Healing and Bridging Divisions by Getting to Know One Another

In her insightful book Political Tribes, Amy Chua points out the truth that all human beings have a need to “belong,” which causes us to value our associations with one or more “groups.”

But, as professor Chua then goes on to elaborate, many of our group identities too easily morph into an “us-versus-them” tribal mentality that demonizes other groups that disagree with our group. Relative to political issues, this conflict often emerges from a belief that “me and my group” have the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” relative to the public policy being discussed and those in “that other group” are “all wrong.” This tribal mentality becomes particularly pernicious when an unwarranted extrapolation is then made from “they are wrong” to “they are evil” and not to be trusted.

One tempting solution to this rampant problem of destructive divisions among us is to suggest that all of us need to submerge our various group identities. We need to become a homogenous culture in which our differences are downplayed. That is a terrible idea for a number of reasons. 

Most obviously, that suggestion asks you to deny “who you are”; to turn your back on the valuable aspects of your personal pilgrimage that have shaped you.

Secondly, eliminating group differences nullifies the great potential that our differences have to enrich all of us. The rich diversity of beliefs and practices of different groups in contemporary American culture can be navigated in a way that is mutually beneficial for all of us. I will begin  to elaborate on this bold claim by sharing with you a part of “my story,” which includes my commitment to a number of “groups” that I highly value.

I am a Norwegian American (the twin son of immigrants from Norway who learned to eat lutefisk every Christmas eve; surely an acquired taste).

I am also a St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan (although I was born and raised in Brooklyn when the LA Dodgers were the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cardinal great Stan “The Man” Musial was my boyhood hero – I remember being dumbfounded when a friend of mine had the audacity to suggest that Gil Hodges, Dodger first baseman at the time, was a better all-around baseball player that Stan The Man. How wrong-headed is that?).

I am also a professing Christian, having made a commitment to be a follower of Jesus at the tender age of 13, without having a clue as to the many surprising twists and turns I would experience over a lifetime based on that aspiration.

I am also now a registered Democrat (although my first presidential vote in 1956 was for Republican Dwight Eisenhower). 

That is just a part of who I am; just enough to introduce you to how I think all of us should navigate the disagreements that emerge from our differing group identities: We should get to know those who disagree with us on a personal level. Developing such personal relationships will open up the possibility of the emergence of a sufficient level of mutual understanding and, hopefully, mutual trust, to enable us to then talk respectfully about our disagreements, thereby providing an entre into fostering the “healing” and “bridging” that is sorely needed among groups that are presently demonizing one another. I further propose that the best way for us to get to know each other on this personal level is for each of us to listen carefully to the other’s story because many of our disagreements may be deeply informed by the unique aspects of our respective personal pilgrimages.

Rather than arguing in the abstract for my proposed strategy for addressing disagreements, I will illustrate with a few examples from my experience, after mentioning, in a lame attempt at a bit of humor, that one of my current best friends is a Chicago Cubs fan (bridging a divide that I once thought was beyond reconciliation).

When Pat and I retired (sort of) in Orange City, Iowa in 2003, members of the local Latino population were just faceless statistics; we didn’t know any of our Latino neighbors personally. That changed when I had the opportunity to provide leadership for an Adult Discipleship class on “immigration issues” in my home church. Right from the start, we decided to avoid the common inadequate practice of talking “about” our Latino neighbors; choosing rather to get to know them by listening to their stories and  talking “with” them.

One story I heard broke my heart. A Latino mother told us that every morning before her daughter went off to school, she would cry because she feared that when she returned home, mommy would be gone; taken away for deportation. That story changed my life. I could no longer sit around ignoring the pleas for help from my new Latino friends. I became heavily involved with a local advocacy group, CASA of Sioux County (Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy) whose vision is for “transformed northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.” 

Our efforts at CASA include hosting an annual Latino Festival that celebrates the riches of local Latino culture and builds bridges between our Anglo and Latino populations. On the “advocacy” front, we had the opportunity to meet with our congressional representative Steve King in an attempt to curb his viscous demonization of our Latino neighbors and advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. As far as I can tell, we didn’t change King’s perspective, possibly because he hadn’t taken the time to get to know our Latino neighbors.

The moral of this story is that by taking the time to get to know our Latino neighbors, we Anglos have been able to take some modest steps to heal the wounds of division and build bridges between our two communities. We wish congressman King would do likewise.

It is much harder to get to know someone on the internet. But, against all odds, I have been able to see a measure of  mutual understanding and trust emerging by means of electronic conversations (eCircles) on my website, as reported in three of my most recent books, with a fourth book (Reforming American Politics) soon to be released. In each case, my strategy has been to identify conversation partners who I know to have significant disagreements about contentious issues, asking them to abide by my proposed “guidelines for respectful conversation” as they exchange electronic responses to “Leading Questions” I posed designed to draw out their areas of agreement and disagreement.

Although my conversation partners only got to know and understand each other from a distance, I believe it is fair for me to say that they effectively modeled the building of bridges between persons having differing stories that reflect, among other things, membership in different groups. Some past wounds may also have been healed.

Emboldened by these experiences of seeing some healing and bridging of divisions when persons commit to getting  to know one another, starting in April, I will be moderating a face-to-face conversation on the theme “President Trump and Visons for America” that will feature four local residents who describe themselves as “general Trump supporters” and  four local residents who consider themselves to “generally” be “non-Trump supporters.” Before anyone presents his/her vision for the future of America and an assessment of the extent to which President Trump is fostering that vision, or not, we will start by getting to know one another by listening to each other’s stories, with a focus on those aspects of personal pilgrimages that have shaped their visons for America and their assessments of President Trump.

I will be developing a way to report on this round of face-to-face conversations on my website (possibly by means of audio podcasts). It is my hope the results will lend further support for my thesis that we can all work for healing and bridging of divisions by getting to know one another, especially if we start by sharing our stories with one another (for a marvelous read that focuses on the importance of storytelling for bridging divides, I highly recommend Justin Lee’s book Talking Across the Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree With and Maybe Even  Change the World).