I recently listened to a TED talk in which the speaker asked members of the audience, “Raise your hand if you have a loved one, neighbor, or friend who in the last election cast a vote that you can’t possibly comprehend.” Everyone raised their hands. Next he asked, “Raise your hand if you still have a cordial relationship with that person.” Almost everyone again raised a hand.
What we do instinctively with those we care about, we are failing to do on a broader, societal level. The 2020 election map shows 25 red states arrayed against 25 blue states, and every day the media report alarming signs of our nation’s deep divisions. My own Facebook site illustrates the divide: a totally unrelated post can trigger a heated, name-calling exchange about Biden and Trump, or about maskers and anti-maskers.
Is there another way? Can the United States resurrect the lofty goal enshrined at our founding: that of e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”)—rather than the current trend of one splintering into many? For those willing to pursue the goal of civil conversation with adversaries, I suggest the following steps.
1) Better arguments. I found a helpful website that proposes not fewer arguments, but better ones (https://bit.ly/PYargue). As a starting point, when touchy issues come up in a conversation with someone you know you’ll disagree with, say something like this: “I won’t try to convert you to my way of thinking, and I doubt you’ll convert me either. So let’s take the notion of winning off the table. But I’d really like to understand your point of view.” Then, carefully listen to your opponent, perhaps restating or asking questions to clarify assertions, but without attempting to refute them.
Reading through their examples, it occurred to me that as a journalist I do this naturally. I have interviewed and profiled people with whom I have strong disagreements: a sitting U.S. president, Russian bureaucrats, atheists, outspoken racists, a murderer. If I charge in with objections to everything they say, their defenses immediately go up. I will end up shortchanging my readers because I won’t get the material I need for a good article. Instead, I gently try to coax from my interview subjects an accurate picture of who they are, and present it in a way that lets my readers be the judge.
Sometimes I feel like a professional counselor during those interviews. “Do you have any regrets about that decision? How do you feel now, looking back?” Every counselor knows that direct confrontation rarely helps. Rather, a good counselor leads the one being counseled toward self-understanding, which must precede any lasting change. Similarly, in my role as a journalist, the better I can uncover another person’s perspective, the more accurately I can render them in my profile.
The interviewing techniques I’ve learned don’t easily transfer when, say, I have political discussions with certain family members. Yet, I’ve found that it helps if I shift my focus from convincing them of my point of view to comprehending theirs.
2) True empathy. After a victorious Joe Biden urged Americans “to see each other again, listen to each other again,” the political scientist and Time columnist Ian Bremmer tweeted, “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them. Tell them you know how they feel (you do, from 2016). Come up with one issue you can agree on.”
His proposal ignited a twitterstorm of angry responses. People on the right felt patronized by those who had cast them as bigots and fascists, while people on the left wanted nothing to do with Trump supporters. (“The only way to heal this country is to put every Trump voter in the jail,” one person replied.) A well-intentioned call for unity only seemed to widen the divide.
Barely a week later, the entire world was shocked to see a riot mob invade the U.S. Capitol. I watched with dismay as protestors waved crosses and JESUS banners along with Confederate flags and signs denouncing their opponents. Have they ever read the Gospels? I wondered.
Jesus was the ultimate bridge-builder, reaching out to people unlike himself and each other. His twelve disciples included a revolutionary Zealot as well a tax collector who worked for the oppressive Romans. On the same day, he healed an “unclean” social outcast and resurrected the daughter of a synagogue ruler. His parables featured improbable heroes: a diseased beggar, a rebellious son, a despised Samaritan.
Jesus showed such empathy that he, a sinless human, got branded as a friend of sinners. In words so few that they would also fit in a tweet, Jesus gave his own prescription on how to treat adversaries: “Love your enemies…Pray for those who persecute you.” Then he modeled how, by praying empathetically for his murderers—“for they don’t know what they are doing”—and forgiving Peter, the close friend who had betrayed him three times.
In a nation as divided as the U.S. in 2021, Jesus’ words have the ring of absurdity. It’s so much easier to bunker down among people who look and think just like me, rather than take the difficult steps toward empathy and reconciliation. But, then, Jesus never promised it would be easy.
3) Mutual respect. It seems everyone feels disrespected these days: the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump as well as the progressive Democrats who wanted a candidate other than Joe Biden; the Proud Boys and Antifa; blue-collar whites and police-oppressed minorities.
In one of his last interviews, the late Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K., observed that Western democracies are moving from guilt-based to shame-based societies. Guilt at least holds out the potential for reconciliation, after the steps of repentance and forgiveness. A shame-based culture rejects the person, not just their behavior, and has no path toward reconciliation or a redemptive outcome. Cross a line, and you’re blackballed for life.
In today’s “cancel culture,” we refuse even to listen to people we disapprove of. In its milder form, universities ban speakers who don’t share their views on gender issues or abortion. More ominously, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter advocates scream at each other across the picket lines, often inciting violence.
Daryl Davis, an imposing figure both in size and in courage, demonstrates another way of confronting adversaries. In a Veritas Forum available on YouTube, he spells out a fascinating odyssey in which he, an African American, has managed to persuade more than 200 racists to leave the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi movements. (The full story is available at https://bit.ly/PYddavis, or you can view an 18-minute version at https://bit.ly/PYddavis18.)
Davis began his career as a musician, playing boogie-woogie piano backup for the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Over time, he felt called to understand white supremacists and neo-Nazis, whom most people avoided like a virus. He befriended KKK leaders, sometimes attending rallies at which he was the only person not wearing a hood, and definitely the only non-white person. After winning the right to be heard, he helped correct their false perceptions of Black people. Davis mastered the art of listening with respect. In time he challenged their beliefs, often using the very Bible they claimed to believe in.
Few of us have the chutzpah to show up in the nest of our extremist opponents, but we can at least find ways to join in common cause with people who are unlike us. Davis recommends seeking out service projects that attract people of different political persuasions, such as ministering to prisoners or the homeless or immigrants.
It’s possible to understand and respect another person without condoning their beliefs or compromising your own. In the process, you just may change their outlook—or expand yours.