“Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.”
— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(Readers: This series was originally intended to be a 7-parter, but Part 7 was becoming so large, I decided to divide it into halves. Part 7 is now the first half of what would have been the Finale; Part 8 will be the second half.)
The projects, guidance, and ideas in this series (see Part 6 and feel free to go backwards) could bring us a distance towards reducing the socially demeaning and harmful mutual disgust in the U.S. between those who loathe the President and those who voted for him. Reducing those negative feelings is necessary to make fuller progress towards addressing climate change (a major subtheme of this series), re-building our democracy, and addressing other serious issues. Further, if “we” (at this point in the series in the full sense of the word: Americans) still want it, this could help us become an actual great country and world leader again, although what these would mean in these times deserves its own separate exploration. If we can’t even talk to those with very different politics, we’ll only keep going in the wrong direction. An improvement in relations between Americans also is worthwhile for its own stake.
Initially, few people in my network agreed with me, although more recently it has started to even out. Here are excerpts from two strong and lengthy negative reactions I received about Part 1 of this series, from Dr. Jim Quigley, a professor at Stonybrook University; and Dr. Maurie Cohen, a professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology; respectively.
“The idea of holding hands with his supporters is nauseating. They should be coming to us to beg forgiveness, not us seeking them out and being solicitous of their feelings…I refuse to appease that which deserves hostility, not appeasement. It is an abdication of our responsibility to roll over and play dead — to make nice with that which is truly deplorable.”
“Why do we need always to be the adults…why do I have to be the one to offer the olive branch of reproach?”
Whereas, this series isn’t about “appeasement,” “abdication,” or “rolling over.” It’s about just talking, and, hopefully, building on that. Shamil Idriss, of the social entrepreneurial group, Search for Common Ground, wrote “caring [for]…them” [those on the other side] “…does not mean you need be any less principled or passionate in your beliefs…”
Again, Why Talk?
Reinforcing the above reasons, and others discussed in Parts 1 & 2, Idriss writes: “…it is primarily in the hands of the American people to rebuild a basic level of mutual respect and dignity. The sooner we do, the better, because we are hurting each other and in the process making our country ungovernable, no matter whom we elect.” Erick Erickson, a conservative radio disk jockey, who has been attacked by other conservatives for not supporting President Trump, adds in “How To Find Common Ground:” “A little more grace among us would go a long way toward healing the nation.”
I haven’t mentioned changing voting patterns at all because as important as elections are, I don’t think it’s the most important reason as compared to the healing of the fundamental relationship between Americans. We have to deal with each other every day, and mutual loathing, or avoiding the subject to keep things superficially civil, is not going to solve our problems.
But, of course, elections count, too. Nicholas Kristof said “that social progress means winning over voters in flyover country, and that it’s difficult to recruit voters whom you’re…castigating…” So we can add this to the other reasons for why we have to try.
Again, How to Begin?
I mentioned many possibilities upon which to build in Parts 3–5, and new, interesting ideas keep emerging that could be tried. Kristof suggests a “junior year ‘abroad’ program that sends liberals to Kansas and conservatives to Massachusetts.” Closer to home (as close as it’s possible to get) Erickson states: “The kitchen table is the most important tool…to reshape…community. Preparing a home-cooked mean and inviting people over, both those we know and those we want to know, forces us to find common ground.”
Mark Gerzon, the President of Mediators Foundation, calls for a “fundamental shift” in “our politics.” He states we need to go “from Confirming to Learning.” And that “Anyone who thinks that political leadership means thinking that whatever we believe is automatically right — and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong — is not part of the solution. Simply confirming that what one already knows is not leadership; it is an addiction to being right. The movement to reunite America is redefining leadership to be about learning rather than about being know-it-alls.” He also calls for “applying boundary-crossing skills.”
Sarah Silverman, called by writer Jason Zinoman “one of the greatest stand-up comics of her generation,” and who spoke at the Democratic Convention, will be piloting a “political variety show…aiming to unite red and blue,” called: “I Love You, America.” She will be departing (to some degree) from her usual style, with the show different from the critical type of political comedy we’re seeing on late night television. She will be talking to and spending time with Trump voters, apparently biting her tongue a lot and avoiding “sharp comebacks,” saying: “I am interested in hearing about people’s feelings, and as corny and hippie-granola as it sounds, it is the root of everything.”
Zinoman writes Silverman will also have on “people who have undergone a change…putting a premium on [those who have undergone a] transformation.” (See the “But Can Talking Actually Work?” section below for a bit on how her early research for the show is going.)
Journalist Leah Fessler describes a way to attack the “bubble problem.” It is now well known that each side tends to listen to news sources that support their views, and often has relationships with only those whose views they share. There is an experimental App developed by the KIND Foundation, called “Pop Your Bubble.” It encourages Facebook users to move outside their usual sources and “Follow” those with different ideologies. Daniel Lubetzky, the KIND CEO, describes the App as “betting on humanity’s better side — our drive to understand, rather than vilify the ‘opposition.” He adds: “…what would happen if your feed helped you at least think about opinions you disagree with, instead of just reinforcing your beliefs? We think that’s a healthy question to ask.”
After Matthew McAllister reviewed several authors, he developed some ideas which are directly on-point to this series. He read: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land; Ogla Khazan’s “The Simple Psychological Trick to Political Persuasion,” in The Atlantic, which featured the work of Matt Feinberg from the University of Toronto and Robb Willer from Stanford University; former Vice-President Joe Biden in a VICE special, “A House Divided;” and McAllister personally attended a “Weekend in the Woods,” called “Cultivate the Karass.” The latter involved “roughly 25 individuals, evenly divided on their political outlook,” with “intentionally limited cell service.” The Karass included a lecture by Lori Brewer Collins, who believes that the political polarities between groups within the country do not really exist, but are imposed upon us, and we accept this “myth.”
McAllister’s interpretation of their work somewhat overlaps with some of the conclusions of this series:
· From Hochschild, he learned about “deep stories,” or personal lenses that someone with different political views might have. He concluded: “We’re talking past one another without true understanding. Our individually held ‘deep stories’ turn into a filter through which all outside opinion gets interpreted”
· From Khazan’s review of Feinberg and Willer, he recognized the importance of understanding the different “moral frames” liberals and conservatives use, and the value of “moral reframing” to make more convincing arguments to the other side. For example, conservative moral frames include “traditionalism, religious sanctity, group loyalty, purity.” Liberal frames include: “fairness, social justice, equality”
· From Biden, he saw the importance, when disagreeing with the other side, of “limiting our attack to a person’s ideas and not their character,” because, as, Biden explained, “…when you attack his character, or her character, when you attack their motive, then it’s almost impossible to get to yes” (invoking the famous book about negotiating towards common ground)
· From his time in the woods, and listening to Collins, McAllister learned to seek “opportunities” to have “a meaningful relationship with someone ideologically different than” himself. He explained that Collins has a concept called a “loyal antagonist,” which means “a friendship between two people with irreconcilable differences who, for whatever reasons, want to have regular conversations with someone from outside of their political tribe”
· McAllister’s overall conclusion is “…actually take time to understand their (the other side’s) character and understand their values.” After “understanding each other as people…it wasn’t until the second day that we even started talking policy, and by that point, the mutual respect and friendship were established to make those conversations some of the most expansive I’ve had”
· Finally, he adds “Be slower to judge and listen a little closer,” and quotes Collins, “put a few stretch marks on [our] souls.”
Eric Liu, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship and American Identity, argues, among other things, for “perhaps counterintuitively — more arguing”; not less. But these should be “less stupid” arguments (which I’ll describe along with other of Liu’s ideas in Part 8). But if we are going to pursue reconciliation, it should be what he calls “Reconciliation for grown-ups.” To get there, besides smarter arguing, we need the better listening we have seen called for several times in this series, and joint projects between those of different political persuasions, what he calls “doing stuff together.”
But Can Talking Actually Work?
Still, others may continue to believe it’s futile. In Parts 3 & 4, I showed that it can work, at least on a small scale. In addition to the people in McAllister’s experience in the woods, here are four recent examples where “success,” of a certain type, was achieved. I’ll focus, first, on an example of a father and son, typifying each side, stuck with each other and having to make it work. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from their experiences. Then, I’ll briefly describe three other cases.
Living With (and Managing Through) Political Differences
In “One Family, Many Revolutions: From Black Panthers, to Silicon Valley, to Trump,” journalist David Streitfeld discusses the extremely divergent views of the father, David Horowitz, and the son, Ben Horowitz, and how they keep it together.
David started out as a ‘60’s-era advisor to the Black Panthers, but, after becoming completely disenchanted with the Panthers and “the Left,” did a complete turnabout. As Streitfeld puts it: “If the Trump Administration has an intellectual godfather, it’s David Horowitz.”
Ben is a financially successful venture capitalist and Co-Chair of Andreessen Horowitz, and has very different political leanings.
As Streitfeld describes it: “They live in different universes: one where President Trump is the answer, the other where he is the problem.” Describing “blacks as criminals, [describing] blacks as role models — it’s hard to get further apart than this.” And, as it is not hard to imagine, “Family chats get interesting.”
As examples of Ben’s reactions and strategies towards his father’s political expressions are, when David tweets: “Hillary killed four Americans in Benghazi,” Ben says: “I never reply.” After hearing something his father had said on the radio, “I nearly crashed the car.” On other issues, “Ben laughed, something he does frequently when talking about his father. ‘I hate it when my father talks, it’s ridiculous.”
According to Streitfeld, on David’s part, “He doesn’t even mind the way they (David’s children) rejected his politics as well.” Ben said of his father: “The victory of not indoctrinating your kids and yet having them be successful anyway — that’s the ultimate for him.”
When Ben feels he needs to support his father, even when advised not to (His business partner said: “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it…”), he puts it this way: “He’s trying to help black people. Really, genuinely. Nobody else is going to take it that way because of how he says it.” Streitfeld states David “broke with right-wing orthodoxy and condemned George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.” Streitfeld included a quote from David: “A young man who was unarmed and guiltless of any crime is dead.”
During a speech for his father at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Ben said that “his father has a nose for freedom and is absolutely relentless about pursuing it…” Streifeld states: “When David went to college campuses to denounce the things that Ben believes in, Ben paid for his bodyguard.”
Streitfeld provides some of the ways that David and Ben maintain their relationship:
· “…the Horowitzes offer a measure of hope. They email, they talk, they get together for family celebrations”
· Ben said: “We trust each other’s intentions”
As stated by Streitfeld, Divine, a rapper friend of Ben, offers an unusual perspective on “what separates and joins the two:” “It’s like Ben is the antidote to David Horowitiz. He balances his father out. And what’s so crazy is that Ben came from David Horowitz.”
If these two, at extreme ends of the Trump pole, can discuss their opinions with respect while maintaining their relationship, it may be more possible than we think. And, while a stretch, maybe there’s something deeper and worthwhile in Divine’s insight on David and Ben’s connection which would be worth pondering.
Facebookers Talking In Person
In “A Trump Voter and Facebook Insulter Talk It Out — In Person,” columnist Jeff Brady describes a meeting between Amy Whitenight, who had called a Trump Voter “an idiot” and “unintelligent,” and that Trump Voter, Jamie Ruppert.
Ruppert said the comment was “hurtful” and “based…off of one decision. That’s just…so judgmental and very unfair.”
According to Brady, the two found they “have a lot in common,” including their ages and professions, and live not far from each other. Also, they both “have benefited from welfare programs,” although differ on who should get them. Finally, in support of the ideas of Renee Lertzman, discussed in Part 5, that underlying some of the hostilities we are seeing are common feelings of being “scared,” and that this has to be faced before various ideas about change can be applied, Brady paraphrases Whitenight saying “they’re both afraid — just of different things.”
Turning a Twitter Feud Around
Freelance writer Cara McDonough, in “Twitter Feud Blossomed Into Something Great,” described how “name-calling” Twitter exchanges between her father, Fred Rotondaro, a major liberal, and Robert Smith, “an avid President Trump supporter,” developed into “inquiries about each other’s families and interests, forming a long-distance friendship marked by — yes — aggressive language but also true affection.”
McDonough points out that “sometimes, unbelievably, they agreed on the issues,” such as the “government [being] for sale.”
When Rotondaro died, Smith wrote to McDonough: “I never met Fred but grew to love him in a sort of adversarial sort of way.” Smith and McDonough have since stayed in touch.
McDonough concluded: “These friendships might be the key to fixing the political mess we’re in right now. I wonder how to make them happen more often.”
Can “Comedy That Aims for Common Ground” Work?
In the “Again, How to Begin?” section above, Jason Zinoman wrote about Sarah Silverman’s upcoming new political variety show that is aiming for common ground. As part of her research, Silverman spent time with a Trump-voting family in Louisiana.
Zinoman paraphrased Silverman saying “she had a good time and found agreement on some issues, like same-sex marriage.” She “bonded with their young boy with the great unifier: a fart joke.” (So that’s what it takes!)
Silverman added: (a) “What makes me hopeful is when you’re face to face you can still enjoy and respect each other;” (b) “Did we change minds? No;” and (c) “What’s important is accepting that you might not always be right…To me, I love it” [saying “I’m wrong” or “I’m sorry”]. “It makes the person I’m talking to feel so good. A total high.”
So “successes” at certain levels are doable, are a lot better than what we usually have now, and provide reasons to believe even higher levels of success are possible.
In the Finale, Part 8, I list a number of remaining uncertainties involving having discussions with Trump voters, provide some partial recommendations when I have them for resolving these, and end with conclusions and some final thoughts.