Can We Talk? Reflection after ACR

By Bernie Mayer

Four weeks ago, Sharon Press and I facilitated an informal group discussion about the 2016 election at the ACR annual conference in Baltimore.  Despite the fact that it was nowhere announced (except at the very last moment—as it was due to begin) and that we had to squeeze into a room that was hard to find, the room was overflowing—people turned away because they could not get in.  Clearly this is a discussion that conference attendees wanted to have. 


The framing of the discussion, as the framing of this series, was two fold:  what can we as conflict specialists bring to the table to help make sense of this election season and is there anything we can do to help address the increasing polarization that the electoral process has either generated or uncovered?


The discussion was diverse (sometimes swinging off onto far flung tangents), rich, and just a beginning.  The presence of a declared Trump supporter greatly added to its richness.  Trying to summarize the discussion is a challenge, but three themes stick in my mind.  Here I try to summarize them—and present some of my own thoughts.


  1. Many participants expressed the view that the most significant challenge is what to do the day after the election when no matter the outcome there is likely to be a bitter and disenchanted group of people and the potential for violence or at least high levels of social conflict.  This suggests that we should be thinking about how we respond on November 9th and thereafter.  But are we?  Along with many other conflict professionals, I have thought about this as well.  But is anything along these lines being planned?  Can it be before the results are known?  And if we are not actively thinking about this now—why not?

  2. A corollary to this is that by and large participants were pretty pessimistic about what could be accomplished before the election (and I found myself becoming increasing doubtful about this myself).  We have been in a phase of the electoral cycle where the attention is on mobilizing supporters, getting out the vote, and emphasizing differences in order to do so. We are past the time when the bulk of voters are focused on understanding where candidates stand or discussing major issues. Even in “normal” election years this is not an auspicious time for dialogue across party lines.  And in this election, we are extraordinarily focused on issues of character, not policy—and these seldom form the basis for constructive dialogue.

    But if this is not the right time, when might have been?  I suspect that at almost any point in this interminable process many would have argued that the time for dialogue was not right. Not during the primaries, not in the build up to the conventions, not until after Labor Day when the most focused part of the campaign traditionally begins, not during the debates which are media circuses, and not during the end game. Of course, we hear the same argument in all intense conflicts—that the time is never right for dialogue.  And these arguments often have merit.  There is always a downside to talking because it takes our focus and energy away from organizing, advocating, and contending with the challenges of the genuinely competitive framework we often operate within.  But of course, there is generally a significant upside as well—and just because we are competing, does not mean we can’t talk.  Furthermore, if there is never a good time to talk, then there is also never a better time than the one we find ourselves in.

  3. There was an interesting discussion about whether it would even help to have such a conversation.  This came across most poignantly in an interchange between a Clinton supporter (CS) and a Trump supporter (TS) at the meeting.  The TS somewhat hesitantly and very courageously given the obvious predominantly anti-Trump sentiment in the room articulated her feeling that Trump’s stand on trade dealt with a serious problem that affected many in her community and that no one else was taking seriously.  She specifically referred to the negative effects of NAFTA.  Others in the room asked her to explain her views further and listened respectfully (or so it seemed to me).  But the CS said that he thought the discussion raised the question of what was to be accomplished by such a dialogue.  He argued that nothing he could say about how much more significant Trump’s racism and misogyny are than his stance on trade would influence the TS, and nothing that she could say would in any way sway his view that Trump was dangerous, bigoted, and dishonest.  In many ways, we see what the CS said playing out in this depressing run to the tape in this election.

    It appeared that most people in the room, myself included (although I found the CS’s comments persuasive in many ways), felt that there indeed was a point to such discussions—even though no one’s mind might be changed. Why?   We talk to expand our thinking, to promote community, to humanize each other, to refine our beliefs so as to account for the legitimate concerns of those we disagree with, and to counteract as best we can the divisive forces that are so prevalent in our national community.  And sometimes, just occasionally, even during the most divisive of times—we might change others’ minds and more shocking still—we might find our minds are changed as well.  If we don’t believe that talking with those we have profound differences with makes a difference, then what are we doing in this kind of work?  But that does not mean that we should cease staunch advocacy for what we believe in or that we should not call out bad behavior and bad attitudes when we see them.  And considerations of timing are important.


Two further takeaways:


  1. We all really wanted to have this conversation—about having a conversation.  And that has always been the case.  When conflict professionals get together, they want to talk about the most pressing conflicts of the moment—whether in a local, national, or international context—and they really do want to talk.  The format of many professional conferences actually discourages this.  Proposals to present have to be submitted months in advance.  And the concept of presentation is just that—presenters present, attendees attend, even with the most interactive of intentions.  But we all want to talk as well as to listen—and it is incumbent on conference planners to make space in the program for such dialogues—facilitated or spontaneous—and to create opportunities to discuss issues that arise well after a conference program is finalized.  I was one of the conference tri-chairs at the very first ACR conference (in Toronto in the Fall of 2001).  This occurred a couple of months after 9/11.  We held many impromptu discussions and several structured interactions about this.  To do so, we had to play a bit of havoc with the conference agenda but under the circumstances it was clear that this was essential to our purpose as an organization.  Ever since then (and even previously at other conferences), I have tried to organize or participate in discussions that are meant to address topical political and social conflicts.  Some of these have been planned through the conference proposal process, but that is not always possible.  But they have been, in my view, a very valuable part of the program. We should always remember that our process should never get in the way of our purpose.

  2. For me the most poignant, and somewhat painful, takeaway is that while most of us think dialogues across our differences are important—they are not something that we make happen very often.  And we are not so sure how to make them happen.  There are wonderful organizations in our field whose mission is to help create such dialogues (e.g. the Public Conversations Project or Search for Common Ground—or check this out from the Alliance for Peacebuilding), and there work is inspiring.  But for this to happen on a much broader level, many more of us need to be engaged in efforts to create and facilitate difficult public conversations.  Of course, this may not easily fit into our business model—and such work is seldom funded, but it is essential to our mission as a field and as conflict engagement specialists. 


So—does anyone want to organize a discussion for say the first week in December or sometime in January about how to address our polarization?  Are any of you planning on submitting proposals to professional conferences (or any relevant gathering) on a local, state or national level, to consider what next steps we might take in light of the circumstances brought about by the results of this election?  Or any other public issue that will be gathering force in the year ahead?  I hope so and wish you the best of luck.  We do need to talk after all.  And yes we can!


This blog post is part of the Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016 series. Please check out the entire series by visiting the series homepage:

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