Last month, author and social scientist Arthur Brooks addressed the Brigham Young University graduating class and offered a cure for America’s culture of contempt: “We don’t need to disagree less; we need to disagree better.”
It’s a noble sentiment, but how can the country hope to disagree better if it doesn’t know what the disagreement is about?
That’s the concern revealed by new data from Pew Research Center. It reports a widening partisan gap in perceptions of discrimination toward various groups. For instance, Democrats or those who lean Democrat are three times more likely say there is “a lot” of discrimination against black Americans when compared to Republicans. The gap is even wider when it comes to perceived discrimination against women.
Similar trends play out in the intersection of religion and LGBT Americans. Democrats are more likely to say lesbians and gays face “a lot” of discrimination, while Republicans are more likely to highlight discrimination against evangelical Christians.
To these partisans, the battle isn’t even centered on the same objective. Learning to disagree better isn’t a possibility until advocates first take a step back and see discrimination and disagreements through a similar scope across the political spectrum.
For starters, some perceptions are truer than others. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say American Muslims face “a lot” of discrimination. In this scenario, the higher percentage seems the accurate one, as Pew data from 2017 show anti-Muslim assaults have sharply risen to surpass post-9/11 totals. Parsing out reality from perception is a vital exercise for policymakers before passing legislation that may be barking up the wrong tree.
That exercise should also lead to finding common ground — a necessity if legislators hope to stay a widening partisan divide. A growing number of bills in state legislatures across the country have adopted a winner-take-all approach, which, if passed, almost certainly end up in the judicial system. Lawsuits, by definition, produce winners and losers. Much better then to collaborate on the front end and find opportunities to unite.
Getting there, however, takes a healthy pair of listening ears. Pew shows partisans don’t perceive the world the same, which makes sense. If people aren’t the subjects of or witnesses to discrimination, it’s easy to have a distorted perception of reality. That doesn’t mean injustice isn’t a real experience for a targeted group.27 comments on this story
Perhaps that’s why “dialogue groups” have been enjoying a nice run. Tolerance Means Dialogue, The Dialogue Group and Better Angels are among the many organizations that bring together partisans and throw them into the ring of tough conversations. Listening is prized above making a point, and better understanding often the stated purpose. It may not change one’s political allegiance, but that shouldn’t be the goal. The mission is about building relationships and comprehending different world views.
The Pew research should be a reality check. Policy ought to be grounded in sound data just as much as people should be open to listening with an empathetic mind. Once the country can agree that it’s talking about the same thing, then it can start Brooks’ remedy and learn to disagree better.