Healing the Divide Between Us

We can heal some of our divisions by having a few civil conversations.

Last week, I shared my concerns about the growing divide between the various factions of our society. I expressed social media miscommunicationsmy belief that our positions on political and social issues have become more extreme, and that we seem to have lost the ability to engage in civil disagreement.

In her recent book, “Braving the Wilderness” (2017), Brene Brown, Ph.D. discusses our need to feel that we belong, and how that need makes it difficult for us to deal with those who disagree with us. She points out that we have an innate fear of not belonging. Research even shows that loneliness contributes to illness and death as much as smoking or obesity.

Dr. Brown asserts that our divisions widen, and our positions become more extreme, because of our fears. Her research suggests that our fears have grown stronger since the terrorist attacks of 911, and that those fears have changed us. She points out that our national conversations have focused more-and-more on “what should we fear, and who should we blame.”

She defined terrorism as “time-released fear,” and stated that “the goal of terrorism is to embed fear so deeply in our community that it becomes a way of life.” This fear then fuels our anger and blame so that we begin to turn on one another. We become divided.

So, how can we narrow our divisions? One of Dr. Brown’s recommendations is to make a deliberate effort to engage in honest, but civil conversations with those who hold different views. She points out that it is difficult to hate someone close-up. As we get to know someone personally, we see more of our similarities and fewer of our differences.

There is, of course, a major difference between a debate and a conversation. We try to win a debate. We don’t listen in a debate, except to find a weakness in their position to strengthen our own argument. We walk away from a debate feeling we have won or lost, but with no shift in our original opinion. Debates tend to deepen our divisions.

A conversation is different. The point of a conversation is to communicate. A conversation doesn’t require a winner or a loser. Listening is at least fifty percent of a conversation. At the end of a conversation, you may still disagree, but you feel heard and respected. You have done nothing to lessen the other person, and they have done nothing to lessen you. You may actually find that your positions became a bit less extreme.

Of course, our national divisions are massive and the underlying reasons are complex. The very thought of healing the divide feels overwhelming and way beyond any individual’s reach. But, just because we can’t do everything shouldn’t stop us from doing something. Perhaps we could begin with a few simple, honest, civil conversations.

The Divide Between Us

Will we allow ourselves to be divided?

Recently, multiple news reports indicated that Russian government backed organizations purchased $100,000 worthpeople divided of ads on Facebook. There may be more, but these are the ones that have been identified so far.

We are now learning about some of the content of their ads and the populations they targeted. Many of the details are still unclear, but we are seeing one factor. The ads seem to have the intent of dividing us from each other. They picked sensitive or hot-button issues, and then posted extreme stories promoting both sides.

For some time now, I have expressed the concern that our country has become more polarized than ever. We are dramatically divided on so many issues; Democrats versus Republicans, Conservatives versus Liberals, race versus race, Trump lovers versus Trump haters. These positions have divided neighbors, friends, and family members to the point where some are not even speaking to each other. I know of family members who have not spoken in many months after a political disagreement.

Our divisions are deepened by our perception that our side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong. We stereotype the other side as ignorant, stupid, selfish or evil. We don’t trust the other side. They become the enemy.

Perceptions become extreme when we limit our communications to our side. We talk to those who share our position about how wrong the other side is. The negative statements are often accompanied by anger, dismissive laughter, sneers or expressions of disgust. We don’t really listen or try to understand the view of those on the other side. Even when we do communicate with someone expressing an opposing view, we don’t really listen because we are too busy formulating our argument. We become even more entrenched in our position.

What if we remembered that those on the other side are our fellow Americans, our neighbors, friends and family members? What if we honored them as human beings, who simply hold a different opinion? What if we engaged in a civil conversation and actually listened? We might find that those on the other side did have reasons for their opinions. We might be able to disagree, while still respecting the person. We might be able to work together on more issues.

I certainly don’t claim to know the answers to our current issues. I do believe those answers will only be found when we work together. I believe the path lies in real communication, respect for each other, negotiation and compromise.

There is still much to learn about the recent Russian actions and their intentions. But, if their intent was to deepen America’s internal divisions, they are on to something. They seem to understand that they don’t need to attack us. They just need to help us attack each other. We have to choose whether or not we will let that happen.