Protests at UC Berkeley have recently erupted into violence after right-wing pundits Milo Yiannopolous and Ann Coulter scheduled, and then canceled, their speeches on the campus. To some, this news is evidence that hypersensitive college students — unable to handle expression of ideas with which they disagree — squash the right to free speech. To others, these protests are seen as effective resistance to white supremacy and fascism encroaching on mainstream American politics.
What’s important to note is that the protests at Berkeley are not a series of isolated incidents on a college campus. Rather, they are a product of the current state of American discourse, and a picture of what’s to come if we don’t confront our divisions.
According to a Pew Research study, for the first time in their study’s history (dating to the 1990s) political sentiments are not just limited to views of the parties and their policy proposals; they now have an increasingly personal element as well. Your policy beliefs reflect your moral character, your lack thereof. It follows a logic like this: If you disagree with me, then you have bad moral character because you: (liberal response) do not care about poor people; or (conservative response) do not value hard work.
In order to avoid discomfort, our society has developed a rule that says, “Don’t talk about religion or politics.” Following that rule certainly prevents some conflict at our Thanksgiving tables, but it also starves us from knowing and trusting one another. It then turns into a self-perpetuating problem: Without knowing each other, we make assumptions with incomplete information and retreat into echo chambers, where our friends, churches and news sources reinforce our beliefs. We are comfortable and seldom challenged. Political pundits who say incendiary things make us feel good, and we feel disgusted when we hear the other side’s incendiary comments about us.
For a generation, we have looked to our presidents and other politicians to unite the country. While we have been waiting on presidents to fix this problem, partisanship has worsened. What are we gaining from the current way of being? What is to become of our us if we do not bridge the divide?
After the 2016 election, Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, for decades a beacon of radical love and inclusion, developed a project called “Bridging the Divide” that aims to confront the epidemic of political, social and racial division in the United States. The project creates opportunities for meaningful, respectful dialogue between communities that hold different, and often opposing, beliefs. Through this process, we begin to heal. We are transformed by developing compassion, empathy and humility toward people with whom we might not normally interact.
Absent the goal of “winning” any debates or converting anyone to a certain way of thinking, success of the project is measured by discovering love and respect instead of getting mired in bitter disagreements.
In just a few months, we are on our way. In April, we assembled groups of progressive-minded Glide members to meet with groups from the Bay Area Conservatives Meetup Group and are on track to begin similar meetings with evangelical Christians.
In our first series of meetings, I moderated a discussion between the two communities. We discussed the state of our country and listened to a variety of perspectives. As one might expect, the conversation became tense at times, but this did not derail us. Tension presented an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we can break through the typical political debate and instead talk about our stories and our values.
At the conclusion of the meetings, I ask, “What can be done to bring people together?” I am encouraged to hear the responses such as, “More of this.”
One conservative participant said, “I wish there was a way to get the entire country into a room to have a face-to-face conversation like the one we had today.”
One Glide member admitted that he felt really tired after the first meeting, but in a constructive post-workout kind of way.
Indeed, this is difficult and uncomfortable work, yet participants want more of it. How can that be? Those who do this work experience a powerful feeling when a meaningful connection develops with someone that they may ordinarily avoid. One is transformed when they engage in dialogue with someone they disagree with, listen with curiosity, share their own story and find that beneath the disagreement there is love and respect. Incendiary pundits then don’t have the same appeal.
We can heal our divisions, but we must start in our own communities. What is to become of us if we do not heal? But what is possible if we do?
Chris Collins is a member of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco.