I rarely look back on failed ventures with lasting regret. I take account of what went wrong and move on with a new plan. But now I’m worried. Credible scholars of history, noting the current partisan political rift, suggest that a country divided is most at risk of succumbing to autocratic rule, the end of democracy as we’ve known it. Whatever the outcome of the coming election, working to heal that divide and come to better know and understand each other, not only makes sense, but seems critically important. So far, to my enduring regret, my effort to join with others to have healing conversations have failed. Over time, with study, I think I’ve come to understand some aspects of that failure. Here is the story:
My long-standing friend (and fellow mediator), Bob Rack, and I, reached out to a colleague, Greg Adams, also my friend of long standing. We knew from a public meeting at which Greg had spoken that his support for the Trump presidency was thoughtful and consistent with his long-held values and political beliefs. Following the election, we invited him to bring a like-minded friend and join us for a series of conversations. The plan was to meet and prove that people of good will could share points of view, come to better understand each other, and reduce the alienation born of partisan differences.
The four of us met several times over the year that followed. Although we maintained a calm, civil and even friendly mood, for me, it was at the price of sincerity. At the meeting which proved to be our last, Greg spoke with admiration of Trump’s willingness to be so politically incorrect. I returned his smile while wanting to scream, “How can you possibly believe that?”.
Now regret has become my daily companion. How can it be that Greg and I experience such a different reality? With the help of Google, I sought an answer to this question. This is what I learned:
According to social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, who has studied this issue and published his findings, both online* and in academic journals, “…we view what we are predisposed to believe differently than those things we are biased against believing.” Specifically, he explains, “…for desired conclusions we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ’Must I believe this?’
Gilovich draws upon the work of social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), and a scholar both Greg and I hold in high regard. His research documents the bias we each bring to what we adopt as reality. Haidt writes, “If we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it …you only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.”
Questioning the impact of human activity on global warming is a good example. Those for whom this is an unpalatable conclusion ask, “Must I believe this?” Despite the scientific consensus, they can always find at least one piece, or even several pieces, of supporting evidence to justify their disbelief. Those inclined to believe the premise ask, “Can I believe this?” and find ample evidence to solidify their belief. Two different realities.
The key then, to understanding what appears to be the lack of a shared reality, is to question and come to understand the underlying bias (and values), our own and those of our conversation partner. I’ve developed a series of questions, personal, but non-political, for each of us to answer when we come together once again. I believe this will foster self-disclosure and lead us to respect how our different realities were formed. In the past, we had not done that. No doubt we made unspoken assumptions about each other, but they remained unspoken and unexamined. We did not gain understanding. We just drifted further apart.
Of course, the critical question now is had we done so, would it have made a difference? Putting aside past regret, we’ve reached out to Greg, and he has agreed to meet again and continue to work on developing a model we could offer to others ready to take part in healing the divide. If successful, with a newly gained ease and knowledge of each other, we might take the next step: testing each other’s reality by stating the argument in favor of their position so well that they respond, “I couldn’t say it better myself.”
Taking a step towards protecting democracy might be the prize.