Nov 1, 2020
I wrote an article for the CBA Report in the spring of 2017, following the 2016 Presidential Election, entitled “Narrowing the Divide.” The plan I proposed in that article for bringing together people of good will with disparate political views was carried out. It failed.
Now I’m worried. Credible scholars of history, noting the intensity of our current partisan political rift, suggest that a country divided is most at risk of succumbing to autocratic rule, the end of democracy as we’ve known it. So, working to heal the divide and coming to better know and understand each other, not only makes sense, but seems critically important. I think I’ve come to understand key aspects of our earlier failure. Here is the story:
My long-standing friend and fellow mediator, Bob Rack, and I reached out to a colleague, Greg Adams — also my friend of long standing. We knew from a public meeting at which Greg had spoken that his support for the Trump presidency was thoughtful and consistent with his long-held values and political beliefs. Following the 2016 Presidential Election, we invited him to bring a likeminded friend and join us for a series of conversations. The plan was to meet and prove that people of good will could share points of view and reduce the alienation born of partisan differences.
The four of us met several times over the year that followed. Although we maintained a calm, civil and even friendly mood, for me, it was at the price of sincerity. At the meeting which proved to be our last — as I no longer sought to schedule another — Greg spoke with admiration of President Trump’s willingness to be so politically incorrect. I returned his smile while wanting to scream, “How can you possibly believe that?”
But after a time, regret became my daily companion. How could Greg and I experience such a different reality? With the help of Google, I sought an answer to this question. This is what I learned:
According to social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, who has studied this issue and published his findings, both online* and in academic journals, “…we view what we are predisposed to believe differently than those things we are biased against believing.” Specifically, he explains, “…for desired conclusions we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ’Must I believe this?’
Gilovich draws upon the work of social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), and a scholar both Greg and I hold in high regard. His research documents the bias we each bring to what we adopt as reality. Haidt writes, “If we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it …you only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.”
Questioning the impact of human activity on global warming is a good example. Those for whom this is an unpalatable conclusion ask, “Must I believe this?” Despite the scientific consensus, they can always find at least one piece, or even several pieces, of supporting evidence to justify their disbelief. Those inclined to believe the premise ask, “Can I believe this?” and find ample evidence to solidify their belief. Two different realities.
The key then, to understanding what appears to be the lack of a shared reality, is to question and come to understand the underlying bias (and values), both our own and those of our conversation partner. I’ve developed a series of questions, very personal, but non-political, for each of us to answer if or when we come together once again. I believe this will foster self-disclosure and lead us to respect how our different realities were formed. In the past, we had not done that. No doubt we made unspoken assumptions about each other, but they remained unspoken and unexamined. We did not gain understanding. We just drifted further apart.
Of course, the critical question now is had we done so then, would it have made a difference? Putting aside past regret, when Bob and I reached out to Greg, he agreed to meet again, possibly along with a compatriot, to continue to work on a model we could offer to others ready to take part in healing the divide. If successful, with a newly gained ease and knowledge of each other, we might take the next step: testing each other’s reality by stating the argument in favor of their position so well that they respond, “I couldn’t say it better myself.”
Taking a step towards protecting democracy might be the prize.
Larsen has retired as senior mediator at the Center for Resolution of Disputes. She received the 2007 John P. Kiely Professionalism Award, the 2014 Themis Award and the 2020 Mediator of the Year Award from the CBA, and also served as CBA president in 1986-87. Her commentary can be viewed at www.bealarsen.com.