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The Flying Pig Society: The art and science behind a Village Square program

Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016

The Model

Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses).

The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goods that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.

This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues about the topics of our conversation.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

The Results

We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming, through their organization Civil Politics. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.

The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.

We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).

Processing the Results

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. It’s worth noting that we accurately predicted the attitude shifts we’d likely see from this program with the team at CivilPolitics – after the program and before the results were calculated. We think it’s pretty easy to do once you see the event play out (human beings are, after all, intuitive). While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.

Beyond chalking instances where we fail to achieve attitude shift to “you win some, you lose some,” we believe there is a real shift that occurs through our ongoing efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the web of connectedness between our events and between people in our community where our impact has the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship in order to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance shifts. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy often used by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Useful Links

CivilPolitics pre and post event analysis.

Created Equal and Breathing Free event page.

Photos from event.

Strategies used in this program.

Jacob Hess: Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite

new yorker elephant donkeyThe Director of our newest Salt Lake City Village Square Director, Jacob Hess, has written a smart and thoughtful piece posted at the Huffington Post. Here’s a sneak peak:

In discussions of political polarization in America, it’s often widely assumed that ‘most Americans’ want to see the hostility change.

Do they? On the one hand, a 2013 American survey found 70% of respondents believing that incivility had reached crisis proportions in the country.

On the other hand, when these same Americans are offered a chance of hearing out their own political opposite in a generous and productive setting, we have observed a striking level of resistance.

One woman told us just yesterday, “I cannot even begin to imagine trying something like that…” Another person insisted, “Most people don’t want to sit and have a real conversation with their political opposite…They just don’t!”

Could that be true? That even though (most of us) are worried about political tensions, for different reasons (most of us) don’t feel able or willing or interested in doing anything about it?

Read Jacob’s entire article at Huffington Post.

Photo credit: New Yorker Magazine

A Bastille Day Special: Let them eat (purple) cake

LET-THEM-EAT-PURPLE-CAKESeldom have four words ever brought such disastrous consequence to the person who uttered them, or so goes the legend of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” and that nasty business of her public beheading.

While a visit to modern day France finds Versailles proper positively dripping with the wretched excess history has assigned it, Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the private residence of the French queen, tells a somewhat different story. Rather than the gilded surroundings the king’s riches would surely have afforded her, she built a likeness of a quaint Austrian village, complete with working vineyards and livestock.

Could Marie-Antoinette – symbol the world over of condescending wealth – be misunderstood? My trip to France last summer had me scratching my head and returning home to learn more about the queen we love to hate.

Turns out the words we’ve put in poor Marie-Antoinette’s mouth may have been spoken – if spoken at all – by the wife of a different King Louis decades earlier. And even if the doomed queen had said it, a familiarity with French law regulating the price of bread suggests she would have probably meant “let them eat expensive bread with less flour in it for the same price,” a rather generous and common sense suggestion during a flour shortage.

We do know that Marie-Antoinette said “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”


Apparently when vein-poppingly angry people pick up their pitchforks and roll out the guillotine, they’ve been known to get it wrong from time to time.

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, will be given away as a door prize at a coming Village Square dinner!

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, actual Village Square door prize!

As uber-partisanship and the culture war have opened a gulf between us, we have been toting our own pitchforks lately. We’ve created opposing custom-ordered villains a la Marie-Antoinette, complete with oft-repeated misquotes, half quotes, and an occasional story spun of whole cloth.

In Revolutionary France, misinformation about the queen was fueled by the libelles – venomous slander-filled booklets produced by political opponents. Besting the distribution of French libelles, America’s present day incarnation sends distortions by email clear across the universe tout de suite.

Even as Americans are called to other countries to handle the fallout of ideological hatred gone to seed, we have a homegrown and thankfully only verbal – version of what journalist John Marks calls “wars of absolute dichotomy” brewing, fueled in part by a lot that we’re getting plain wrong about each other.

John, assigned to cover Bosnia for U.S. News & World Report, has seen the danger of absolute dichotomy. He’s since teamed with college roommate filmmaker Craig Detweiler to make the film “Purple State of Mind,”a conversation between friends with different religious worldviews. John and Craig were our Village Square guests in Tallahassee in 2009 – see their program here.

John explains that shaking up partisan red and blue to make “purple” isn’t really about seeking homogenized agreement but “about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency.”

On the queen’s behalf, I’d add “the utmost in factual accuracy.”

If we’re going to bring the best of America to bear on the big problems ahead, we can ill afford the cartoon version of a civic dialog that neglects the real consequences of creating fictions rather than grasping facts. At another perilous time in our history, the Founding Fathers set a high bar for the debate because they couldn’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong.

Marie-Antoinette met her end at Place de la Concorde, Revolutionary France’s version of our televised public square, where her beheading earned the eighteenth century’s equivalent of high Nielsen ratings. Whether or not she had it coming, most of us would like to think our decision-making has grown to reflect a higher standard in the couple of centuries since, regardless of potential for market share.

As we begin writing the history of what happens next in America, perhaps we can start by at least getting the quotes right. To do that, we might occasionally put down our pitchforks long enough to break bread with someone who doesn’t see it our way. Or, maybe, in a hat tip to learning the lessons of history, we should eat cake instead.

Only this time, make it purple.


Liz Joyner is Executive Director of the Village Square

Popular Science shuts down its comment thread (and why this is very important)

Science ExpressH/T to the smart people over at CivilPolitics for this news:

Today Popular Science announced it is shutting down blog comments on most articles on it’s website. The reason? Studies have shown that comments on an article not only polarize readers (same old thing we see on every comment thread) but they also change the perception of the story itself. When your topic is science, you can quickly see that conflation of scientific results and what an angry person says on a blog thread is dangerous to one of the two (like mixing ice cream and horse manure – doesn’t do much to the horse manure, but it sure does damage the ice cream). From Popular Science:

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

Read the entire article online HERE.

And here’s a question to ponder: If we simultaneously shut off comment threads in every major publication in America, would civil discourse return to the town square? Sure, we’d all walk in mad, but we’d share a few munchies, a cup of coffee and a little bit of time with our neighbors. Might leave with a slightly different disposition…

(Photo credit)

Senator Olympia Snowe names Village Square as one of eight groups working for political common ground

fighting for common groundThis week The Christian Science Monitor launched a new commentary series “Common Ground, Common Good.” We love the name and the concept.

But most of all we love that they wrote about Senator Olympia Snowe in their inaugural column, who named the Village Square as one of eight groups helping to define a political center in America. Even cooler yet is that we’re the only locally-based organization of the eight. From The Christian Science Monitor:

In her book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” Olympia Snowe, the former senator from Maine, writes that the “fastest way” for citizens to push for compromise in Congress is to “support the efforts of existing national groups” that advocate bipartisanship. She recommends the following eight organizations, urging people to “browse their websites, visit them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.”

Read the list online HERE.


Photo credits: Senator Jay Rockefeller and Fighting for Common Ground book jacket.

It’s SUMMER @ the Square: We’re wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ and plannin’ and dreamin’…

Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 11.28.07 AM Summertime is finally here. While – absent our normal breakneck programming schedule and without new blog content – it might look a little like we’re taking a siesta* at the Village Square we’re really busy planning for our 2013-14 season. We’re taking stock of past programming and imagining new ideas (tickler: some have to do with incoming asteroids…) Since our last-of-the-season Fast Forward Tallahassee program on May 6, our thinking about future possibilities has already taken us to California and Washington, DC. (Please do contact us if you want to weigh-in as we’re doing all this thinking, we like to hear from you.)

Oh and on the “wishin’ and hopin'” front, it’s OK with us if while we’re summering at the Square, Washington DC goes right ahead and fixes itself, starts to function the way our founders imagined they might, addresses one or two of our BIG FAT problems. But just in case that doesn’t pan out, we’re putting our money on neighbors just like you (in hometowns just like this one) to show Washington what America’s made of. In a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people” maybe that’s exactly as it should be?


Photo credit: Andy Wilson

*Legal Disclaimer: There will probably be a few actual siestas taken before we return next fall. Vibrant civic discourse can be tiring…

Tallahassee Democrat: The town meeting won’t work without you

our-town-2chairsFrom the Tallahassee Democrat, April 3rd 2013, by Liz Joyner:

In “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the uniquely American habit of “forever forming associations.”

There’s good reason for that. In a new country without a king, someone was going to have to make a few decisions.

Our first and strongest associations in America were with the people who shared a common geography and, amid many threats, likely a common fate: our neighbors. The town hall meeting was born early in our republic, and in one form or the other they’ve been happening ever since.

As metaphor, the town hall perfectly captures the very essence of the freedom we won from European monarchs – it’s the triumph of the common man over the sovereign. And, as a practical matter, it’s been how the business of American community has gotten done for hundreds of years now. Read all »

WFSU’s Dimensions goes Village Square

Screen shot 2013-03-07 at 2.44.20 PMBe sure to check out WFSU’s Dimensions program (cable channel 5, HD 438) to catch an interview with the Village Square’s Liz Joyner. It will run again on Sunday March 10 at 10am. You can also catch it on 4fsu on Friday March 8 at 7:30 pm, Sunday March 10 at 6pm, Monday March 11 10:00 pm and Tuesday March 12 7 pm. OH and if that weren’t enough already, they’re also covering the art and science of home-brewed beers. Run for your calendars now! (HERE is a pdf of the schedule in case we messed anything up…)

Jonathan Haidt wows FSU: Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks about morality to a full house at the Student Life Cinema on Sept. 11

Written by Elena Novak, Contributing Writer

Imagine there’s an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. At its present rate, it will make impact in the year 2022. The human race is doomed; however, there is one controversial solution: raise taxes and cut spending. This would fund a project designed to divert the asteroid’s path.

The harrowing scenario began New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt’s speech addressing FSU students and the Tallahassee public on Sept. 11. His speech, entitled “The Righteous Mind: How morality binds us together and tears us apart,” was delivered to a filled-to-capacity Student Life Cinema on Tuesday evening.

Those who came late to the event were directed to an overflow room, where the lecture could be viewed on a projector screen.

There is no known asteroid bent toward destroying mankind; Haidt made it up as an experiment to gauge the audience’s willingness to implement measures that might go against their political views if it meant saving the world. The majority said they would. (Read the whole article online at FSView.)

Miss Jonathan Haidt’s visit? Listen tonight at 7 to 8 pm on WFSU!

If you missed it the first time – or you want to listen again – WFSU is airing Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s Dinner at the Square program tonight from 7 to 8 pm. You can also listen to the program online here. So grab a bite, kick up your feet and tune in at 7pm to WFSU 88.9 FM. Check out pictures of the program HERE (photo credits: Bob Howard).

Tallahassee Democrat: Author addresses deepening partisan divide

Tuesday’s dinner program is sold out, but you can still add your name to the waiting list HERE, hear Dr. Haidt speak at FSU HERE or listen to the program on WFSU 88.9 FM at 7pm on Friday, September 21 (or when it goes up online HERE).

From the Tallahassee Democrat:

Know anyone who reacts violently to political agendas of the “other side”?

They probably have a long list of reasons for their feelings: the other side is rude, selfish, has tunnel vision and is steering the nation to ruin.

Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., thinks those very attitudes are destructive to America.

He’ll be speaking Tuesday night on the morality that “binds and blinds” our nation’s biggest political parties. Haidt will follow the ticketed, seated dinner and speech, “Polarization, Demonization and Paralysis in American Politics,” with a free, broader talk, “The Righteous Mind,” at Florida State University’s Student Life Cinema. Read the entire article in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Conversational Shift: Breaking Free of Our Fixed Political Mindsets

The following is re-printed with the permission of Mark Goodkin of Conversational Shift.

The Fixed Mindset within the Individual

Often times, we attract certain people who can teach us something about ourselves. They may not know that they are teaching us. The lesson is more encoded in the overall experience and interaction itself. Usually, we have something to teach them as well.

These lessons help us to identify and confront our fixed judgments or mindsets, which are empowered and held captive by underlying charged emotions, formed in childhood. These fixed judgements and charged emotions make up part of what is referred to as Shadow Self, which each person possesses. First coined by Carl Jung, the Shadow Self refers to that part of each one of use which remains hidden, and which we would rather not acknowledge or deal with. On the other hand, the lessons allow us the opportunity to see aspects of our Shadow Self and diffuse the emotional charge, thereby releasing us of the judgments. We become liberated from the fixed perspective and free to explore new options.

For example, we may have constantly been given the message throughout childhood that we have to focus hard on schoolwork and grades, but are not allowed to have much fun. So, we may go through life with the fixed judgment that we have to constantly work hard and are not allowed to have much fun or relaxation. We curtail such an activity and feel guilty when we do have fun.

We may attract to us in one way or another, someone with the fixed mindset that having fun is way more important than working hard.

The encoded lesson here may be that we need to lighten up a bit and have some fun. We can still be a hard worker, but need to put it in balance with some fun once in a while.

We can learn to have more fun, while the person who always likes to have a good time can learn to appreciate working harder.

If we do not recognize this experience as an important lesson, we may criticize the other person as being lazy and narcissistic. Chances are they are judging us for being a workaholic and party pooper. The charged emotions behind the fixed mindset, here, will no doubt make it difficult for us recognize this valuable lesson. However, if we follow the lesson and release the fixed judgments and underlying emotions, we will become free of the compulsion of always feeling like we have to work hard, at the expense of fun and relaxation.

In another example, we may have constantly been given the message in childhood that we have to do everything correctly and never make mistakes. So, we may go through life with the fixed belief that we have to be perfect and never fail. Therefore, we don’t take risks or chances.

We may attract to us someone who is a risk taker and not afraid of failure. However, perhaps they’re a bit too hasty at times and don’t think things through enough before taking action.

The lesson here may be that moving forward in life is about taking risks and inevitably failing at times. We can strive toward excellence, while making mistakes along the way. Nobody is perfect. Meanwhile the other person can learn to be more deliberate before taking action.

If we choose to ignore this lesson, we may criticize the other person for being cavalier and reckless, while they judge us for being afraid to take risks.

The Fixed Mindset within Liberals and Conservatives

Such a dynamic works in encounters between groups of people as well.

As each of us grows up, we may be brought up to believe that people with particular political, social, or religious views are wrong or inferior. Our beliefs become fixed judgments backed by charged emotions, which make it difficult for us to explore and seek understanding or empathy with those views we consider wrong or inferior or our own.

We tend to belong to groups of like-minded people and battle it out with those in other groups with different points of view. We may be hard-pressed to identify the lessons encoded in the encounter, which would have us seek such understanding and empathy.

In the political realm, like-minded liberals battle it out with like-minded conservatives, along several dividing lines. Each political side believes itself to be right and the other side wrong, and makes no bones about it. The conflict never seems to get resolved, leaving each side to scratch its proverbial head and wonder why it can’t get through to the other side. Each side fails to see valuable lessons contained in the relationship.

An example of a dividing line between the two political sides is the following: Conservatives have consistently given voice to the virtues of individual responsibility and self-reliance. In contrast, liberals have consistently given voice to the plight of the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, conservatives may have an underdeveloped sense of empathy or concern toward the plight of the disadvantaged, while liberals may have an underdeveloped sense of appreciation or concern toward the importance of individual responsibility and self-reliance.

People within each group may share the same views but their experiences for arriving at such commonly held beliefs may be different. For example a conservative member may have grown up in a family, in which the father worked three jobs to support them and taught them the value of self reliance and responsibility. Other group members may have arrived at that view through other experiences growing up.

On the other hand, a liberal member may have grown up, witnessing first hand the ravages of poverty and hunger, and how no one came to their aid. Other group members may have arrived at the same view through different experiences. The outcome is that individual members will have similar emotionally charged views, based on unique life experiences.

In fact, their emotionally charged beliefs become fixed judgments, which freezes their mind into a limited perspective. It ,therefore, makes it more difficult for them to empathize, much less see, the other side’s point of view.

With such charged views, is it any wonder that each side has a hard time communicating with the other side. Each side chooses to criticize the other side’s point of view. A polarized relationship ensues, with an us vs. them mentality.

A Shift Away from the Fixed Mindset

As in the case of individual interactions, each political side can make a more enlightened choice, if they choose. They can choose to see the encoded lessons contained in the experience.

Conservatives might come to realize that, sometimes, it is important for the community to address the plight of the poor and suffering. Not all help is bad or enabling. Meanwhile, liberals might realize, that, at times, tough love is necessary to foster self-reliance and independence. Perhaps too much help is enabling and perpetuates the condition.

The goal is not necessarily for both sides to agree on everything or even reach lukewarm compromises, but rather to defuse the strongly charged emotions behind their fixed beliefs or judgments. The charged emotions that fed into the stuck outlooks of each side toward “the opposition” will be replaced by a greater sense of peace, understanding, and good will. In addition, the mind will be free to explore new possibilities and more clearly distinguish the real threats from imagined ones.

The old “win-lose” paradigm will give way to a “win-win” paradigm. The two sides can now work together more harmoniously and cooperatively, without fear and distrust. There’s now less room for misunderstanding and a greater respect for the values and concerns of both sides.

When the values and concerns of both sides are addressed, the political conversation will be raised to a new level. More balanced and innovative solutions will come about, otherwise unforeseen.

So what can we take away from the idea that our interactions with individuals and groups may contain encoded messages? Let’s ask ourselves what lessons, if any, we can learn from the other person or side. Let’s begin to take ownership over such lessons, so we can reap the benefits they present to us.

“It’s Even Worse than it Looks” Solutions: Re-create a Public Square

I finally got the nerve up to read It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. It required nerve because it looks so bad that the idea that anything could be even worse than that, well… I’ll do a little reporting on some of the findings, starting with this:

“America also needs a concerted effort to ameliorate the impact of the partisan media. The country no longer has a public square where most Americans shared a common set of facts used to debate policy options with vigor, but with a basic acceptance of the legitimacy of others’ views. Little can be done to change the new business models, driven by technology and global economics, that make Fox News’s apprach a clear winner over the old network news apprach. But a semblance of a new public square, one that might never have the reach or audience of the old one, could be a model for civil discourse and intelligent, lively debate.”

Find our argument for why we think The Village Square fits the bill here (published February 2012 in the Tallahassee Democrat).