By The Herald Editorial Board
Few would disagree with the basic rights of Americans to say what they wish, but in increasing numbers many don’t seem much interested in listening to thoughts we disagree with.
We may — as a biographer paraphrased Voltaire — disagree with what you say, and we’ll defend to the death your right to say it. But spare us the details; we’ve made up our minds.
But that refusal to listen and consider — to weigh opinions other than those we have arrived at — is leading to stalemate and an inability to act on issues that require our attention, from the local level on up, issues that affect our daily lives and have consequences for the society and world we leave behind for generations to come.
Not to pick on Congress, but they do get paid for just this sort of thing; that body of elected representatives offers near-daily textbook examples of gridlock; most recently conservative Republicans are seeking budget cuts beyond levels already agreed to earlier this year and threatening a government shutdown if their demands aren’t met before the end of September, risking program and service suspensions, furloughs of government employees and threats to benefits for millions of Americans.
Similar political divisions regarding the leading issues of the day are growing in magnitude and in their difficulty in finding resolution among the public and voters.
Recent polling by Axios found that among 1,000 adults polled over the last 20 years, the split on specific issues widened between those who identify as Republicans and Democrats. On whether gun laws should be stricter, the red-blue division in 2022 was 53 percentage points, up from 29 points in 2003; on concerns for global warming, the split in opinion grew from a 39 percentage point difference in 2003 to a 52 point fissure in 2022; on whether immigration should be decreased, just 11 points separated the parties in 2003 but had grown to 40 percentage points by 2022; and on whether abortion should be legal under any circumstance, a 17 percentage point crack widened to a gulf of 47 percentage points in 2022.
Those wide differences in opinion don’t mean issues can’t find resolution, but finding compromise starts with recognizing areas of common accord on shared goals and on a path forward. And that starts with listening.
The third of four community forums this year — dubbed the Building Bridges Tour — invites community members throughout Snohomish County to assemble — this time from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12 at the Sno-Isle Library in Lynnwood, 19200 44th Ave. W., to give a listen to other opinions.
Led by Snohomish County Council members Nate Nehring and Jared Mead, the series of workshops invites community members not for a lecture about getting along and making democracy work, but to put people into small groups to hone their skills in listening, understanding and discourse and putting those skills into practice.
Nehring, a Republican, and Mead, a Democrat, have a reputation for their collaborative work on the council but also for joint appearances before community groups, coffee chats, schools and other venues, discussing how to find common ground on issues while maintaining their own political beliefs.
A partner in the listening forums, Braver Angels, is a national organization that seeks to depolarize American politics by working at a grass-roots level, including workshops and events such as the Building Bridges Tour.
“We bring polarized people together and help them understand each other,” said Elizabeth Doll, an organizer with Braver Angels, who assisted Mead and Nehring in earlier forums in Mill Creek and Arlington.
That effort in understanding doesn’t require denying commitment to one’s beliefs, as Mead and Nehring explained to forum participants this May in Arlington. Both men have strong personal positions regarding the issue of abortion, but a conversation early in their work relationship about the issue helped each understand how they arrived at those beliefs and even find potential areas of agreement on policy, without straying from their principles.
There are ground rules for the Building Bridges forums, Doll said, including listening to understand others and speaking to explain one’s own views, not speaking for anyone else or any group.
“We’re allowing space for an exchange, not trying to get people to change their minds. We want to show you can hear multiple perspectives and find a point of commonality on values and concerns, and move toward pluralism not necessarily toward centrism,” she told the editorial board earlier this year.
Some of those ground rules might sound familiar to those who have participated in marriage or family counseling. There’s a reason, Doll said; Braver Angels was founded largely by marriage and family therapists and its workshops are built on that model of finding common ground, accurately understanding each other and listening to understand rather than listening to respond.
That civic counseling is necessary if our communities and nation are to move past stalemates and toward consensus and action.
“We’re losing community and we’re losing trust, both in institutions and each other. How do we restore that?” Doll said. “It has to happen on an individual level and has to happen on both sides so that no one can claim that this is a Republican effort or a Democratic effort. It has to be seen as something mutual. It has to be a citizen-led thing.”
Building Bridges Tour
The Building Bridges Tour forums are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12 in Lynnwood and Dec. 5 in Everett. For more information and to register for a forum, go to tinyurl.com/SnoCoBuildingBridgesTour. Tickets are free, but registration is requested.