Commentary: Bridging the cultural divide for civil discourse
We hear a lot about how people with opposing viewpoints need to be reaching across the aisle and talking to one another, but that is easier said than done. Online comments can quickly become fraught and in-person attempts are often so intense that one wrong step can blow up the whole conversation. Both can easily create more polarization rather than less. It's like we're between a rock and a hard place. But it is possible to have a truly productive conversation that helps to bridge the cultural divide - it just takes a lot of work.
The first and most important step is to create a space where intimidation isn't tolerated. Both sides in the conversation need to feel safe and supported. Without that, any already out-of-whack power dynamics are pushed further out of balance. However, this isn't an easy task. Intimidation can show up full force like in the case of author and Black Lives Matter activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who faced an onslaught of death threats and was forced to cancel a series of public lectures at the Seattle Town Hall. Or it can show up in more subtle ways with comments that might seem polite but are designed to cut into a person's respect for themselves and make them doubt what they know. And while intimidation can be pervasive, the simple act of calling it out and standing firm alongside the people on the receiving end makes a real difference. It requires us pushing back on forces that are deeply rooted in our society - racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry -- but it's the work that's necessary if we want to have the conversations we need to have. These conversations don't have to be (and won't be) comfortable but they do have to be grounded in basic respect.
Once there is a safe space, the conversation's goal should be to try to find common ground rather than have a debate. Framing the conversation this way makes it far more likely that people come away understanding each other. Debates increase polarization, but once people feel heard and understood, it's amazing how quickly barriers can come down. Because of this, as hard as it is, we need to repress the deep desire inside us to prove to others that we are "right." People's opinions on controversial issues aren't about to change anytime soon. Some studies actually show that when people are presented with facts that go against their belief about a hot topic, they simply dig in and believe it more strongly. However, if we can make these topics less emotionally-charged, there is hope.
Finally, both sides must approach with a generosity of spirit, one that assumes the best intentions of the other. I was recently invited to give a workshop at Rutland High School about gun violence prevention, and almost all of the participants came to the discussion opposed to any new gun laws. I was nervous, to say the least, but I titled the workshop: "Finding Common Ground on the Issue of Guns" and at the outset I set out basic ground rules, giving an extra star to the one about assuming the best of others. We began with a focus on big picture common ground, agreeing that basically everyone wants communities that are safe and wants their constitutional rights to be protected. From there, we moved into an open and thoughtful discussion about who should and shouldn't have easy access to guns. One student, whose father owns a gun shop, talked about how some people think that gun shops will sell a gun to anybody, but how his dad's shop will refuse to sell to someone if they think the gun will be used irresponsibly. Another student spoke about her own experience with mental illness and how that shapes her view of guns. One of the young men who strongly believed everyone (even criminals) has the right to bear arms actually led the class in a round of applause at the end because it had been such a good, fair discussion. It took my breath away.
These students serve as a reminder to us all that even with the toughest of issues good productive conversations are possible. But it takes drawing a clear line in the sand that intimidating others is unacceptable. It means not letting our emotions lead us into a debate. And it requires generosity. In the story of Stone Soup, the community comes together because everyone gives what they can. We might be between a rock and a hard place, but if we add enough love to that rock we might be able to create something remarkable.
Ann Braden lives in Brattleboro and serves on the leadership team for GunSenseVT, the Local Love Brigade, and the Windham County Action Network (WeCAN). She writes about the joys and struggles of staying engaged in democracy. She can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.