A Suggestion for Those Wondering How The United States of America Will Flourish, or Even Survive, if We Can Barely Talk to One Another
Even as President Biden calls for unity, decency, and the pursuit of the common good, the public square in the country he leads remains a devastated mess. It has become so difficult to engage with people who have fundamentally different opinions on issues close to the heart. It has become infuriating. It has become so painful to engage with “those people” who repel you, who scare you, who believe that what you call day is night, who celebrate as heroes those you consider villains, who spout what you consider absurdities or gross violations of common sense. Engagement with “the other” can also be beautiful. It can be deeply transformative. But that takes courage and imagination. It takes work.
For the last twenty years, I’ve worked to bring together people across lines of conflict — Arabs and Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks, and others traumatized by violence and fear of “the other.” Now the social turbulence and breakdown of trust in the United States has turned this country, too, into a conflict zone.
Like peoples in conflict abroad, Americans inhabit separate worlds that draw on different sources of information and opposing pictures of reality, some of which are contaminated by high levels of distortion and untruth. Divided into market segments, the analytics of our lives are tracked, consolidated, and manipulated with precise fine-tuning in ways that add fire to misunderstanding. The survival of self-government is in doubt. In this context, I offer a suggestion.
Congress recently passed the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which will distribute $250 million over five years to initiatives that support Palestinians and Israelis in building a better future. As John Lyndon, the executive director of The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the organization that lobbied for the passage of this act, explains: “with Israelis and Palestinians more polarized than ever, this Fund can radically scale programs designed to upend that reality, creating the relationships, movements and leaders that any just and equitable peace depends upon.” If the Federal government can do this overseas — why not at home, where similar dynamics are at play?
In this spirit, I propose a national fund to support tangible projects on the ground that bring together Americans from across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, class, religion, geography, and worldview; integrate these projects with facilitated opportunities to get to know one another, to inspire curiosity and connection, to build trust, to develop a larger stock of shared reality, to practice the skills necessary to engage meaningfully across our various divides.
I envision the federal government’s role as a catalyst — setting the tone, creating a framework for funding, providing consistent support. The initiative and effort must come from citizens across society. Those who have unusual sway over the opinions of others share a particular responsibility. At this moment, decision makers in media and social media companies play a pivotal role. In different ways, so do educators, activists, religious leaders, community leaders, business leaders, scientific authorities, journalists and pundits, elected officials, famous musicians, stars of the small and big screens, best-selling authors, sports figures, artists who have an audience, young people with a following on social media, and other “influencers.” Groups of people form networks based on common identity or interest, on location, on relationship and trust. Success depends upon earning the trust of a small number of committed individuals who are nodes of the various networks which, from a different angle, form public spheres, social eco-systems, and communities.
Most of my work overseas has focused on educators, artists, and university students. I’ve also worked with social entrepreneurs and activists, and with people doing a diverse set of projects — stewarding shared natural resources, transforming the culture of hospitals, reforming government, producing children’s television programming. As the lead on a set of programs for Palestinian and Israeli educators funded by USAID, I saw how people working across lines of conflict need consistent and steady support from government leaders. With the Biden administration it looks like those of us doing similar work in the United States could have what we lacked in The Middle East.
Education is at the heart of what I’m proposing. Too many Americans understandably feel themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. We live within rationalized bureaucratic systems that pay lip service to values of democracy while doing so much to undermine them. For educators to carry out what I would like to ask them to do, they must get a taste of what it is to be part of a reflective, democratic, learning community. Meanwhile, we must commit at all levels of government and society to making media literacy, science literacy, and civic education priorities at the elementary, secondary, and university level, and through a range of highly accessible public outreach initiatives for adults of all ages. For American self-government to survive, citizens must have a chance to practice active listening, to ask questions, to enlarge our scope of empathy, to interrogate sources, to exercise our imaginations, to think critically, to become comfortable with uncertainty, complexity, and nuance.
I understand that my argument here might seem unrealistic in the midst of a global pandemic that so severely restricts sociability. But there are ways around this. For the short-term, we can work remotely; at the same time, with the help of public libraries, schools, universities, museums, local governments, local non-profits, media outlets, and business leaders, we can engage safely in person until it becomes possible to meet once again in the ways that so many of us miss.
Conflict is intrinsic to human existence. What matters is how people handle it. The goal of bringing together Americans from across lines of conflict is to nurture relationships that make room for healthier conflict, while weeding out distortions and untruths. It is about strengthening the capacity to continue even when things get tough. I don’t want to distract from the political battles that will be waged. I’m arguing that we, members of this society, citizens of this republic — the broadest possible “we” — must make a real effort to raise the quality of relationship, of discussion, of learning. I’m arguing that we must improve the practices and systems around the formation of public opinion (which is what learning looks like in the aggregate). I’m arguing for expanding the broad middle in all directions while staying clear-eyed and firm about what is out of bounds.
Americans must, of course, address the global pandemic along with pressing systemic issues: the climate crisis; racial inequalities; inequalities of wealth, resources, and opportunity; the regulation of social media; the “re-embedding” of the market to be in synch with the values of equality and justice embodied by the American promise. But none of this is possible if fellow citizens cannot even talk things through.