My book “Beyond Us and Them: How To Communicate Across Political Divides” will be published in late March 2018 by Skinny Bottle Press. Before March 30, 2018, you can enter to win a free copy through a Goodreads giveaway.
“I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We’re in the age of communications more and more, though we’re in communication less and less.” — Wright Morris
Each day’s news reflects the harm caused by our fear and our inability to communicate. Economic and political alliances as well as nations are coming apart, split by growing mistrust. Far-right parties are gaining strength even as their rhetoric grows more extreme; in some places far-left movements are also rising. We’re hearing more and more extreme rhetoric from public figures — speech that suggests that their opponents are evil or subhuman. Hate crimes and terrorist incidents are also on the rise, carried out by people who seem to have taken the dehumanizing messages to heart. Inside my own country, the U.S., we are unable to deal even with the obvious problems that all parties agree we have —the drug abuse epidemic, the lack of affordable health care, the overcrowded prisons —because the opposing parties have become so adversarial.
It would be comforting to blame this deepening divide on a few demagogues in high places. But it’s not that simple. The unprocessed fear, anger and mistrust of ordinary people is driving us further apart. In a 2016 Pew survey of U.S. voters, about half the members of each major party reported being afraid of the other party. About the same number of voters saw members of the other party as being highly close-minded. Somewhat smaller — but still substantial — groups believed that members of the other party were also dishonest and immoral. [i] Over the past year, my Facebook feed has featured stories in which public figures with a clear political affiliation have been caught speaking offensively or acting dishonestly. The stories and the comments below them go on to say that this horrible behavior shows how disgusting, dishonest, heartless and hypocritical all the people ideologically aligned with the fallen figures are. My liberal friends are making these posts about conservatives and vice versa.
Sometimes, calls for a return to civility are met by a significant objection: Our political differences aren’t trivial preferences. They involve serious moral questions and issues of life and death. When the stakes are so high, we can’t just relax and make nice. We have to stand up for the people who will be crushed if the wrong policies are approved. After all, if we legitimize our opponents’ positions, aren’t we emboldening the violent extremists on the fringes of those positions?
The violent extremists seem to have a different view of political polarization. In August 2017 the leader of a small neo-Nazi rally in Arlington, Virginia told reporters, “We’re very encouraged generally about the mood of the country … We think things are moving towards radicalization and polarization. I know a lot of people think polarization is a bad thing, but we don’t.”[ii] History suggests that he has reason for thinking in this way. Dictatorships — both fascist and Communist — have arisen in times of extreme polarization, when people found some other group to blame for all their society’s ills and treated those people as less than human. Venezuelan economist Andrés Miguel Rondón described the basic strategy of demagogues this way: “Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers … , you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance… Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question.” [iii]
Terrorism, of course, has a similar narcotic allure. Both neo-Nazis and ISIS enthusiasts have bought into the idea that the people on the “Other Side” are evil; that it’s impossible to negotiate with them, and that we simply have to eliminate them. Denouncing all conservatives as fascists, or all Muslims as terrorists, strengthens the extremist narrative. The only way to bring people back from the outer reaches of hate is to reach out to them as human beings; to show them that the people they fear and hate have something in common with them. This may be wearying, frightening, thankless work, but it has been known to succeed. I will share some success stories later in this book.
Even outside dictatorships and hate groups, polarization and alienation make it harder for us to confront the real and difficult questions of our days. Most of our intractable questions require complex solutions. In order to deal constructively with the challenges posed by the unprecedented migration of refugees from disaster areas, or with the crises triggered by climate change, or with rising debts and rising wealth gaps, we will need to think in a way that is detailed, complex and unspectacular. We’ll need to balance values and concerns that urge us in different directions. It’s hard to do that well in the heat of a shouting match.
In order to solve our problems, we’ll also need the strength and resilience that come from trust in our neighbors and in ourselves. Polarization makes true democracy practically unworkable. It undermines the trust on which democracy is built. It isolates us from our neighbors. It leaves us lonely and afraid. Social researcher Brené Brown writes, “The world feels high lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared.”[iv] This is a miserable condition to be in. And it’s not a condition from which we can meaningfully advance any of the causes that we hold dear.
If we truly care about the well-being of our neighbors, our nations and our world, we need to learn to communicate with each other. We need to stop shouting our talking points and start actually listening. We don’t have to disown our convictions or deny our disagreements, but we have to listen with open minds. We may find some common ground from which to work for political solutions. Even if we can’t reach agreement on policy specifics, this kind of brave and civil conversation restores trust and connection, and it destroys the fear and loathing which demagogues can so easily use to divide us. That was Rondón’s strongest prescription for working against dictatorship and preserving a free society: Let people know each other as neighbors, not as enemies. It’s easy to say that we need to communicate. It’s much harder to figure out how to do that well at a time when simplistic arguments and extreme partisanship are so common. It’s hard because our differing convictions are rooted, not only in differently conceived ethical foundations and disparate news sources, but also in in powerful personal experiences of pain and love, and in the fierce desire to belong to a group. Nevertheless, it needs to be done.
This book doesn’t offer a failsafe guide to constructive dialogue. I don’t believe such a thing exists. It does offer some suggestions for learning to understand our own motives as well as the motives of folks who disagree with us, some techniques for holding conversations that don’t devolve into shouting matches, and some resources for further reading and practice.
Where I’m Coming From
I’m not writing as an objective observer. I come to this book with my own fervent convictions. Sometimes it’s hard for me to take my own advice and try to understand the people who disagree with me on key issues rather than dismissing them as cruel or stupid.
I’m fortunate in having grown up among friends with opposing views. When I was a child, my family belonged to two homeschool groups. One was a rural group of Christian homeschoolers, mostly conservative; the other was an urban-centered group of unschoolers of various faiths, mostly liberal. My family was the only one to belong to both groups. There were kids I felt close to and adults I admired in both. The first group could sometimes be heard deploring the immoral and irresponsible ways of Democrats; the second deploring the cruel and senseless ways of Republicans. In both cases I thought, “But I know some of those people, and they’re not really like that …”
As an adult, I am somewhat able to “pass” as liberal or conservative, and I have things in common with friends on both sides. I’m a committed Christian, a homeschooler, a farmer, a celibate teetotaler living and working alongside a parent, and a faith-based volunteer. On that basis, I fit in well with many conservatives. I’m a Quaker interested in interfaith dialogue, an unschooler and an organic farmer working at a nonprofit. On that basis, I fit in well with many liberals. When it comes to politics, I fall on the liberal side of many issues (pacifism, support for immigrants and refugees, concern about systemic racism, passion for economic reform, belief in marriage equality, concern about climate change, etc.), and on the conservative side of a few (opposing the legalization of drugs, and supporting more leeway for homeschooling and other forms of alternative education when it’s not conducted for profit.) I also know, love and respect people who disagree deeply with me on every one of these issues. In my country’s ongoing bitter debate over abortion, I see a deep moral dilemma that may be impossible to legislate in a way that truly protects the rights of the woman and the child. Most of the people I know find this position weak and untenable, though they disagree about which side I should come down on.
I value my friendships and challenging conversations with people who disagree with me. But I’ve found these harder to sustain over the past year and a half. Some of my friends have become louder and angrier and made it clear that they don’t want to hear from people who disagree with them. Some have become quieter and say that there’s no point trying to talk about anything political because it all turns so ugly. I want to keep the conversations going and to keep them friendly, but sometimes I forget my good intentions. I lash out when my sore spots are prodded and I have to apologize afterward. I hold my tongue because I want to avoid conflict or to be liked; later on, I unpleasantly surprise the other person by stating my real convictions. Messy as the process is, I remain convinced that we need to stay in dialogue. This book is the record not of my brilliant successes, but of a few things I’ve learned in the course of trying.
[i] Pew Research Center, “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016,” June 22, 2016, http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/
[ii] Michael E. Miller, “’Shocking’: Neo-Nazis Fly Swastika Flag, Salute at Virginia Shopping Center Where Leader Was Killed,” August 26, 2016, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/25/shocking-neo-nazis-fly-swastika-salute-at-shopping-center-where-leader-was-killed/?utm_term=.251e181dacf3
[iii] Andrés Miguel Rondón, “In Venezuela We Couldn’t Beat Chavez. Don’t Make the Same Mistakes We Made,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/27/in-venezuela-we-couldnt-stop-chavez-dont-make-the-same-mistakes-we-did/?utm_term=.8c2adf9b2f4d
[iv] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Random House, New York, 2017, p. 45