The On Being Project

Why Conversations Across Ideological Lines Fail

When it comes to conversations across ideological lines, we seem to be more divided than ever — perhaps more divided than at any point I can recall. Much of what we do is yell at each other, rather than listen to one another. I have been wondering about why that is — and in particular why there is a mutual feeling of frustration among conservative and progressive types:

“You aren’t listening. You are not hearing me.”  

The part of North Carolina where I live represents a particularly vivid case of these separate lives. In a 20-minute radius, there are two of the leading universities in the country. In this area, there is an educated population, many of whom have a high income. Drive 20 minutes outside of this bubble, you are in a different ZIP code, a different economy, and a different life. This difference shows up in every way imaginable. Politically, the counties with universities vote Democratic, the rest of the state votes Republican. Walk around the town and the difference shows up in schools, in homes, in public sidewalks that abruptly end in the poor sections of town, and even in the body sizes of people. In the affluent sections you see young and old people biking and jogging. In the poor sections you see 40-year-olds smoking, heavy, and struggling to walk from their car to a grocery store.

When you go from observing people to speaking with people, you hear their frustrations. Many progressive folks tend to view the conservative support for Trump as caused primarily by racism. (I confess, I share that perspective.) And many conservative folks tend to view Washington as broken and dysfunctional (which I confess, is a perspective I also share), and are willing to champion Trump as a rogue maverick who is going to shake the system up, blow it up if necessary. They tend to see the liberal folks as not just elite but elitist, out of touch, and filled with condescension towards them.

In short, our conversations across ideological lines seem to be filled with too much heat and not enough light. We continue to talk past one another.

I do not pretend to be some neutral observer in this conversation. Nor do I float above the conversation on some mythical cloud of objectivity and neutrality. I am rooted in one of the many communities who today find themselves under attack and assault. As a person of color, I know that vulnerability is not evenly distributed among our society. And yes, as a person whose faith is grounded in the prophetic tradition of Jesus of Nazareth, Amos, and Muhammad of Arabia, I begin every concern with the “least” of God’s children, those who at the moment find themselves weak and vulnerable. I do not believe that the fears of conservative people take precedence over the vulnerabilities of African Americans, Muslims, refugees, queer folks, women, poor folks, DACA applicants, Dreamers, and others.

And yet, I also know that we are all in this together. Either we go up together, or we go down together — but we are in this together. I know that the America that we have today is unsustainable. It cannot hold. We have to recast this country into something more in accordance with its creed. We yearn to be citizens of an America that does not exist yet. We have to be the architects of that America.

With those caveats, I want to come back to this notion of having a more meaningful dialogue, a more robust, honest, and difficult dialogue across difference. That dialogue must not be in place of addressing fundamental issues of justice and injustice, but alongside it.

Why have our dialogues so far proven ineffective? Why do we have such a difficult time talking across our difference? I’d like to suggest that one of the reasons our dialogue fails has to do with something quite nerdy.

Most progressives in the North American tradition function out of a legacy of that goes back to the Enlightenment period and its influence on Jefferson and the founding fathers. The Enlightenment was always inconsistent. It championed “inalienable rights” for all, even as it excluded African Americans, Native Americans, women, and others. And there is another shortcoming of the Enlightenment era: It assumed that we as human beings are fundamentally rational creatures.

There is surely a dimension to us that is about reason, rationality, and logic, but there is also that in us that is about emotions, passion, lust, wonder, awe, spirit, rage, compassion, tenderness, love, and all that cannot be neatly contained within “rationality.”

This is part of what many politicians have always understood well and so many liberals have a hard time with today. Politicians understand that the key is to appeal to people’s emotions, their passions, their fears, and their hopes. You don’t go armed in with charts and facts and figures. Whether on the right or the left, politics is also the appeal to the realm of what makes us human beneath/beyond logic and rationality: “Yes we can!” “Make America Great Again!” “Shiny City on the Hill!” and so on.

This brings us back to the broken-down conversation between liberals and conservatives. I am frankly less sure how to help conservatives speak with/listen to liberals. But when it comes to liberals speaking with conservatives, there is one element that I think can be helpful.

Talking about how the tax policy benefits the already rich at the expense of the poor is unlikely to be persuasive if it remains at the level of flow charts and data analysis. A more honest and difficult and yes, uncomfortable, conversation has to begin in that realm beyond and below (and above) rationality: raw emotions, passions, and pain.

So many conservatives are operating out of a sense of fear at this moment. It is a fear of the “other,” of refugees, of those with different values, of blacks, of gays/lesbians. If we wish to rise above this broken conversation, we have to see this fear. We have to touch it and let it be.

I don’t believe that this fear has the right to determine the society that we all will live in above the dignity of those who are marginalized. To do so is to allow for a kind of privilege that is almost unfathomable. But if we want to heal each other, we have to touch this fear, we have to welcome it, we have to sit with it.

If I sit with my conservative friends long enough to let their anger and the bluster subside, they eventually reveal a vulnerability. So many of them say in those moments:

“I am afraid. I am afraid because I don’t recognize the America that I see around me. I don’t identify with these new people. Our neighborhood is changing. The country is changing. America doesn’t look like the America that I grew up in. I am scared that I don’t fit into the country that I grew up in. I am afraid of the country changing, and leaving me out. Everyone else seems to be making it, and I am still struggling.”

We are not going to out-fact our way out of this conversation. We are not going to out-chart our way out of this conversation. We are not going to out-argue our way out of this conversation.

I know that there are some genuine racists out there. There are too many of those who would, if they could, “send me back where I came from.” (That would be Florida, in case they are curious.) But I know that there are many others who are speaking out of an anger, a hurt, and a fear.

It may not be a complete solution, but maybe a start is to begin by acknowledging to our conservative friends that yes, they are right. America is changing. It is changing rapidly, and it will not look like the America of their parents. And if there is trust and vulnerability, maybe ask them to consider that others from vulnerable communities are also afraid, they too worry about the safety of their loved ones.

America is changing. But is that always a bad thing? Are we today not a better country than the America of Jim Crow? 
Are we today not a better country than the America of women not having the right to vote? Are we today not a better country than the America of genocide against Native Americans?

We can reach one other. We can talk and listen. We can start with taking seriously — and sitting with — each other’s fears and vulnerabilities.

Will it work? I don’t know. But I know it will be better than how we are having the conversation now. Let’s bring more light and less heat into this world.

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