As we grew ever more eager for the election to be over, hopeful voices looked to the days and weeks after. Calls for healing and reconciliation rang out. I’ve seen several groups crop up recently, attempting to repair the torn fabric of our civic life. It is a noble goal indeed to bring people together after the rancor of this election cycle. We are so desperate to focus on unity. But gathering people with different beliefs and simply focusing on we have in common is not going to be enough. In fact, it’s a large part of what got us here in the first place.
For decades, our nation worked to create inclusion. A century ago, America was conceived as a melting pot in which we would all take on one another’s flavors and blend into a whole and noble new thing: Americans. I’ve heard we are now aspiring to be a salad, where distinct ingredients are jumbled together but retain their core identity. The century’s progress has inched toward inviting difference to remain but has still not approached the scariest thing of all: engaging differences.
We love to count especially the racial and ethnic diversity of our boards, our schools, our workplaces. Yet, as progress has been made for people with disabilities, LGBT folks and others, we still lack effective ways to talk about what all that difference means. The far left has inadvertently (and sometimes very deliberately) created a climate in which folks who are not up on the most current lingo of identity politics feel indicted as oppressors simply for asking an honest question. As diverse and pluralistic as our public lives might have become, we are also moving into more and more isolated enclaves of like-thinking folks for comfort, for a sense of shared meaning, for solidarity.
The election has effectively exploded any temptation to deny our differences. They’re visible, painful and seemingly insurmountable. They are also unavoidable, and the imperative before us as a nation is stark. We can choose to act with courage, to walk into a room where we will encounter people who have voted for a candidate we can’t stand. It is an act of even greater courage to go beyond the surface pleasantries of discussing the weather or (sometimes) sports and explore your most deeply held beliefs. Beware the false prophets who claim that all we need to do is gather in a room together to make it all better.
After a long season of digging in to our firmly held positions, we need to reacquaint ourselves with how these conversations happen. Because they don’t just happen. Neurobiologists and psychologists alike have confirmed that when there is this much on the line, we don’t innately come up with the best approach for engagement. We will all need to prepare. Gathering after feeling vilified, after painting our enemies in the palette of our worst fears, will take some intentional shifting from the basest of our instincts into the nobler ones. Who do we want to be, and how do we want to be with those neighbors whom we have called “other”? What will we need to hold back in our own knee-jerk propensity so we can say the larger truth we need to share? What do we want that “other” to know about us and our values? And what do we want to know about theirs?
We will need careful agreements to create the kind of conversation we most yearn for and a skilled facilitator to help us keep on track. Person by person, truth by truth, we can discover a curiosity that has been forbidden in the midst of the dehumanizing rhetoric of the campaign. Our open, honest questions of ourselves and others can bring us out of our locked corners of limited options and into a world of new possibilities. And in that landscape, we may not agree, but we can work together.
The stakes are high. The last few months have shown us just how far off the rails we can go. If we desire a stronger nation, we will need to invest in the resources to make this kind of truth-telling a habit of our civic life. The only way out is through.
Parisa Parsa is executive director of Essential Partners (formerly the Public Conversations Project), a Boston-based not-for-profit which trains leaders to facilitate conversations among groups in divisive conflict over identity, beliefs and values.