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OnBeingCivilConversationsProject 1

HOW WE WALKED into This and How We Can Walk Out

In his new book, journalist Ezra Klein turns his attention to a question lingering over so many others in American politics today: Why are we polarized? And he poses a challenge in his conversation with Krista this week: “We need to build a politics where one of our aims is the participation and respect we give to each other,” he says. “That doesn’t mean a politics where the fights aren’t hard-fought or the stakes aren’t high or everything is compromised down for no reason … but we need to be looking to pull people into the process, and we need to be looking to pull people back from the ledge.”

Klein explores how polarization is built into institutions and our political systems, but it’s worth turning the same inquiry on ourselves. He offers a helpful starting point, citing a conversation he had with Arthur Brooks about the difference between anger and contempt: “Anger is an emotion that maybe can bring us closer together. When I’m angry at you, what I want to do is solve the problem. Contempt is: ‘I don’t even need to deal with you anymore; I’m just writing you off; I can’t even.’” How might this distinction allow us to more intentionally practice expressing anger, rather than contempt, in moments of polarized disagreement?

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown calls this the work of engaged feedback. Her 10 guidelines for approaching these difficult and often critical conversations can be helpful in all sorts of conversations. For example: We’re ready to give feedback when we’re “ready to sit next to you rather than across from you” and “willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).”

To be clear, nothing about this is easy. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild notes that disagreeing in this way requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence. But she encourages us to think of it as something any one of us can contribute: “We all need to be makers if you want to make a social contribution and help build a public conversation about the big issues of the day,” she says. “In order to do that, you have to really be good at emotion management. It’s a contribution to the larger whole to be really good at that.”

Or, in even fewer words: Caring, she says, is not capitulating.

Kristin Lin
Editor, The On Being Project

P.S. — If you’re curious about Krista’s approach as an interviewer, she offers some tips to navigate big conversations in this Spotify for Podcasters interview, published this week.

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