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United or divided? can living room conversations help build a real global community?

By Sabrina Moyle. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent manifesto calling for “humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community” around “our collective values” is daunting, if not naïve, in today’s political climate.

Political media is manufactured to inflame and perpetuate partisan passions to drive clicks, profits, and donations. It vilifies the other side. With every share, we become complicit in demonizing our friends, turning them into enemies. This is no foundation on which to build community.

Real community must be fostered in real bodies, acknowledging real feelings and not just “likes.” We can’t see eye-to-eye if we never look each other in the eye.

But what if we voluntarily choose to engage with the “opposition”? And, what if we do this in our bodies, away from incendiary headlines? Could this be a starting point for building a real global community?

These are the questions we seek to answer with our United or Divided? Living Room Conversation. The conversation invites politically diverse citizens to co-host with friends — 6 people in a living room, library or church basement. There, they explore a discrete set of questions aimed at finding political common ground: “What core values to Americans share? What is America’s promise to its people? What are some issues where the Left and Right are in fundamental agreement and could work together?”

Political balance and open-mindedness are essential. To have real conversations, Progressives, Conservatives, Libertarians and Independents of all stripes must overcome ingrained fears of being attacked by the other side to restore respectful dialogue and competent self-governance.

A bias towards action is also key. While the first step in creating relationships is to simply listen and share experiences, contact theory shows that to truly appreciate differences, it helps to work towards a common, cooperative goal. Therefore, we are seeking to create a coalition to support the United or Divided conversations and recruit politically balanced teams of policy experts to bring their expertise to bear on specific issues and provide leadership in the political and public spheres.

Our initial conversations have shown power and promise.

In one conversation, a Conservative observed that many career politicians engage in crony capitalism, enriching themselves in public office at the expense of ordinary citizens. Therefore, he argued, we need term limits and limits on financial contributions from the interests they represent. Progressives in the room agreed.

A progressive-libertarian tech entrepreneur suggested that automated algorithms could end gerrymandering. Conservatives and Progressives agreed, adding that a citizen jury could monitor against abuses.

While the goal of Living Room Conversations is explicitly not to change hearts or minds, one participant observed that the simple act of listening can’t help but open them: “You can’t come out of one of these conversations the same way you came in.” Plus, it’s fun.

The work of unlearning partisanship is easier said than done. Each side has deeply entrenched stereotypes of the other. Progressives stereotype Conservatives as “heartless,” “greedy,” “uneducated,” “intolerant.” Conservatives stereotype Liberals as “smug,” “self-centered,” “more likely to talk than to act,” “believing that government should solve all their problems instead of taking personal responsibility.”

As with any stereotypes, partisan stereotypes oversimplify and dehumanize. As we internalize caricatures of the opposition, we become unaware of our own biases and unconsciously seek to confirm them. Supported by a like-minded tribe and well-funded media and political machines, we can lose motivation to think for ourselves, since doing our own research and resolving internal conflicts is harder than adhering to morally superior rules of thumb.

But there is hope. Research shows that the human brain is plastic; we can consciously rewire ingrained thought patterns. Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have developed evidence-based tools to help us better understand and appreciate liberal, conservative, and libertarian morality and their yin and yang relationship; while seemingly opposed, they are in fact complementary and interdependent. And, while some technology divides us, it also allows citizens to hold virtual conversations and organize more efficiently than ever.

Given the importance of the American experiment, devoting time, energy, and resources to unlearning partisanship and re-building community is well worth it.