Can We Talk?
By Bernie Mayer
So much has happened in the six weeks since I wrote my last entry to this series (during most of that time time I was happily on vacation in Colorado and Wyoming), and yet in most respects, little has changed.
The conventions happened. Trump has continued to be Trump (with a few pallid efforts to be more “presidential”). Clinton’s email problems just won’t go away. But it does seem that Trump will—or at least he seems much less likely to be taking up residence in the White House.
For me, however, the most important question remains and that is what this surrealistic election season says about the future of American democracy. Or to put it more bluntly, have we lost the capacity to deal with our most pressing challenges as a nation and as a people? Not that we have always been so good at this. But it now appears that not only are we unable to deal with major problems that are undermining our society and our world (e.g., climate change, racial tension, income inequality, deterioration of our infrastructure, health care, gun violence, drug and alcohol addiction, ISIS)—we can’t even really talk about them—at least not with those we disagree with.
We seem at times to exist in parallel universes that do not communicate, do not interact, do not understand each other, and don’t have the vaguest idea of what each other’s lives are like. So our attempts at conversing are modern expressions of the biblical experience of the Tower of Babel. And if we can’t talk with those we disagree with, we can’t hope to make progress on building a broad enough consensus to take the bold steps that are required to address our most significant challenges.
I have asked many people during the past few months about whether they have had any serious conversations about this election with people supporting a different candidate. I have—with a family member who is supporting Jill Stein. And even that was not all that serious (I expect to win a bet with my brother about how large a percentage of the vote she will get). I have yet to have a gratifying argument much less a serious conversation with a supporter of Donald Trump. Nor has almost everyone I have asked.
The answers I have gotten, roughly in order of their frequency (and with a few sample responses):
This last response has been rare—but encouraging. Most people I have talked to don’t even know anyone (at least not well) who supports a different candidate and if they do, it is most likely a relative or a co-worker, but not a friend.
Is this a problem? I think so. I have spent most of my professional life trying to get people to talk to each other about differences—for example about child rearing, the environment, workplace conflict, or community disputes. My approach to this has migrated quite a bit over the last 40 years, but I have always believed that honest discussions about our differences, even when there is no genuine prospect of reaching an agreement about them, is important, in fact essential, to building better families, organizations, communities and societies.
Of course, it is critical that these be conducted in a constructive way, where we listen to those we disagree with, put forth our views in ways that don’t automatically put down others, and be open to altering our ideas over time. Easier said than done—and I am by no means a paragon of constructive engagement across profound political differences. But hard as this challenge may be, it is essential to building community and confronting our most important challenges.
This is not just about listening and trying to understand others—although that is a good start. It is also about saying what we really think—clearly and unambiguously—but in a constructive way.
When we can accomplish a constructive exchange, especially in the face of profound and deeply felt differences, we are doing the work of making our world a better place. There are of course enormous challenges that get in the way. It is important to speak truth to power, to stand up to bullies, racists, misogynists, and others promoting a hateful and destructive message. But, it is also very important to engage them in a constructive interchange. As I said, easier said than done. And of course, just because our approach may be constructive and respectful does not mean that we always get the same in return. But it is still important that we make this effort whenever we can.
One significant obstacle is our physical isolation from each other. The less we interact with people who have different backgrounds or perspectives, the more likely we are to take extreme views. One interesting study by Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup (reported by Charles Blow in the NY Times, August 29, 2016), reported that the most significant predictor of who supported Donald Trump was not related to economic well being but to geographic isolation. Specifically, Rothwell says:
“…those who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated ZIP codes and commuting zones. Excluding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.” (Rothwell, August 1. 2016: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2822059)
Is it becoming harder, or even impossible, not only to talk to those we disagree with—but even to find them? Is this election, with it’s calls to lock up (and worse) those we disagree with, with it’s name calling, and incredible divisiveness making it harder to talk across our differences? Or is the election (as I think and fear) more a reflection of our diminishing capacity as a society to deal with these differences? The vitriolic approach that candidates (one in particular) have taken all year may have hi-lighted this trend, and perhaps exacerbated it, but the trend has been clearly developing for quite a while.
So ought we to wring our hands in despair and retreat to cynicism and escapism? No, of course not—we should approach this challenge as an opportunity. And it is especially an opportunity for those of us who work on conflict, civic engagement, and dialogue. This after all is what our work is all about.
This elections season offers some particular opportunities:
As individuals, we can try harder to have difficult conversations. As conflict engagement or dialogue specialists we can look for every opportunity to help organize and conduct community dialogues across our differences. We don’t have to focus only on those with whom we disagree with the most, although when we can engage them that is especially valuable. Instead, we can talk across slightly less gaping chasms. Clinton supporters to Sanders supporters to Trump supporters to Republicans who don’t like Trump to Democrats who don’t like Clinton to Clinton supporters.
Whether we can really pull this off—whether we can begin to break down our barriers by increasing our interactions with people who we don’t naturally communicate with or even interact with —remains to be seen. But if we don’t try because we don’t think we can, then we surely can’t. This is not a short term challenge. It is an age old one. We really have no choice but to try to face it if we want to move forward on the most troubling challenges we face. Elections up the ante but they also provide the playing field for constructive engagement.