She was showing me how to open her door. I was going to house-sit, and there was something glitchy about the deadbolt that had to be done just right.
“Like this,” she said, miming the procedure. “Put the key in and turn to the right …”
“No, Mom,” her young son interrupted. “You turn it left.”
Slightly ruffled by his intrusion, she repeated, “Put the key in and turn right.”
“No, Mom! Turn it left!” The boy was adamant.
“Son, please don’t interrupt me. I’m showing something to Jane.” She began again, “Turn it right …”
“Mom!” He was howling now, as deeply committed five-year-olds sometimes do. “It turns left!”
And all of a sudden it was clear to me. As I stood back, watching my very tall friend lock eyes with her very small son, extending her arm toward the point where their sightlines had just one moment earlier converged, the source of the conflict became apparent: the clockwise motion she wanted to demonstrate was, indeed, a turn toward the right from her point of view. But from the perspective of a small boy looking up, that key most definitely was turning left.
At the time, it was a funny misunderstanding. Yet the incident stuck with me – loving mother and perceptive child, disputing a matter of fact, coming to diametrically opposing conclusions based on personal observation.
Today, given the changes in our social and political climate, that memory has become an icon to me. This example of how two people can look at one event yet see very different things has become my symbol for the deep divisions that exist in America today.
Our problem with polarization has never seemed more stark, at least not in my lifetime. Aligning with a position– any position– calls out the opposition, yowling and cursing. It’s paralyzing. No discussion can occur. Lines are drawn and the pummeling begins, all efforts thrown into defining, repeating, escalating one’s own point of view.
What do we sacrifice when we live in this manner? A great deal.
We give up our sense of community, for one. In this atmosphere, we seem no longer to consider other Americans as our fellow citizens.
The labels begin to fly and our shared humanity disappears. Political leaders no longer face “worthy opponents” or “esteemed colleagues across the aisle.” What remains are the dehumanizing labels: libtard, zealot, hack, snowflake, feminazi, ideologue. The stream of pejoratives seems endless.
We also give up conversation, the practice of sharing ideas. We move instead to contradiction, the practice of speaking against another person or statement. Isn’t that chilling?
No collaboration, no cooperation, no shared effort to solve our national problems. How far are we really willing to let our country go in that direction?
If you’re disturbed by this ugly trend, you are not alone.
There are people who are not willing to simply sit and watch that happen, and those people are doing things.
In Fort Wayne, we are lucky enough to have AVOW, the organization hosting the Civil Conversations series (among other important efforts). This series of events invites the community to come together, listen to informed voices speak on political and social issues, then discuss the information presented. The resulting communication has been profound, sometimes rawly honest, and always thought-provoking and worthwhile.
Nationally, there’s Better Angels. This young organization brings together small groups of people, balanced in the representation of Reds and Blues. They do not meet to persuade or convince one another, but for the purpose of respectful listening. Deeper communication and greater understanding result, bridging divisions and revealing common ground. Clearly, there’s a hunger for this approach.
In only two years, Better Angels has grown to an active presence in all 50 states, with more than 7,000 members. Better Angels’s workshops are effective starting points for better communication. In guided exercises, participants consider one another’s views and work together for understanding, developing skills that apply broadly, not just in the arena of political debate.
No one has to simply accept the deterioration of our public conversation. There’s a movement taking place to improve things. Join it. Together, we can bridge these gaps.
Like my friend and her son, we can see from each other’s points of view and find our common ground.
Jane Janovyak has lived in Fort Wayne since 1998. She works at Fort Wayne Community Schools. A version of this piece was originally published at the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.