This season is brimming with questions of who we are to each other — how we should relate to each other in the spaces and time we share.
You’ve heard the buzzwords to describe America’s condition — polarized, divided, a widening spectrum. You may have also heard pleas from leaders, or even your own friends and family, for civil discourse.
This season is brimming with questions of who we are to each other — how we should relate to each other in the spaces and time we share. We disagree. We are different. That can make for messy relationships and terrifying conversations. It also provides us an opportunity to reframe our common life. What if we think deeply about who we are to one another — despite and because of our differences? This is the conversation of our time.
This endeavor for civil discourse, now more than ever before, is an adventure in civility because it is not just a matter of niceness or refinement. Adventuresome civility honors the difficulty of what we face. It embraces the complexity of what it means to be human.
But how do we embark on this journey together? As we hear or experience anecdotes of awkward dinner conversations and explosive Facebook battles, it is tempting to reinforce the narrative that everyone disagrees with everyone else. And rightfully so in some cases, as differing opinions on particular issues and ideologies can create relational fissures. Opinions are strongly held and deeply personal. It often feels like a demand to choose a side.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted the largest political survey in its history, and uncovered this: “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Growing numbers of Republicans and Democrats express highly negative views of the opposing party. And to a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left.”
A survey of 137,000 college freshmen who started at 184 U.S. colleges in 2016 showed that “42 [percent] of the freshmen surveyed characterized their political views as ‘middle of the road,’ the lowest share in more than 50 years of The American Freshman, the survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.”
These studies, as well as current political commentary, repeat this same refrain: “polarization” in the wake of a charged presidential campaign and election. When we say the word, we could mean that we are diametrically opposed on anything from specific social and economic issues and political party preferences to overarching ideologies.
Political analyst and journalist Yuval Levin, in his book, The Fractured Republic, argues that “nostalgia is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics now.” Depending on which side of the fence one falls (assuming there is such a stark line), we are all drenched in ideals formed in the 1950s and 1960s (or perhaps the 1980s Reagan Era). David Brooks sums it up nicely in his New York Times op-ed, “The Fragmented Society,” when he writes, “The left is nostalgic for the relative economic equality of that era. The right is nostalgic for the cultural cohesion. The postwar era has become our unconscious ideal of what successful America looks like. It was, Levin notes, an age of cohesion and consolidation.”
This gap between positive, reflective behavior and rhetoric at the public level and national mass attitudes may be one of the reasons many Americans are disengaged and disillusioned, leaving us to repeat the same dictum: How did we become so divided?
But just like the issues themselves, there is a differing perspective on even the state of the union. Political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, in his aptly titled book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, claims that a deep national division is really at the top, with politicians and media. In short, “a polarized political class makes the citizenry appear politicized, but it is largely that — an appearance.” And that “most Americans are somewhat like the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire while left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other.”
At the national level, a continual negative narrative pervades. It talks about all the ways the system isn’t working. It condemns the egregious behavior of elected officials. It speaks on behalf of voters and nonvoters alike, like adults speaking about a child who is sitting just across them at the dinner table, watching a tumbling pea. This gap between positive, reflective behavior and rhetoric at the public level and national mass attitudes may be one of the reasons many Americans are disengaged and disillusioned, leaving us to repeat the same dictum: How did we become so divided?
“We feel more polarized because both parties have moved away from the center, leaving the voters with few choices other than the extremes,” answers Dr. Lindsey Lupo, PLNU professor of political science.
An individual’s punched chad does not have to be a value statement. Two people could vote for candidates in two opposing parties and those two voters could share strong underlying moral ideals. This reality could reframe our perception of a widening gap.
According to Lupo, overlapping values are actually more the norm than the exception.
“While America’s political elite has grown increasingly polarized, everyday Americans are actually quite centrist,” said Lupo. “These elites — elected officials, political professionals, and issue activists — have widened the divide between Democrats and Republicans in government, making the parties even more homogeneous and distinct from one another. The polarization of each party’s base followed. These two phenomena are highly connected. However, the vast majority of Americans remain rather moderate or uncommitted in their political views, and therefore very similar to one another — or at least willing to engage in a conversation with others who view the political world in a different way.”
This brings us to the work of creating civic, democratic, hospitable dialogue. First, we can admit and appreciate that good partisanship is healthy. We need competition for good ideas. Then we can start by talking pluralism rather than polarization. This means that we recognize and embrace diversity of people, thought, tradition, and culture. And according to Diana Eck of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, “Pluralism isn’t relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and commitments behind … It means holding our deepest differences … not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”
Adventuresome civility means leaving the safety of your own viewpoints and entering the frontier of someone else’s experience.
Once we begin with the recognition that we are going to have deep differences, and that an individual will very likely maintain his or her belief systems and another will do the same, then we can begin the good and Christ-centered work of navigating the space between.
In action, this looks like identifying our own implicit biases in order to set ourselves up for better, more authentic conversations. It is a basic human tendency to divide the social world into groups. What about your upbringing, your belief systems, or your environment may create tendencies toward over-categorization or blind spots? Harvard University hosts a bias test through a nonprofit called Project Implicit (implicit.harvard.edu), where you can “assess your conscious and unconscious preferences for over 90 different topics ranging from pets to political issues, ethnic groups to sports teams, and entertainers to styles of music.”
Understanding your own unique vantage point makes for a great start. Then, navigating the space between differences looks like conversations based on values and experience rather than on facts and opinions. It means making space for hearing the stories of the other. It means embracing a spirit of genuine curiosity. Adventuresome civility means leaving the safety of your own viewpoints and entering the frontier of someone else’s experience.
At PLNU, students and faculty in the Department of History & Political Science are putting these principles into practice. Students from the department, including Isabel Reafsnyder, a junior international peace studies major, and Madison Garrett, a sophomore political science major, participate in or help moderate events like the Deliberative Democracy Forum, a class project in Lupo’s Issues in Public Policy class and an on-campus, non-partisan gathering to engage in civil discourse on current social or economic issues. As moderators, they prepare prompting questions to get at deeper motives for participants’ beliefs.
“At Maddie’s table, we were talking about police violence, and violence in communities, and people shared experiences they had with that,” said Reafsnyder. “So, for me, it was hard to come at them with an aggressive response knowing that was their experience. Somehow creating a boundary that everyone’s experiences are different, that everyone grows up differently … in a way, this helps us understand why people believe what they believe.”
Reafsnyder and Garrett also founded Democracy Over Dinner. After attending this year’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., and witnessing protests on both sides of nearly every issue, they decided to turn their experience into action by inviting friends over for a meal and intentionally civil conversation.
“We saw how so many of our friends want to have these conversations specifically about politics, but the conversations they have are really negative,” said Reafsnyder. “Or people shut them down. Or they don’t even know where to start and they feel even dumb for asking questions about the basics.”
“We wanted to be able to have conversations between people on different poles, people who are in the middle, and people who have no idea where they are on the spectrum, which is a lot of people, especially in college,” said Garrett. “We try to break it all down by figuring out, ‘OK, this is what I believe; this is what someone else believes. Why do they believe that? Why do I believe what I believe? And where can I see those overlapping?’ That creates a more unified conversation.”
It could be said that many of the best-informed, best-intentioned individuals find creative joy in holding multiple ideas in tension.
Deep, transformational conversations — the ones that go on long after a meal is finished or late into the night — happen in middle spaces where we don’t know all the answers. We explore the unknown together.
The early wisdom of these college students shows us there can be deep relationships, great empathy, and profound healing when we focus on the depth of the question rather than the rightness of the answer. These deep questions lead us to understand ourselves just as much as the person on the other side of the table.
It has even been said that personal and societal transformation go hand-in-hand. Thomas Merton, one of the most well known Catholic writers of the 20th century, said this about the connection between the two: “What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.” Deep, transformational conversations — the ones that go on long after a meal is finished or late into the night — happen in middle spaces where we don’t know all the answers. We explore the unknown together.
This is exactly what a small group of faculty and staff at PLNU and First Church of the Nazarene is exploring in monthly discussions around “OnBeing,” a Peabody Award-winning public radio conversation and podcast hosted by journalist and author Krista Tippett. According to its website, OnBeing “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”
Melanie Wolf, PLNU’s director of discipleship ministries and one of the group’s founding members, started bringing up topics from the podcast in casual conversation.
“As I started listening, I was finding such deep resonance just by myself and questions that I was asking, things I wanted to be talking about,” said Wolf. “So I would send the links to people and be like, ‘You have to listen to this, and then I want to talk about it.’ Honestly, the goal [became] to gather people together who would be interested in conversation, weren’t afraid to ask hard questions, and would value the learning and the growth.”
“I was craving something that was thoughtful, that was nuanced, and that didn’t simply reinforce the perspectives I already hold,” said Charlie Lyons-Pardue (03), PLNU chapel producer and creative arts coordinator. “I don’t need more ammo to reinforce what I believe and combat someone else. I’ve appreciated that. Sometimes there are things [in the podcast] where I go, ‘I don’t know if I see things that way,’ but it’s so thoughtfully presented that it brings down so many barriers and walls in me, to let me enter into a perspective that maybe I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness.”
The group rarely engages explicitly in political chatter, but they realize the art of their conversations is a strong foundation for having even the most precarious of conversations.
“Other people have the opinions and politics they do because it makes sense to them. This idea seems to be absent from our political conversations in this country,” said Jonathan Morell, another member of the discussion group and PLNU’s director of outdoor leadership programs. “It’s always, ‘They think that because they’re stupid, because they have ill intent, because they want to bring our country down.’ We always think the worst about people on the other side. For both left and right, staying curious about the other and hearing their story — that translates so well when I’m in a room with people who have very different political opinions who ask for me to not label them or just start thinking, ‘How can I convince them?’ Instead, I ask, ‘How can I enter their story? How can I understand what they might think?’”
Like this group of thoughtful individuals, we can equip ourselves for conversations on all levels of discourse by thinking about the deeper motivations of the other. In that process, we not only prepare ourselves for civil conversations, but we also become fuller human beings.
“[In our group], we want to love better, we want to give grace better, we want to understand more wholly, we want to become ourselves as much as we can and understand ourselves; we want to understand each other and I think there’s a lot of grace in a group like this where you don’t have to come having it figured out,” said Morell. “You don’t have to come having something really awesome to say. You don’t have to come and say anything. You can just come and listen and be. That practice helps us to become better versions of ourselves.”
Could there be encouragement in the possibility that, whether or not we are statistically more polarized now than in our collective past, what we have become is more acutely aware of how much we all crave and need peace? Because the problem of harmful dialogue and divides has become so center stage, the conversation now has a grand opportunity to elevate. It is not just about becoming polite.
In this way, if we pursue genuine relationships rather than shallow decorum, it could be argued that civil engagement has the potential to be a spiritual discipline. Much like prayer or service to others, working at adventuresome civility brings healing to relationships, communities, and the individual. If we can develop the art and skill of civil conversation, we will begin to pursue a more brave endeavor of finding deeper, spiritual healing in our fractured civic spaces.
Illustrations by Katie Hibbard