These days it often seems that Americans are hopelessly and bitterly divided over politics. So I’m happy to report that a recent discussion forum in Buena Vista left me feeling more optimistic about our capacity to understand one another and to find common ground on contentious issues. It was the first in a series of similar events that will be sponsored by Truth Has a Voice Foundation (Sign up for updates at our website, TruthHasAVoiceFoundation.org, contact page).
Along with the foundation, the event was co-sponsored by Buena Vista residents Bea Harnish and Jim Hight. A documentary film on the ideas of conservative economist Thomas Sowell—Thomas Sowell, Common Sense in a Senseless World—was used as a starting point to discuss ideas such as school choice, equity vs. equality, and a federal $15 per hour minimum wage.
It was truly an experiment for our county, as none of us had done anything quite like this before. Jim, as a trained moderator with Braver Angels, had previous experience through their programs. To keep the discussion manageable, half of the 20 attendees participated actively, divided into one group of left-leaning people and another of right-leaning people, while the rest observed with the option of asking questions in writing.
We began by demonstrating the difficult skill of asking questions designed to understand and clarify the thoughts of someone with whom we disagree, rather than one designed to show the errors in their thinking or to change their opinions. Such questioning is a skill that moves the conversation forward with respect. Then Jim reviewed the guidelines for courteous and civil discourse.
As the participants introduced themselves and explained why they’d come, most stated their concern over the polarization in our nation and our county, and their conviction that we must reduce this hostility to preserve our democracy and maintain our caring local community.
Strong differences in perspectives on racism and government assistance programs were apparent right away. Jim moderated skillfully to move the dialogue along and encourage participants to respond thoughtfully to their ideological opposites’ concerns and beliefs rather than reacting defensively or attacking. But he was aided greatly in this by what seemed like a common will among all participants to seek understanding of those on the other side. As the evening went on, the discussion became more and more relaxed and interesting.
At the end, we purposely left time for mingling and informal conversation. I had thought that people would use this time to challenge points made by others; but instead, attendees shared their positive reflections on the evening. Everyone seemed pleased by the tone of the discussion and impressed by the obvious common ground revealed during the exchange.
Two future planned events include: a September 13 program from League of Women Voters, focusing on media literacy with a panel of local news professionals addressing distrust in news reporting, and a showing of the documentary The Social Dilemma followed by a panel discussion on October 21 at the SteamPlant.
I also encourage anyone interested in this type of dialogue to investigate BraverAngels.org.
President, Truth Has a Voice Foundation