In our polarized American landscape, we often hear that if we “just came together” around values we share, we could find a lot of common ground.
I believe that, but only partially. The reason is I’ve spent years talking with people across the political spectrum about some of these core values.
And for anyone who does that – and there are many wonderful civic, community and dialogue leaders who have done similar things – something obvious emerges. While we might, in fact, hold common agreements on the importance of certain key principles, values and virtues, we sure don’t agree on what those mean, how to define (or redefine) them in the modern age and what, if any, application and relevance they hold for the many complex issues facing society today. For example, what does “justice” mean today or “compassion” or “religious freedom”? (hint: not the same thing across the political spectrum).
This isn’t bad news. It’s just the way things are. Even the very words we use come to mean fundamentally different things. I was involved in a project in 2016 mapping these different meanings in collaboration with dialogue professionals across some of the more salient socio-political differences. The goal was to create some kind of a term guide that might help translate and clarify between these understandings (and perhaps encourage more humanizing in real life). Included in that Red Blue Dictionary (now hosted as the All Sides Dictionary) are the contested meanings for basic words like “American,” “facts” and “politically correct” and “progressive,” and other terms with uniquely triggering meanings (for some), such as “white privilege” and “politically correct.” Still other emotional terms have been variously defined in very broad or limited ways, depending on the context, including “extremist,” “radical,” “irrational,” “hate,” “bigot,” “racist,” and “anti-gay.”
In each case, we document and explore fundamentally different ways of conceiving these principles, terms and definitions – and in some cases, these values. Depending on that meaning, the words can be experienced and function in profoundly different ways. For instance, when defined broadly, the word “extremist” or “radical” can be used to shut down those we disagree with, and can be experienced as very silencing. And words like “fact” and “truth” may be experienced so differently that people are hardly speaking about the same thing. Once again, this is not bad news at all – as long as we’re aware it is happening (in which case, we can respond in some kind of a productive way).
Unfortunately in most cases, for most Americans, this is simply not happening. They are almost entirely unaware that some of the basic words they use might actually mean something remarkably different to their left-leaning neighbor or to their right-leaning uncle.
In the absence of that recognition, a couple of things happen: first, we have a very difficult time communicating. Imagine two people coming together speaking two languages, but not even aware they are speaking two languages. This is kind of what’s happening now according to many observers in America. “Let’s all fight for social justice!” says one progressive college student – hardly aware that this very word, “social justice” can feel like an existential threat to many conservatives. “As long as can uphold what is Biblical we’ll be okay as a society” says another religious conservative – with little awareness at how much of an existential threat this word now represents to those who identify as LGBT+.
You can guess what happens next: we get frustrated. Instead of realizing that this person sees the same fundamental principles in a different way, we lash out them, treating them somehow as if they are somehow inferior or motivated by selfishness or evil, because they actively oppose things that, to our mind and our community, seem eminently and urgently needed, good and right (and righteous).
You see, as long as we are not understanding how fundamentally we are seeing things differently, we are left to scramble for another explanation. And that explanation is served up by the professional polarizers that have become de facto leaders for so many communities in our country – across the political spectrum.
There are real fears on both sides of the spectrum that the other side is destroying the true fabric of the country and betraying its core values. And in vocalizing these fears, Americans tend to draw on heavy rhetoric that draws promiscuous boundary lines that contribute to an especially frightening picture – aka, all conservatives lumped together with white nationalists and all liberals lumped together with revolutionary Marxists, etc. And so it goes and goes and goes – and expands and metastasizes until we are so much at each other’s throats that more than one political commentator has openly wondered about the possibility of growing political-inspired violence on the horizon.
Getting people to come together across the divide won’t be easy. There’s no app for that. But there are ways forward, albeit not simplistic ones. For instance, we can begin by sitting with someone who doesn’t see the world as we do and actually hearing them out with sincere questions and honest curiosity. Let’s be honest. That’s hard work. Especially now. Especially with our minds so cluttered by the residue of professional provocateurs so much so that their aggressive angst sit on the tip of our own tongue.
But here’s the good news: for those willing to actually go there, to actually try this, to actually sit with their discomfort and listen – really listen, not the fake kind, not the ‘let-me-watch-for-whatever-opening-I-need-to-expose-the-ridiculous-delusion-of-this-other-person’ kind – for those willing to do that, things can change. And things do change…dramatically.
Trust me. I’ve lived this for over a decade. As a conservative Mormon, some of my best friends and most cherished relationships include atheist professors, lesbian activists and even some crazy, adorable Marxists. My own fear and anger to my many political opposites has lightened, and given way to curiosity and affection. From experience, I know that fear can evaporate. The animosity can diminish. And affection can grow. And all of a sudden, you’re falling in love in small, but real ways, with your political opponents.
Earlier this year, I saw these principles in action in a group I joined called a Ben Franklin Circle. There were 6 across the political spectrum who came together to discuss one of Franklin’s 13 virtues to live by. For example, we spent one meeting talking about the virtue of sincerity, what it meant and how (and whether) it applied to society today. Then we looked at ways to apply it and maybe experiment with it more in our own lives. It was so sweet that I still remember how refreshing it felt.
Say what you want about the founding fathers. Disagree with many of the positions that they and most Americans at the time happened to hold. But one thing we might all agree upon is that they understood the value of virtues like, honesty, integrity, like moderation—virtues that seem in short supply today.
What if we made space – even just a little, even just once in awhile – for these virtues by coming together to direct our attention, on purpose, to one of these ideals? We would talk together about what they mean and whether they are applicable to us today—and if so, what they call on us to try in our lives – and what they could mean for our country.
Once again, we won’t agree on those answers, but that’s not the point. It’s really never been the point. Because as soon as we have a conversation. Things change, for all of us. And that might be just what America needs right now.
Jacob Hess is the author of You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong with Phil Neisser and has been featured on This American Life. He is a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation.