Troubled by the corrosive conflict stirred up by the election, I have written a series of posts about how we might move forward constructively, particularly on the personal (as distinct from the political) level. I think that political progress may depend, in part, on breaking down barriers of misunderstanding and fear between groups in our society.
In my first post in this series, I described some general perspectives of liberals and conservatives who painfully feel disrespected. In another post, I suggested that Barack Obama’s 2008 More Perfect Union speech provides a useful model of sympathetically understanding different groups’ concerns and then making judgments. I also posted two messages from the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation about promoting good conversations generally and having good conversations at Thanksgiving gatherings.
I was prompted to add this post in this series by an op-ed in the New York Times that describes a remarkable conversation illustrating one effort to communicate between “bubbles” in our society.
Heather McGhee, a black woman, got a surprising question when she was on C-Span recently. A caller named Garry said, “I’m a white male and I’m prejudiced. What can I do to change to be a better American?”
Ms. McGhee gave Garry some suggestions on-air and a video of this conversation went viral, with more than eight million views.
Heather and Garry continued the conversation offline and in person. Garry said that he spoke for a lot of people who are afraid to admit their fears and prejudices. He said that many white people are like him and are good people who don’t know how to interact with people of different races. He suggested that more black people reach out to whites for two-way conversations of learning.
Trevor Noah, the host of the Daily Show, wrote a recent op-ed entitled, Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule. He said, “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters. We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us. I know it can be done because I had no choice but to do it, and it is the reason I am where I am today.” He was referring to his experience as a mixed race person growing up in apartheid South Africa.
Liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cautions liberals, especially on college campuses, to avoid stereotyping conservatives and urges liberals to engage them in conversation. “When students inhabit liberal bubbles, they’re not learning much about their own country. To be fully educated, students should encounter not only Plato, but also Republicans. . . . Maybe if we knew more Trump voters we’d be less inclined to stereotype them.”
Ms. McGhee heads a think tank, Demos, which is undertaking a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation project. It is a “national and community-based process designed to engage communities in racial healing and change efforts that address current inequities linked to the belief in a racial hierarchy. It is an adaptation of some of the most recognized Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) models.”
It would be great if there would be more conversations like the one between Heather and Garry. This is difficult to happen spontaneously because of so much segregation in residential patterns and self-segregating behavior.
So it may require organized efforts to engage a substantial number of people personally through projects like the ones sponsored by Demos, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and Public Conversations Project. These would complement Ohio State’s promising Divided Community Project, which is designed to prevent and manage destructive community conflict.
I don’t know whether these efforts would make any difference in healing the deepening wounds of polarization that have been getting worse and worse in recent decades. It seems unlikely that such efforts would be sufficient by themselves to reverse this trend, and other strategies are needed to counteract schemes purposely propagating deception and hatred. But promoting constructive dialogue could help increase understanding and concern across lines of mistrust and disrespect and heal some painful wounds. It seems like a worthwhile effort in any case.