Improving morality over meatballs


Maybe we’re not passed the point of being able to have civil dialogue just yet. We can hope, at the very least.

Results from the Rhode Island Foundation’s ambitious social experiment – Together RI – has outlined positive potential for our society’s ability to gather together and discuss big-picture topics without devolving into personal insults or other forms of degradation.

Nearly 1,300 people from all around the state took time to gather and eat with strangers. And although anybody with a particularly vocal uncle or other relative understands the unspoken rule of dining together with others – avoid topics that are considered too serious, primarily politics, at all costs – these strangers were able to talk about serious matters in a way that was respectful and allowed everyone to have their own opinion, regardless of whether or not they agreed as the last meatball was eaten.

This, alone, is an encouraging result that, in our view, renders the experiment a success in an age of social media negativity. However, the scope of the results also leaves much to be desired in terms of who was willing to participate in these types of forums – where people are asked questions in the hopes that their answers will be taken into consideration by those in power to make changes on their behalf.

Of the respondents, a vast majority of them were white and older than 55 years of age. About half of the respondents reported making $75,000 or more, despite the median household income in Rhode Island being closer to $55,000. This is not to say the Rhode Island Foundation is at fault for this fact – they provided the basis for a fascinating experiment on their dime, and it was up to the members of the communities themselves to show up – but to not point out these limitations would be folly.

Despite the crucial lack of widespread perspective from minority races and younger people in the state, the analysis conducted by the University of Rhode Island did a good job breaking down what they could from the data to try and make some overarching observations about how people view issues in the state and make that information available for others to come to conclusions.

One thing is certain from a brief study of the data – Rhode Islanders cherish their small state, and they view the environment and ready access to nature as incredibly important.

Out of the nearly 1,000 people that answered the survey questions provided to them, the top two most common responses – whether they were negative or positive – involved the environment (number one) and the sense of community (number two), with education, business and the small size of the state rounding out the top five.

Broken down further, the number one and two biggest strengths listed by respondents were essentially equal, with 19.47 percent of respondents saying the state’s natural resources was its biggest asset, and 19.3 percent saying it was the small size of the state that was Rhode Island’s biggest strength. The next closest strength, sense of community, wasn’t even close to these two at 11.87 percent.

Another theme was a sense of optimism. While respondents felt that business and education was not being fully optimized in the state, those two topics were also listed as the number one and two biggest area of opportunity to improve in the state.

As for challenges, although reportedly plenty of people simply said “taxes” without much further explanation – as could be expected – surprisingly, social issues actually topped the list as the number one challenge facing the state, with special attention paid to the opioid crisis, mental health treatment availability and concerns over elder care. This attention to issues affecting their fellow Rhode Islander over simply complaining about taxes was a nice surprise among the data, however the lack of diversity among participants was possibly seen in this area, as only 2.22 percent of the overall respondents felt that diversity and culture was a challenge in the state.

There is plenty more data to go through, and you can look it up for yourself if you wish to learn more about the individualized data pertaining to each community that participated. However, the overarching message to take from this, we believe, is that more people need to experience an actual conversation about issues rather than the venomous experience of shouting your opinion onto other via the internet.

For the first time in society we are able to bypass natural feelings of human empathy and instilled upbringings that taught us not to degrade others by, instead, typing something mean through a keyboard. People who would otherwise never say something nasty to another person to their face now have the unprecedented ability to do it electronically, sometimes anonymously, which sociology is already teaching us is having dastardly effects on our collective morality.

By gathering, breaking bread together and talking, we afford the opportunity to break down these synthetic walls and negative perceptions of one another. We applaud the Rhode Island Foundation for reminding us that conversations in person can become so much more than simply dining room banter.


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