JP Observer: A Nation Divided: Peaceful discussions across U.S. required

Divided, fractured, segmented, split, polarized… we don’t need to wait long these days to hear someone using one of those words to describe this country.

“More divided than ever,” is a common expression.

Hot issues that separate people headline today’s news: masks, vaccinations, race relations, political parties, religion, immigration, voting rights, education, Roe v. Wade, guns, the results of the 2020 presidential election… The list goes on and will get longer and worse until we do something about how Americans communicate with each another.

Polarization is exacerbated by nasty language and personal behavior some people use toward people they don’t agree with. Name-calling is common. Verbal conflicts and wild accusations have moved from the streets to social media to town halls all the way to the U.S. Congress. Too many confrontations have turned violent in the form of threats and actions.

Not only is all the strife unpleasant, it also makes us unproductive. Public policies about important subjects are being crowbarred into existence—like voter suppression laws—or stagnate in a cesspool of refusals to compromise. The voting rights bill and Build Back Better are two current national examples of great ideas so mired in conflict nothing can get done. 

Some special nonprofit projects have the goal of bridging the huge gaps between people in the country, but so far, that’s not been enough. Media—social and traditional—have a profit motive that encourages conflict the same way it does with lucrative broadcast sports or action movies. Dramatic disagreements attract audience.

Portraying issues as though equal numbers of people support two distinct sides adds to the dissonance. Many topics have way more supporters of one “side” than the other, but the shouting drowns that out.

Political parties aren’t equal either, though they are often portrayed as the two opponents. As of Dec. 17, 2020, 31 percent of Americans said they were Democrats, 25 percent Republicans, and 41 percent—the most of all—said they were not affiliated with a party, according to a Gallup Poll. Most counts show a similar break-down.

Caring people who want to manage the country well have to counteract the splits as well as the exaggerated conflicts, and some are trying.

To begin to reunite our fracturing country, the table we are working from needs to be examined with some perspective. This country is, in fact, divided—into 50 states. The real name is “United States of America” with its people called “Americans.” When we abbreviate the country’s name to “America” instead of United States, U.S., or U.S.A. we imply nonchalance or even defeat when it comes to the unity part. (We also ignore the rest of the Americas.) 

The United States came into being in 1776 when there were just 13 colonies, or states. Managing the huge amalgamation of large and small states we have now is incredibly more difficult than what the founders had in mind. When 50 states—official parts of this large country—have powerful governments of their own—including jurisdiction over national elections— it’s no wonder friction leads to fire around the very basis of our type of democracy.

The United States is the third largest country in the world in population and fourth largest in area. But we are 174th in density. Americans are physically separated in space and awkwardly divided by political lines.

Is it a coincidence that two of the four largest countries in area—in order: Russia, Canada, China, and the United States—have totalitarian governments? Probably not, given the difficulty of managing millions of people, thousands of issues, huge and varying geographies so people come to compromise.

China and the U.S are in the top three most populous countries, with China the heaviest populated. In the absence of the ability to get along well enough to have reasonable, productive discussions about issues, dictators and authoritarians might easily take over.

We already know the country literally split apart during the Civil War. We got a taste of an attempted coup just last year when an angry mob and its motivators and supporters tried to install an authoritarian U.S. president for another term using force instead of rule of law. No wonder everyone’s worried about our heated disagreements.

Empathy has become a focus of some who are concerned. Training of everyone from doctors to school children and adults in how to listen to and understand others is on the increase, thank goodness. 

Other localized projects, especially in communities where major divides exist, are helping bring people with differences together to speak together peacefully. CBS News’ “Unifying America” series began last February featuring mostly local transformations.

Coverage has included: a welcoming lunch counter with a painful racists history in South Carolina; a school in Newark where police and teens get to know each other; and a former KKK meeting house that is becoming a center for racial information and reconciliation.

Make America Dinner Again (MADA), a national program founded in 2016, encourages small groups of conservatives and liberals who live near each other to talk specifically about political differences in a calm and reasoned way over dinner (or Zoom nowadays) in towns around the country.

Here on the East Coast, in Massachusetts, in Boston, in Jamaica Plain, people live relatively close together. JP and other urban areas tend to be progressive in politics and values. Every U.S congressional representative and senator in Massachusetts is a Democrat. We need to get out of our liberal bubble sometimes and get to know people elsewhere personally.

In order to heal these United States and make working well together possible, the number of calm communications between people in different places with different opinions needs to drastically increase. Talking civilly with friends and relatives with whom we often disagree and who agree to be polite, too, can help, as well as joining one of the efforts described here.

The Common Ground Committee is a Facebook group that brings people from around the country together to “engage in civil conversation about the political issues of the day.” Name calling and threats are not allowed. Anyone can join.

Time magazine wrote about an interstate effort at understanding called Living Room Conversations. LRC brings people from around the country with varying experiences and ideas to meet online to talking civilly about issues. Conversations on dozens of topics are suggested on its website accompanied by templates that show how to manage them. 

This past December, Redditor challenged its readers: “Former racists of Reddit, what made you think the way you do and how did you get out of racism?” The responses vividly illustrate the importance of simple contact and communication among different people.

Actor and activist George Takei reported on his website that the vast majority of respondents wrote that at one time they didn’t know many black people and people of other races and nationalities, but they heard bad things about them. Then, mostly by happenstance, they got to know and listen to one or more black people and changed their minds.

One man wrote of growing up in a small town where everyone, including his family, expressed negative things about black people. At camp one summer, a black boy shared his tent. The white man wrote that he was “afraid” of the black boy. He said, “By the end of the third day of camp, I realized that other than talking a bit different, my black cabinmate was no different than my white cabinmates.” He said he slowly came to realize that his parents “were wrong about things.”

International exchange programs similar to the ones we have for high school and college students make excellent models for expanding opportunities for people across the country to get to know one another. An Interstate Neighbors program would ask young and retired people, at first, to volunteer to live somewhere very different in the U.S. from where they are now for at least six months.

Even in a pandemic, the exchange neighbors could get involved in their new communities and mix with people there. Young exchange neighbors would go to school. Visiting neighbors would agree to live at the same income level as the people in their town. Staff would train and supervise visiting neighbors and the host towns to make sure they were communicating about everyday life as well as public issues in a calm and civil and open-minded manner.

Learning about and coming to understand other people, their lives, and their thoughts, through forging relationships can transform enemies into colleagues. Colleagues can cooperate to get good things done. They can share more laughs than swear words.

It sounds simple. Something like Interstate Neighbors would be complicated to set up and fund. The recruitment effort of hosts and visitors would need to be big. It could take a few years before effects on discourse and feelings of empathy and common purpose would improve significantly nationally.

Encouraging comradery among people who usually live far from one another and have differences is a fundamental action that needs to take place if peaceful coexistence and productivity can be restored. Could it be that it’s too hard or too late to pull our divided country together? It’s never been more important, and it’s never too late to try.

   Sandra Storey is the founder and former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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