People in our society have very different sources of knowledge, so that people in polarized conflict typically believe they
have legitimate accounts of reality and the other side’s “reality”
is based on falsehoods. Both believe that the other has committed serious political sins. These views often are reinforced by
reactions to highly publicized statements of extreme partisans of
each side, which probably don’t reflect the views of most people
on their side.
BUILDING EMPATHY AND COMMON GROUND
I believe that people on both sides feel real pain. From a
mediation perspective, it helps to begin by acknowledging
This can be very hard to do. Some people feel that acknowledging others’ problems is an implicit devaluation of their own. It
would be nice if others' pain could be acknowledged without people on either side feeling devalued as if in a zero-sum situation.
Indeed, it would be good if people could simultaneously acknowledge the valid concerns of people on all sides.
Probably most of us have strong sympathies with one side
and find it difficult to acknowledge the legitimate perspectives and problems of the other. One need not believe that
there is equal merit on both sides. I certainly don’t believe that.
However, I suspect that these major social conflicts will not
be resolved through competing arguments about the truth or
about who has suffered more. Rather, as the preceding portraits of the bubbles' inhabitants illustrates, much of the conflict
fundamentally is about identity: who is worthy of respect or
sympathy and who is not.
I would like to think that in our daily private lives, in our schools
and communities, people will increasingly decide to treat people
in other “bubbles” with curiosity, respect, and appreciation even
when we disagree about extremely charged issues in our society.
MIXING THE BUBBLES
Here are two examples of efforts to break open bubbles and
promote understanding and respect.
In 2008, then-Senator Obama gave his “More Perfect Union”
speech in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Reverend
Wright had been Senator Obama’s pastor and made inflammatory statements that caused a major controversy for Obama’s
presidential campaign. In this speech, Senator Obama provided a
sympathetic account of perspectives of both blacks and whites in
the US. While sympathetically explaining Reverend Wright’s thinking generally and how it related to African Americans’ struggles in
our history, he was also critical of parts of Wright’s approach. Balancing this discussion, he sympathetically described whites’
views, also noting some criticisms, which he illustrated by referring
to his white grandmother, who he loved dearly, but who sometimes had used racial stereotypes that made him cringe.
This speech is a good model, in both approach and tone, for
trying to build common ground. Senator Obama sought to under-
stand perspectives of blacks and whites in the US, and judge
them sympathetically without suggesting that one was better
than the other.
Of course, some people are hateful and take actions and
make statements that are intended to harm others, or that
are indifferent to their effects on others. Sometimes people
make statements that cause pain due to lack of understanding and insensitivity rather than intent. Obviously, intent is a
critical element in making judgments about people’s actions
and statements. People like neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, who believe that certain races and religions should be
oppressed, deserve harsh judgment.
We can take several lessons from Senator Obama’s speech.
People should first try to understand others, especially those with
whom we disagree – perhaps disagree quite strongly. After serious effort to understand others, we should judge. All ideas are not
equally valid or beneficial (or harmful). So being non-judgmental
isn’t a good solution. When we judge others and their ideas, we
should be as sympathetic as appropriate, considering their intentions, among other things.
We should also have some caution and humility recognizing
our own biases, cognitive and otherwise. In particular, we should
recognize that we are subject to the bias of reactive devaluation –
judging favorably ideas of people we like and judging unfavorably
ideas of people we don’t like. A second example of constructive
communication comes from an op-ed in the New York Times (“I’m
Prejudiced,’ He Said. Then We Kept Talking, December 10, 2016)
that described a remarkable conversation "between bubbles"
in our society. Heather McGhee, a black woman who heads the
think tank Demos, which is undertaking a "truth, racial healing,
and transformation project," got a surprising question when she
was on C-Span. 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 to talk offline and in person. Garry
said he spoke for a lot of people who are afraid to admit their fears
and prejudices. He said 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. His own efforts to
deal with his prejudices helped him let go of his stereotypes and
empathize with others’ struggles, including those of both blacks
It would be great if there would be more conversations like the
one between Heather and Garry. Unfortunately, such contact
rarely happens spontaneously because of so much residential
segregation and self-segregating behavior.
These problems are exacerbated by the news and social media.
By definition, the news media highlight things that are unusual
and often shocking -- or else they usually wouldn’t be considered “newsworthy.” These tendencies are aggravated by