“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” —G.K. Chesterton
Earlier this week, Americans paused to recognize and give thanks for the brave military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve and protect our country and the values we hold dear. We are lucky–dare I say, blessed–to live where we are protected by law to say and think as we please. America is indebted to those who fought and died for those rights.
And we have exercised those rights in recent months to the point of fatigue, but I worry that when we do, we neglect to listen to others. Ours is an era of polarization unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and as Lincoln presaged in 1858, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.
” I know I’m not alone in calling for greater tolerance and bridging the divide, but the reality of reaching out to those who don’t share our views is a bit messier in practice and mostly through no fault of our own.
That we are having trouble finding common ground at this moment in 2021 is an understatement. Post-election, post-Capitol-riot, and almost-post-pandemic, we are as deeply divided as ever, with huge swaths of the population in disagreement on nearly everything—not just issues and ideas, but on facts.
Radio silence is not the answer, nor is total verbal badgering of one’s debate opponent. But before respectful conversation can begin, we the public (and we, the mental health professionals) need to work towards actively listening to each other in an atmosphere of respect. Finding common ground depends on us figuring out how we can recognize and agree upon basic facts, especially in the age of social media when facts and opinion are interchangeable.
To add a level of difficulty to the task at hand, false information spreads faster and farther than fact. A 2019 study
published by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster than fact. A person who believes in a conspiracy theory will hang on to that knowledge until they see competing evidence repeatedly over a sustained period that disproves it. Internet rabbit holes–those never-ending pixelated portals into the digital cosmos–prevent this kind of natural correction. YouTube
has been called out for the way its algorithms amplify extremist views, though the claim that the site’s recommendations facilitate far-right radicalization is disputed
Like radio interference blocks transmission, internet static prevents clear communication among us. Let’s face it, many of us spend more time than we’d care to admit on the internet, and it’s where we do the bulk of our communicating. Finding others in the digital universe willing to engage in curiosity-driven discussions rather than indulge in bullying is rare. How do we reach each other when there are such significant barriers to open communication? What does an exchange like this look like?
As it happens, the week of June 14th through the 20th is the fourth annual National Week of Conversation,
organized by America Talks and the Listen First Coalition. The two-day America Talks event invites participants to converse with so-called political rivals. Anyone who signs up
for the event answers a few questions, including, “Do you approve of the job Joe Biden is doing as President?” and “Should the laws covering the sale of guns be more strict?” These answers help the organization match the participant with someone of an opposite viewpoint, and after a livestream explaining how to join the conversation on June 12, participants join their conversation partners in a virtual breakout room. The conversations take place via the My Country Talks
software platform, where “ground rules” will be reviewed and agreed upon before starting. Talking to our friends is a challenge, starting a conversation with a total stranger is America Talks even harder, so America First provides a conversation guide to help get things started. The organization expects at least 10,000 “conversation participants,” and each chat represents one small step towards overcoming the divide and healing wounds.
Will you be joining the conversation?