I Never Thought of It That Way, How To Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times
"What if I told you that the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?" origin unknown.
The 21st century so far has become known as the age of polarization, when people clung more rigidly to identities than ever before, sorting themselves into churches, workplaces, neighborhoods, and media zones based on ideological purity. Whether one is liberal or conservative has become something of a "mega-identity", that greatly influences almost all other choices. How can a society continue to function when it divides into two camps, each one convinced that the the opposite camp is literally evil?
Monica Guzman tackles this thorny problem in her new book, I Never Thought of It That Way. The author is a journalist from Seattle who has made it her life's work to bridge the divide between political camps, and her organization, Braver Angels, is at the forefront of this attempt. While she admits to being a liberal herself, her two parents, both immigrants from Mexico, are Trump voters and hard-line conservatives. Much of this book comes from her personal experience trying to dialogue with her family, and a lot of it applies to difficult conversations everywhere- not necessarily just about politics.
The author sees three stages of polarization- sorting into like-minded people, othering people who are not like-minded into something bad and inferior, and siloing, where one's entire world revolves around a carefully cultivated reality. These three factors have made communication between the two polar opposites difficult if not impossible, as we've seen. In just the last forty years America has transformed from a land with about 10% of its counties in "landslide" territory where only one party dominates, to a place where over half of them do. And the few parts of the country that are equally divided like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have devolved into war zones politically.
Guzman talks about an experiment that was done near Seattle where groups of liberals traveled to rural Oregon to have a dialogue with nearby conservatives. I've read about other attempts like this, and they can be inspiring, but the draw of feeling superior is a hard one to get over, for both sides. She talks about several moments during that dialogue where her mind was "blown" by ideas she'd never considered before. That's where the title of the book comes in- I Never Thought Of It That Way, or INTOIT as she calls it. Getting to that point, and being open to it, is the tricky part.
The book is full of many helpful tips on how to build what she calls bridging conversations. Trying to convince someone that you're 100% right and they're 100% wrong rarely works, even if it's true. Rather than going into battle to defeat an opponent, why not make political discussions an exercise in intellectual curiosity? How did they come to believe what they believe? Don't fall for easy assumptions like they're stupid, evil, or misled. Everybody has a story and a reason, and only once you see that story can you begin to connect and possibly persuade. In order to build a safe space for real bridging, the conversation needs to be private- meaning not on social media or in front of groups. Those conversations are all about scoring points for your side and rarely go anywhere. They need to have all people fully engaged (not multitasking), and they need to look for balance that respects all participants.
We are all shaped by our experiences. Before judging each other, it's best to look at how someone's unique experiences may have shaped their viewpoints. A liberal who is mugged may decide to become a conservative based on their experience with the criminal justice system. Likewise, a conservative who is laid off may suddenly grow to appreciate the social safety net that keeps their family from starving and grow in compassion. Experiences trump ideology, but once people move within a hardened silo, ideology becomes unquestioned dogma and even experiences have trouble breaking through.
Political views are shaped by what we value most. Those who value tradition, power, and security over everything else gravitate to conservatism. Those who value universalism, creativity, and empathy lean into liberalism. There are always trade-offs- more security means less creativity, and vice versa. We all choose how to stack our values in order of importance, and the trade-offs can get tricky. Our values can vary according to our environment and experiences, but that's always a good place to start in a difficult conversation- "What do you value most, and why?" When we share our own story of how we found our values, that makes more of an impact than charts or statistics.
Bridging conversations have to be made in good faith- no name calling or gotcha questions. Arguments have to be based in some kind of reality and open to challenge, The question that often comes up in this book is "What could I be missing?" None of us can see the entire picture, so we need to be always on the lookout for gaps in our experience that new viewpoints can enlighten us. The problem for many comes with the Dunning-Kruger effect, where a little bit of knowledge produces a great deal of certainty, even though the person knows deep down that the great body of knowledge they aren't looking at would force them to reconsider everything. Often we don't know what we don't know.
The two questions that most got me thinking were:
- Are you willing to believe that you are wrong about something?
- What do you value more- the truth, or your beliefs?
Are we willing to follow despots, disown family members, or stop doing business with companies based on how much they support or threaten our faulty beliefs? None of us has a monopoly on truth, though you'd never guess it reading comments on social media.
Our beliefs form a comfortable structure around which we can make sense of all of the confusing inputs we see every day. To get stronger and have a clearer picture of the truth, we need to loosen that structure just enough to let some discomfort in. A little bit of chaos, but not too much, forces us to ask the question of this book- why have I never thought of it that way before? We're all here to learn, not to bludgeon our fellow humans with our obvious intelligence and righteousness. This book goes beyond the red/blue divide and has valuable insights on communication in general. I recommend it to anybody trying to raise the bar of communication in a very closed-off world.
Here is a Ted Talk that Ms. Guzman did on this very subject.