Story by ALEJANDRO LUCERO
A month before the 2020 election, roughly 8 in 10 registered voters on both sides of the aisle said their differences with the other side were about core American values such as the economy, racial justice and climate change, according to a 2020 study done by the Pew Research Center.
“I feel like we sort of lost that ability to have a conversation without feeling like we have to convince each other of our side,” Caitlin McDonald said in a Zoom call.
Utah Humanities, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit, created the Community Conversations as a space for respectful dialogue. But is it enough to help alleviate the political polarization plaguing Utahns across the state? McDonald, the program manager in charge of the Conversations, knows that bridging the gap is not a painless task for participants.
“It’s not an easy thing. It’s not all puppies and rainbows. It’s not all hugging each other. It’s hard, and it’s emotional, and we’ve had people cry,” McDonald said.
Utah Humanities has been hosting hard and uncomfortable conversations about relevant and polarizing topics such as racial justice, climate change and civic participation since its inception in 2015. Pre-pandemic, these conversations were held in person. Currently they reside within the virtual walls of Zoom. Regardless of the meeting space, McDonald said she believes the process of creating meaningful and productive dialogue is more successful than regular town halls or other forums where people come ready to argue and yell at one another.
Part of the Utah Humanities’ success can be attributed to its Conversation Agreements that serve as a code of conduct for these monthly meetings. The agreements outline expectations for how the conversations will be held and how participants are expected to conduct themselves. The guidelines include “respecting all participants, … thoughtfully considering perspectives which are contrary to their own and behaving courteously should a disagreement and/or non-closure occur.”
McDonald said all participants must sign the agreement before any dialogue can begin. This weeds out anyone who is looking to come with pitchforks in hand.
“Because as we’ve seen, people’s rules for behavior seem to have changed recently. What’s acceptable in public and what’s acceptable in how we treat each other? I’ve seen it change in the past few years,” McDonald said.
She also said that weeding out the agitators who are looking to throw gasoline onto the political fire has proven to be beneficial, as they have never kicked out a participant. The agreement also helps alleviate some concerns of first-time participants, while also providing them with a space to be vulnerable and listen openly to perspectives that they might disagree with.
“These conversations just give them a chance to come somewhere where you don’t have to come with your guard up,” McDonald said. “You can come knowing that you’re in a space where you can express yourself, but also hear somebody else express themselves without fear of being yelled at.”
One participant is openly looking for this challenge of ideas and values. Steven Olsen is a senior history curator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said he embraces aspects of the humanities such as diverse thinking and the civil interchange of sharing ideas. Olsen said he is especially interested in the perspectives that differ from those around him.
“I really am interested in sharing that perspective with others in a kind of an academic setting or from an academic perspective, but also gaining other insights that I might not get from my own tribe, as it were,” Olsen said in a Zoom interview.
It might seem as if Olsen has found his happy place within the virtual walls of the Zoom Conversations, but the problem is, he has had a hard time garnering a new perspective from these sessions.
“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been the kind of diversity of perspectives that I had kind of hoped [for] going forward, I would say it’s mostly centered left of center,” Olsen said.
The lack of contrasting opinions interests Kevin Coe, a professor with an emphasis in political communication at the University of Utah. But he believes the problem is bigger than a conversation.
“It’s useful to think in terms of some of those interpersonal solutions [Community Conversations] as small-scale acts of goodness, that are useful. They won’t ultimately be enough to solve the problem, right? Because the problem is structural,” Coe said in a Zoom interview.
The structural problem Coe is referring to involves the amount of information and misinformation that can be found on social media, and how that changing information environment is shaped and influenced by political structures and those in power. Social media and news outlets could be to blame due to the number of opinions that are now in the marketplace of ideas. But Coe said he thinks the real problem lies within the curators who are controlling the release of questionable content being cultivated for public consumption.
“The deeper problem is that people are toxic because people are creating that information environment, and particularly people in power, who often have an incentive to put out misinformation, for example,” Coe said.
Power isn’t the only incentive to deceive the public.
“To get that misinformation to circulate and that might be a monetary incentive as a way for them to just increase their own personal wealth, say, unscrupulous journalists … an unscrupulous participant in the media environment who benefits financially from having their message, which … they know is factually inaccurate, circulate widely, because it builds attention for them,” Coe said.
This could be applied as well to politicians who use misinformation or inflammatory remarks to influence their following and maintain power. Coe also said it would take a broader reform of the political and information system to reach the overarching goal that those interpersonal acts of communication like the Conversations are seeking.
It might seem like the deck has been stacked against the participants of the Conversations like Steven Olsen, who look through the lens of the humanities to navigate these uncomfortable conversations and polarizing topics. But there is consensus and hope among those who attend, that the Conversations will continue to provide participants with the opportunity to not see a political enemy on the other side of the aisle, but a vulnerable person who also wants what is best for the country.
“Those conversations can rise above the particulars of our contention, you know, the differences of our points of view,” Olsen said. “To see the human underpinnings of even the necessity of having differences of opinion, in other words, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, but it’s about the meaning of the truth that we’re seeking from the conversation.”