Jacob Z. Hess, PhD, Director, Village Square Salt Lake City

colored_fd58941c-d78c-434c-82d2-61b7a8f272afIt used to be that friends and acquaintances were mystified at my interest in liberal-conservative dialogue – ‘why would you spend time on THAT?!…Whatever floats your boat, I guess.’

Not anymore. America is having a rude Awakening to the value of dialogue and deliberation practices these days.  REALITY itself has become their best advertisement.

No longer are voices that stoke our anger and foment our angst confined to radio shows or tawdry books at airport bookstores.  They have now taken up residence center stage in our nation’s socio-political awareness.[1]

At the center of the harshest rhetoric (across the political spectrum) is one essential claim:  Those Other People (on the other side of all the issues we care about) are dangerous. They cannot be trusted and do not have America’s best interest at heart (and if they say they do, they’re basically lying through their teeth…).

In short, Those People are demons incarnate…and must be treated as such.

However silly that may sound, let’s be honest:  most people actually believe leaders of that Other Political Party fit precisely that caricature: dangerous and no-doubt malicious…more interested in their power than ‘America’s well-being’ for darn sure.

Is that true for you?  If we’re honest, most of us might admit holding on to at least a bit of this essential accusation regarding Those (Dangerous) People…am I wrong?

What if, my friends and neighbors – fellow citizens of America – that caricature is simply NOT TRUE?

What if it closer examination revealed that (eureka!) people holding widely different socio-political views were equally good-hearted and cared the same about preserving America’s well-being and freedom….but (gasp) had different ideas about what exactly that task required!?

The national dialogue and deliberation community has been pleading and begging over recent years – in every way we know how – to invite people towards something radical:  sitting with our political opposites. Spending time with him, with her, with them…Not to fight or debate.  But to listen.  To inquire.  And most renegade of all – to get curious…with some chips and salsa thrown in just for kicks.

Why?  Because we know by experience that this is the fast track towards having the same basic realization we (and everyone who practices genuine dialogue) ultimately has.

Namely this:  That thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on pretty much…um, everything!

The existence of God?  Check.  Creation, evolution, sexuality, gender, identity, immigration, race, guns, policing, government, religion, education and health care?  Check, check, check, check….Greatest threats to our planet?  Big time check.

Do you want to personally know his ground-breaking reality – experiencing for yourself the degree to which really great, amazing people see all these issues (and more) differently than you?

Well, if you do – get this:  this Radical Experiment costs no money.  And only one night of missing Game of Thrones.

Are you up to it?

Let me be annoying and answer my own question:  For most Americans, the answer is:  NO.

We’ve learned that for ourselves. At one point last year, I decided to try a full-court press. First, Village Square Salt Lake City and Living Room Conversations made a local press release to all our state’s newspapers and radio stations letting people know that free consultation would be given to anyone wanting try one of these conversations (with anyone they wanted, on any topic they chose).

Then, I went knocking doors in my own neighborhood, inviting people directly. These were people I had grown up with, who knew me well (and who would have to buy girl scout cookies from my children).

The result?  I was turned down right and left (and in the middle too).  You would have thought I was inviting people to try an elective colonoscopy – ‘no seriously…it only hurts a little.  And has very rare side-effects.’

“Jacob – there is something about the polarization people like…” Liz Joyner, national director of the Village Square told me in the aftermath. “There’s something almost reassuring and comforting about knowing Our Side is inherently superior to Those Heathens.”

No wonder people didn’t want to talk!  Like kids who have been convinced there really are monsters under the bed, we’ve become almost scared of getting too close to each other. And we’re angry too.

Stewing in these bitter juices, no wonder we’d rather just keep reading, watching and listening to people who fuel our anger and remind us why it’s all Their fault…And you’re asking me to actually sit with the very people responsible for all of our suffering?!  Who are you kidding?!!!

Okay – so we get it.  You don’t really want to do this.  So will you do something else instead?

We’ve decided to try something else at the Village Square – an attempt to ‘package up’ some of the clarity and insight that emerges in heart-felt conversations about deep American differences – and make it available in other ways.

You see, one of the things that always happens in good dialogue is new insight and deeper understanding about the nuance and complexity of Those Other People and how they think.

Make no mistake:  understanding is not the same thing as ‘agreement’ or ‘reconciliation.’  Not even in the same ballpark.

Understanding is about grasping the rationality of things as someone else sees it – coming out of their experience and their background. It’s about seeing from another pair of eyes, with a dash of empathy thrown in.

Almost invariably, understanding is correlated with a new affection and appreciation that arises for Those People (or at least That Person)…”Hmmm…they’re okay, I guess. Hmmm…they’re kind of like me.  Hmmm…they’re not the stupid-and-evil person I thought they were.”

In other words, the Demon Story goes away…completely.  For good.  That doesn’t mean the disagreements go away. In fact, some of the differences between me and long-time dialogue partners are as intense as ever.  The difference now is that, well, we can actually talk about them!

And we do it all the time.  And we learn a lot.  (And we have a lot of fun to boot…).

As a way to give people a glimpse and taste of this ‘scary’ experience, we’re launching a new series at the Village Square that documents some of the nuanced ways that “thoughtful good-hearted people” disagree about all sorts of things.

Due to the current American conversation, we’ve recently drafted documents focused on race, policing and guns.

And we’re working on additional ones for immigration, climate change, pornography and diverging views of mental and physical health care.

All of these are just a beta launch of our best drafts – and every one remains a work in progress.  If you think we’re missing an important question or phrasing it poorly, please let us know! If you think the different position summaries need improvement to fairly reflect each side, we’d love to hear from you [please send feedback and suggestions to jacob@old.utah.tothevillagesquare.org].

The whole point is to crystallize and capture on paper some of the nuance and complexity that emerges as understanding deepens in face-to-face dialogue. Even if loath to participate in the latter, perhaps people will be willing to taste-test the former.

And if one shot is all we get, we’d like to make sure it’s a tasty one. With the help of our diverse local Village Square Salt Lake City team, and the eyes of a wide spectrum of readers, we’re hoping the text reflects an unprecedented level of fairness and generosity.

In other words, our aim is to articulate the strongest and most thoughtful expressions of contrasting views about key questions. By doing so, we hope to help move people towards greater readiness and predisposition to at least hear out the other side…as fellow human beings.

Later this fall, we’ll introduce a second series in parallel that summarizes Ten Areas of Common Ground for these same areas.

We’re not expecting either series to be widely lauded or embraced.

After all, it’s a lot more effective for some people to believe that Black Lives Matters followers hate all white people and cops – OR that everyone fighting for gun rights is scary and delusional.

Why would you want to unsettle those powerful assertions?

Well…because they are untrue? And fear-and-anger promoting (read: part of the problem?)

Let’s do this, America!  Believe it or not, there’s something WAY better than the creepy comfort of knowing the Other People in America are destroying this country.

It’s something easy, and hard, and completely life-changing too.  Will you at least give it a taste test?

It’s cheesy, but I’m going to say it anyway:  It’s time to make America See-Each-Other Again.



[1] This is not simply a shadow critique of what’s happening the Republican party, by the way (although it is that too). There has never been a time when conservatives felt more demonized (as ‘haters’ or ‘bigots’) than now…the rhetoric from the left is being experienced as at least as hostile and aggressive as that coming from the right.