Our nation has become like the 1950’s town in which I grew up (url for Part One below). Today, like then, we fragment our communities into culture zones that avoid speaking or listening to each other. We promote book bans, religious conflict, and ostracism for those who violate our group’s cultural purity laws.
It’s like a nightmare in which we stuff ourselves into boxes from which we then struggle to escape. How do we get out?……. We can, you know. I’ve seen it happen.
With time, religious conflict in my childhood town weakened, and our identity as one community grew stronger. The old religious differences remained. What declined was their importance, relative to what we had in common.
This happened in the 1960’s and ’70s. Our national experience during these years taught us that social change can sometimes result in more, rather than less, conflict. So, what were the circumstances that resulted in less, rather than more, conflict in my hometown?
Looking back, three things stand out clearly to me.
First: Members of different religious groups came together more often in meaningful ways. As one example, when my father learned that our family was marked to be “run out of town”, he responded by joining multiple community service organizations: Kiwanis, Lion’s Club, etc. As he put it: “It’s more difficult for them to hate you when you sit next to them for breakfast.”
My generation came together in our high school years (we went to different schools before that). We shared the same classes, the same projects, the same sports opportunities, the same social events. This sharing continued as we moved on to colleges, careers, and/or military service. We discovered that we had a lot in common beyond our religious differences.
Second: We came together under conditions of relative equality, especially with respect to religion.
My dad affords another example: While he often promoted community events, he was reluctant to step forward or to elevate himself as their promoter. As he put it: “When you don’t make things about yourself, you can get a lot done.”
Another example was the school system: Teachers and staff did not focus on religious differences. Their focus was on delivering an education to all of us, whatever our religious background. As a result, schooling after the eighth grade offered an institutional “safe space” to form relationships across the religious divides.
Third: These experiences altered our sense of the truth. We learned to see the world from different points of view. Our secondary and post-secondary educations taught us what constituted a fact, and how facts came into being. We learned about science, and how scientific facts were made. We learned about history, and the importance of a full and accurate description of our past. We learned to critique, as well as to accept or reject, what we read.
This third point may seem obvious to anyone who has gone to high school. But a look at our nation today indicates otherwise. Old lessons can be easily forgotten, a victim of our tendency to only see what we expect to see, what is comfortable, and what advances our own interests.
Common ground is a hard-won necessity for a thriving democracy. Our common ground is strengthened when we come together under conditions of equal status in order to gain a better understanding of the truth and of each other. That common ground erodes when we do not.
Change in a small rural community is one thing. Changing a nation is another. The task of healing our national divides can seem an overwhelming task. Where to start? Our personal efforts seem so small relative to the challenge.
One way, perhaps the most effective way, is to begin with the people we meet every day.
Dad used to say that he could talk to almost anyone. This was not because he only talked about the weather or good food. He engaged in political discussion wherever and whenever he could.
He often began a conversation with questions searching for common life experiences. If someone chose to engage with him, he usually enjoyed the conversation, wherever it may lead. If it led to a political or public issue, as it often did, he usually engaged with enthusiasm.
When things went according to plan, they shared questions with each other, listened to each other’s answers, and stated their own positions. This did not always, or often, produce agreement. But I think that it usually produced mutual respect. And when it comes to building common ground for democracy, respect is more important than agreement.
We come together every day of our lives, in our schools, as customers in shops, in restaurants, at work, volunteering for community service, as citizens. In each case, many of the people that we meet are outside of our network of family and friends, and outside of our cultural comfort zone.
Asking questions and carefully listening to the answers can be a powerful way to communicate respect and to initiate engagement. Respect that produces common ground is offered as a gift, freely given, between equals. It is not based on fear or subordination.
Of course, the recipient may not reciprocate or value your gift. The recipient may not even recognize your equality. These are a few of the reasons why you must also share something of yourself.
Like listening, sharing your own views fully and directly, but without asserting superiority or self-righteousness, is an art that requires practice. This kind of sharing makes it clear that your respect is not given out of fear or subordination, and that your goal is to establish common ground, whatever their response.
The point is to practice engagement for the purpose of establishing common ground, getting better at it over time. Practice builds the capacity for this engagement in larger settings, such as the organizations and institutions in which we participate.
Our personal effort to put these principles into action may be insufficient, by itself, for renewing the common ground on which our democracy stands. However, this personal effort is necessary in order to achieve that renewal; our common ground will not become stronger, or even endure, without it.
To see Part One: ( https://medium.com/our-sacred-democracy/building-common-ground-999c4dc20377 )
Daniel Stuhlsatz is a founding member of the None of the Above Society ( notasociety.com )