• DanaAlexandraSargent

You disgust me; let’s talk!

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

January 27, 2017

Conservatives and liberals can agree on one thing: our country is divided . . . and it’s the other guys’ fault. In speaking about the moral disparities that fuel our political divide, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said, “Our righteous minds were designed by evolution to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams and then blind us to the truth.”

And, he says, our current cultural patterns are expanding the already vast political divide. Now, more than ever, many of us choose neighborhoods, clubs, friends and life partners only if they mesh with our political beliefs; we skip Thanksgiving if crazy Uncle Tom is showing up; we ‘unfriend’ anyone on social media with whom we disagree; we seek out ‘news’ sources that defend our beliefs – and last Saturday’s global women’s march proves we yearn for affirmation of our beliefs through gatherings of like-minded citizens (I attended one and can attest to this – it felt good!).

But, Haidt argues, one of the best ways to chip away at our urge to argue – what he calls our “disgust instinct” – is to get back to that time-honored tradition of actually talking to people!

I serve on the board of directors with a local environmental nonprofit whose mission is to restore and protect our region’s river. We recently held a fundraising banquet and I invited everyone I know in town to share a table with me at the event. I’m a vegetarian, yoga-loving, organic-buying, tree-hugging pacifist; in other words, I’m a raging liberal – and just as Haidt points out – most of my chosen circle are on my ‘team.’ But, as I looked around my table, I was delighted by its diversity.

My husband and I had managed to invite a patchwork of our community, including one prominent local Republican and former State Senator. When I moved to this town nearly four years ago, I formed my opinion of this politician through news reports and social media – all of which agitated my “disgust instinct” against him. And then I met him over a meal we shared with our spouses on my back porch. And now, I like to think we represent what used to be commonplace rapport; we disagree about a whole slew of issues, but we can listen and talk to one another while watching our kids play on the beach together.

When we moved here, we didn’t know a soul and knew nothing about the town (except that there was a pretty neat donut joint at the beach we should check out). I was looking to get involved in coastal environmental conservation and someone mentioned a river group. I was indifferent to the idea, considering myself more of an ‘ocean girl.’ But, at every breathtaking drive over our city’s river bridge, or stroll along the downtown Riverwalk, I found myself being drawn to the river. I got involved in the organization, and once I learned a little about the river, I was hooked, because, as the educational coordinator for our group stresses, “The only way to get people to care about anything is to help them understand it.”

Reflecting on this brings me back to the psychology behind our increasingly polarized state/nation/world, and a quote from behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise in which he asserts, “The less we know, the more our stereotypes mislead.”

As I ride the wave this election has generated, I’m considering that, contrary to the chanting at last week’s women’s march, the only way forward may be to take a step back — away from the disruptive, overblown, oftentimes false rhetoric spreading through the airwaves and the Internet. It’s time to step away from that and get back to old-school talking – and listening – especially with those whose morals led them down a political path that seems incomprehensible to me. They have a story too, and it may be closer to mine than I’d expect.

Just as I came to realize I could be an ‘ocean girl’ and a ‘river girl,’ the only way to get to caring is to start with a little understanding.

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