There are some phrases that just feel good to say. "Collaborative problem solving," "hearing all sides," "working together," "finding common ground." What could possibly be controversial about any of that? Yet one such phrase "bridging divides," which seems at first glance like an obviously positive intention, has itself become controversial and sometimes even divisive.
So before you rush into the battlefield in between the armies of the "right" and "left," stop, look and listen. You will be far more effective if you know how complicated this terrain has become, and what may come your way if you say you want to be a bridger.
During the decades that the two of us have done this "bridging" work, around the country and around the world, we have learned how difficult and rewarding it can be. But in the divided time that we live in, we have observed how even bridging divides is being dragged into partisan warfare.
When we survey the terrain, we see at least four different attitudes towards bridging. Some are opposed to bridging on its merits because they believe that it involves forgiving wrong or offensive positions on "the other side." Others innocently believe that just bringing good intentions to a divisive conversation will be effective. Still others use bridging in a Machiavellian way to manipulate people by pretending to be open to hearing another perspective when, in truth, they are clearly not. And finally, there are folks who are thoughtfully and authentically working to bridge divides.
In the remainder of this column, we'll focus on the first group, those who are truly anti-bridging. In our subsequent columns, we will focus on the rest of the field.
The case made by anti-bridgers is clear. They feel that they are absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong, that they own "The Truth." They believe that they are on the side of good and their adversaries are on the side of evil. We have seen much evidence of this phenomena in recent years as more and more conservatives and progressives say they think the other side wants to hurt the country. It wasn't that long ago when we viewed our political opponents as honorable people with whom we genuinely disagreed. That attitude towards our adversaries created a different, and more civil, form of public debate and discourse. However, when you presume that your opponent's motives are malicious, or that their intentions are actually destructive, there is no longer any reason to treat them with civility or respect.
From this perspective, someone who engages with the other side — in other words, a bridger — is a traitor to their cause, or giving in to the enemy. So the reason anti-bridgers attend public meetings is not to hear the other side and consider their perspective, but to shame them and shout them down. They are experts at using social media to create echo chambers that amplify their perspective, even if it is held by a small number of people.
Based on our experience, some of these anti-bridgers are so consumed with their hatred for the other side that they are unwilling or unable to listen or hear or explore transpartisan solutions that might truly transcend the right-left divide.
For those of us who believe in this work, we know from experience that if we have the patience to listen to the deeper interests behind a rigid position, some progress is possible. But it is also best to let go of any notion of a quick win. Trying to bypass the militant defenses of the anti-bridging mindset, whether it is on the left or right, is rarely productive.
In summary, it is important to realize that they have reasons, either political or personal, for their high level of mistrust. All of our fellow citizens need to be heard and know they have been. We know that some of this may sound naive to those deep in their own army's trench. Even the major media on the left and right show nothing but disdain for those who think that more common ground is possible. That's why this work is so hard, but also why it is so important. If we take the time and care to understand other perspectives and build trust, we may be surprised by what we can do together.
Until our next column, we hope our thoughts trigger some of your own. Please email us with your reactions, questions or points of view at email@example.com. We would love to hear from you.
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