Upon leaving Politics and Religion, Grine turned over the job of moderator to David Genser, who by then had become a regular participant. Genser, who is 50, was born in La Mesa, attended Helix High School, and graduated from SDSU in political science and economics before earning a masters degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Eventually, he put in a 12-year stint at the Government Accountability Office in Washington DC. About ten years ago, he was forced to retire due to a muscle affliction that has left him disabled. At the time of his retirement, he came back to San Diego. He currently lives in Poway.
Ahead of a discussion about Facebook and friendship, Genser and I meet in Filter’s wide front area. Prior to our conversation, I listens to Grine’s reasons for choosing Genser as the new moderator of the first group. “David was helping me lead the group on certain topics, especially the political ones,” Grine says, “and he obviously wanted to be the moderator.”
But Genser now tells me that his becoming moderator “happened by default. I think Gary believes I wanted to be moderator because I tend to talk a lot.” Genser wears two hats because he is loathe to stop giving opinions — “that is the group’s purpose, after all” — just to be “the neutral moderator. So, besides calling on this or that person to speak, I occasionally call on myself.”
Genser tells me that, even in our nation’s capital, he’s never seen a group like Politics and Religion. At his first meeting, he liked what the group was doing and kept coming back. Including the time since the group changed its name to Civilized Conversations, he’s been attending for more than four years.
Genser and Grine agree to a large extent about the basics of leading the groups: Put questions to participants, call on them, keep order. Once, in a meeting of Politics and Religion several years ago,” Grine says, a Christian fundamentalist harassed two young Mormon men who were making a presentation, charging them with belonging to a cult. Another time, a man with “Atheist” printed on his shirt disrupted the group so much that Grine had to ask Filter’s owner to throw him out of the coffee house.
“Being the moderator is not rocket science,” says Genser, “but it’s not a picnic either. People can get upset if you don’t call on them. But, clearly, any moderator’s main goal is to make sure everyone can participate and to keep the conversation going. I try to bring up different angles on a topic once it seems one direction has been exhausted. Of course, the moderator also has to remind people not to interrupt those who are speaking, but people here are real good about that. I think it’s a tribute to [those] who show up that we’ve had so little conflict.
“The main focus of the group,” he says, “is learning by talking. You do learn by listening, but also by talking. When I hear people speaking, I feel them refining their thoughts as they speak.”
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What should moderators do, I ask, when they detect that group participants are expressing opinions that contradict known facts?
“Well, it’s not a classroom,” Genser says, “and people have to be respected and opinions listened to. The purpose is to debate, so the people who make arguments are the ones who have to support them with facts. But I do occasionally interrupt to point out relevant facts.”
Genser believes working at the Government Accountability Office has had an effect on his life that is useful in Civilized Conversations. He calls the agency “the only honest broker in town. Everybody in Washington is lobbying, everybody has their conclusions, and then they try to find the facts to fit them. We did the opposite. So, I try to be the same way in the group, which is mostly about opinions and perspectives based on different values but also about learning new information. The national media does such a poor job of informing people with basic information about public policy. If you watch cable news long enough, you can feel yourself getting stupider.
“Most political groups exist to organize like-minded people, and we don’t do that. I suspect that if you go to a Tea Party meeting or the local socialist club, there might not be a lot of rancor there, but you’re probably not learning much either. And you’re not being challenged. Our group does that, within the ground rules of politeness.
“And people who are ideologically rigid don’t stick around long in our group. They’re welcome to come. But if you think that President Obama is a foreign-born communist traitor who’s trying to destroy America, then ours is probably not the group for you. And if you think capitalism is inherently evil, it’s probably not for you, either. That doesn’t mean that only moderates are welcome. ‘Moderate’ is not a position. By definition, it’s in between what people think. So, for our group, moderation cannot be a goal. We’re a debating society.”
To help with the facts surrounding a debate, Genser says, “we came up with a new practice a couple of years ago, where if somebody besides the moderator knows something about the topic, they give the opening presentation. It usually falls on to me to give it because I know something about most political topics, just because of my background. I usually give 15-minute presentations, sometimes 20, if I know a lot about the subject — something in healthcare policy or foreign policy, for example.”
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I mention Grine’s complaint that when the group conversations are political, you always know what people are going to say before they say it.
“There’s some truth in that,” says Genser, “although I think it would also be true if we were talking about baseball or, for that matter, philosophy. I’ve been in the group five years, and it meets 50 times a year. That’s 250 meetings. So we do have the problem of [needing to discuss things that haven’t] been said before, and we try to think of new, inventive topics.”