine, but be honest about it. (You would say something like: ???You could probably solve our problem, but we???d prefer to just live with the problem if solving it means having to deal with you.???)If you want happy conferences full of nice bland people, again, fine, but know what you???re doing.I see now there are like half a dozen related issues here.

  16. @JustinYou have made your point about how you believe a devil’s advocate should behave, but haven’t explained why you disagree with my point on why you don’t want a devil’s advocate in the room that’s concerned about brainstorming, innovation, and discovery.A nice devil’s advocate is a good devil’s advocate? I’d rather have some emotional and heated constructive criticism instead of just the pointless, dull, tear down of all my ideas. Imagine the qualities of a good Devil’s advocate flipped onto the person generating the idea… having the "delivery of calm, rational, well thought-out points" out of the mouth of somebody who supposedly believes in their idea would be a put off.

  17. Joe: I don’t see positivity as meaning nice and bland; I see it as meaning interested in contributing to the conference goals. I’m with you: a bunch of compromising do gooders in a room will rarely lead to change and, if it leads to anything, it’s likely diluted and ineffective. Critical, experienced, and alternative voices are really the only way to ensure that you accomplish anything meaningful or of validity. I believe Mark would agree.

  18. "You have made your point about how you believe a devil’s advocate should behave, but haven’t explained why you disagree with my point on why you don’t want a devil’s advocate in the room that’s concerned about brainstorming, innovation, and discovery."They have a place in the room before they offer a divergent viewpoint, look at the big picture and their thoughts may offer some additional inspiration on solving a problem.

  19. In typical Canadian fashion I’m going to say that everyone has a point. Jesse is correct when he says that a kumbya, or strictly positive, convivial, atmosphere is not always conducive to getting things done in the end (paraphrasing)… in a lot of different circumstances too many people vital to the process of affecting change are excluded (perhaps on purpose, but more likely based on their own choice of feeling included or necessary or not) because they don’t fit the "communal" model… but not in all circumstances either. I feel what we’re missing is, unconference or not, is a "next step" mentality/ strategy. Finding those of like-mind is invaluable, but so is getting a diverse braintrust in an environment which, if it had some structure, could really get stuff done. That means people need to be able to poke holes, disagree, propose better options, raise uncomfortable truths when necessary (one of my biggies in terms of "gov 2.0" is the propensity to program/ recommend everything for the iPhone, or the bleeding edge of tech instead of looking at the populace as individuals… hello, huge class differential between iPhone owners and folks needing to find some vital city information, but I digress), the only way things actually move forward successfully is if the people who have opposing views based in reality are heard… even if they have a different approach to communicating their opinions. I think in a lot of ways this is a Canadian debate. When I first moved back to Toronto after 10 years in LA I had a hard time re-adjusting to the communication style. It’s far less direct and out in the open. For good and for ill in my opinion. All of this as a complete anecdotal nature of course, your mileage may vary.I want everyone to feel valued, and I want serious and challenging debate, lord knows I’m not shy about expressing my opinion… it’s where the two meet that is unclear, especially in Toronto. I spend a lot of time thinking about a way of keeping our culture of inclusiveness, coupled with our Empire, stiff upper lip, reputation is everything past, while still having our differentiation from the individualistic US society. So… I agree with you all that there’s a lot to talk about here.

  20. This is a fascinating conversation. So many complexities and nuances and interrelated issues. First, I agree with Joe on a lot:* Not every conference is or should be an unconference. Absolutely. (Also, not every event people call an unconference is one.)* Unconferences repel certain types of people. Obviously true from this discussion.* Some of those people may have a lot of knowledge that would be useful and valuable. Agreed.* People want to get things done. Agreed.I also agree with Tamera, there is something about Toronto culture that avoids confrontation and disagreement. Passive aggression and talking behind people’s backs are staple Toronto behaviours. My German roots (my parents remember the war) are such that I prefer to be direct. I wish Toronto culture was more direct. I know there are people watching this thread who wouldn’t dare to invite a discussion with Joe Clark, for example. I’m not one of those.So we need something better. I invite us to imagine something better. Take DigitalMediaCamp as a current case study. The central theming question of the event is this:"How can we work together to propel Toronto’s technology, content and design communities into the future and make Toronto a globally competitive hub of digital media entrepreneurship and innovation?"Joe, you’re one of the smartest of us, with a lot of knowledge, someone who gets things done. You could probably solve our problem. Or maybe Jesse has some ideas, if he’s still around.Snark aside, I genuinely think that we can do better and should do better. But what does better look like?

  21. Late as usual, but really stoked you’ve having this discussion. I’ve attended camps where the facilitation was a lot less active and the discussion groups became small crowds of people agreeing how big the problem was, and the "solution" became stilted. That said, I think problem definition is a very key step that shouldn’t be rushed ??? and unfortunately, the format of many camps (all the ones I’ve facilitated/participated in included) makes anyone who engages in that very important definition process feel like they are the downer in the room. The neat thing about all that diversity, after all, is to *mine* it for all the different data and observations about the phenomena at hand, and to incorporate that insight into a rounded, comprehensive solution.Relevant to the topic at hand, Alex Payne writes on the difference between negativity and criticism: http://al3x.net/2009/12/06/criticism.htmlI think the key is to not let critical thinking take the wind out of the sails of those who are solutions-minded. The challenge, from what I’m reading, is to create space that is inclusive of those who express their opinions in a variety of ways, without stifling those who have expert knowledge. Two different kinds of energy happening there ??? scaling and specializing.Having recently attended a camp populated by experts that all agreed with each other, I think the onus is on experts to acknowledge and identify where their perspective FAILS ??? falls short, can’t apply because the lenses are baked into the professional gaze on the problem. The willingness to identify it, acknowledge to truth of this, or to accept it when they are told it, varies across the board.

  22. Karen, thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is for the reasons you outline and the issues that Jesse and Joe outlined that I will be moving away from the standard "free for all" unconference approach for the upcoming DigitalMediaCamp at OCAD on Saturday.I think that <a href="http://www.peterblock.com/commun.html">Peter Block</a> has some tools for this. The Six Conversations are central to his approach. These are interrelated, and non-sequential:??? The Invitation – people self-enroll, expressing freedom & commitment?????Possibility – declaring with passion a possible future??? Ownership – how have I contributed to the current state???? Dissent – a place to say No, which is necessary to choose Yes??? Commitment – peers commit to each other and to the success of the whole??? Gifts – bringing the gifts of those at the margins to the centreI will be attempting to theme the day along these lines, but it is impossible to have all these conversations in a single day. So I’m looking for advice.The central question of DigitalMediaCamp is "How can we work together to make Toronto a globally competitive hub of digital media entrepreneurship and innovation?"What are the most important of the Six Conversations to have given the context? And when and how will the others be engaged and by whom?

  23. Now that DigitalMediaCamp is done, I can come back to this post and reflect upon the original issues that Jesse and Joe raised.I’m happy with the event and the reviews are really positive. For CDMN, it was a first of its kind experience and helped inform their thinking as they look to bridge the grassroots of tech, design, content and entrepreneurship to the centres of power in the Canadian digital media scene: funders and large tech and media companies.This dialogue needed the critical discourse that Jesse described above and I found myself looking for it and feeling its absence. At several points, I found myself trying to bring that perspective to the group during the report back sessions in the large plenary circle. For example, I suggested that "We don’t talk enough about power. There’s power and let’s not be afraid of using it if you want to take on the future": http://twitter.com/rachelsegal/status/6605135014. I found myself taking on the perspective of social justice and structuralist analysis in the context of a conversation about entrepreneurship and innovation.I stepped away from the neutral stance of the facilitator to something else. My approach to these kinds of events was been changed by the comments on this post. Time will tell exactly how this affects my work. My values around creating space for citizen-created collaborative solutions are intact. My methods are being rethought.I appreciate Jesse giving me the opportunity to think about this deeply and to consider his critique seriously. The event is over, but the reflection continues.

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