Here in the City of Roses, people use car horns only to greet one another. Rarely in protest. I learned that the hard way. Plenty of traffic crowds these brick streets, but tooting your horn risks offending your next-door neighbor. So around here, Southern hospitality is the real deal. Just a few years ago, however, all that was put to the test.
In the middle of the afternoon a school bus traveling through an inner-city neighborhood stopped to let off several passengers the same size as their back packs. Suddenly just a hundred yards away, a white police officer shot a fugitive. He was African American. All those children and moms watched it go down. Our town was poised to become the next Ferguson as activists from Atlanta flooded the town. But cooler heads out-flanked the mob.
Within weeks a movement began to swell to put those cooler heads together. It was time to open lines of communication. Several groups began to meet regularly. As a result, we have been able to address the cultural divide in terms of hurt rather than anger. Disagreeing is part of the healing process.
People who disagree with me have taught me four important lessons.
It’s not about what it’s about
Regularly, I help couples “pick a fight” with each other before they get married so they can learn to talk with each other in the heat of the moment, when they’re flooded with emotion. It’s a powerful process of discovery I’ve seen over and again.
For example, couples who dig into disagreement can learn that some complaints only need to be received, not resolved. Hearing someone out with calm feedback can lead to greater understanding and respect without having to come to an agreement. Here’s how it works—
People who disagree often begin with just an opinion. They show the tip of the iceberg, saying only what they think. If someone on the receiving end listens well, something magic can happen: they will learn the “why” under the opinion. In other words, they can discover the motivating feeling under the waterline.
Most conflicts flare up before either party knows what it’s really about. When I meet with people who don’t see the world as I see it, we make it our business to take the conversation below the waterline.
National pundits are poisoning local conversations
A couple years ago, I convened a gathering of some of the cooler heads I described above. But shortly into that meeting I found myself on the “hot seat.” The confrontation that ensued was really a compliment to everyone there. It was a sign of the strong rapport we’d built. But people got a little uncomfortable as a very bright young woman directed a litany of labels at me. She was explaining what someone like her was supposed to think of someone like me. She came from an oppressed people and I came from the oppressors, she implied.
Her caricature of me echoed the rhetoric of identity politics. Then she turned to more fact-based data about cultural inequality, tracing it along the lines of class, race, and gender. What started as a bid for power by using shame resolved into a more reasonable case that a pattern persisted.
Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Diagnosing a problem of inequality does not always unlock a ready solution. But once a social ill is named, some people impatiently turn to power to solve it. Fighting power with power can win battles but not always peace.
It helps to complicate the Narrative
In some circles there is enormous pressure to put tribe ahead of truth. The clearest way to demonstrate loyalty to one’s own tribe is to attack and tear down the perceived enemy, even if the perceived enemy has invited you to lunch.
When our news media frames every issue as a dangerous binary, people feel a duty to take sides unambiguously. So we need to work against this poisoned “us vs. them” by complicating the narrative.
During one lunch gathering, I decided to complicate the narrative by revealing a little personal history. I told a story of struggle on one side of my family. My grandfather was the son of a an immigrant who came to the U.S. with nothing. I gave highlights of each generation, including the years of separation WWII brought between my father and his dad, for example. These particulars began to complicate the narrative. Bias cannot take root as easily among the complex particulars.
Fundamentalists can be left or right
It’s time we all learned some better categories for the things that divide us. The dangerous binary selling news media is not going away. Many reasonable people stand left on some issues and right on others. When they do they take hits from all sides. College presidents, pastors, school administrators are easy targets. It’s time we hold people on the extremes accountable instead.
We need better language for the fundamentalists on the left and right. People on the left and right who poison the conversation are not liberals and conservatives. Not in the classic use of these terms. They are, in fact, illiberal.
Illiberals are narrow-minded fundamentalists. They use fear-based emotional arguments to guard their set of fundamentals, their ideology, left or right. Illiberal provocateurs trade in toxic negativity and benefit from division. And they dominate social media, often from the cowardly shadows of anonymity.
Recently the inventor of the “retweet” button on Twitter confessed his own regret over that little maniacal invention. Shortly after they put it into play he said he realized what they had done. “We handed a loaded weapon to four-year-olds.” They made it easy for the most volatile, divisive posts to go viral.
In an interview on the Russell Moore show, author Jonathan Haidt praises the power of narrative. He points out how the University of Chicago has prospered even as the cancel culture surged. They got ahead of illiberal censorship with a narrative defined by core values. Narrative is powerful. It can help a group of people embrace what unites. Narrative puts guardrails between a common path and potential ditches of division.
In short, we need local leaders across the country who call people to a bigger narrative. The right narrative can bring coherence. One of the most pivotal verses from the Book of Genesis sets up the narrative of scripture overall. This generous word from one of twelve brothers who had been wronged by his siblings helps set the narrative of the Bible from the start. From his new position of power, he saw an opportunity to end a pattern rather than to repeat it.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” Gen. 50:20