- Is it possible for liberal and conservative-leaning Americans to have productive conversation and warm, vibrant relationships where great learning and affection might be found?
- In the absence of this kind of productive conversation, are we putting society itself at risk – and making it much more likely that violence happens across these divides? (In other words, are these liberal/conservative disagreements a life and death issue – that should be treated as such?)
- Seen clearly, is it possible that liberal and conservative perspectives need each other to be complete – and that, indeed, most human beings have both a liberal and conservative impulse inside (preferring to keep some things the same – and eager to consider significant change in other areas?)
- Is it possible that a significant part of the ongoing left/right “culture war” is aggravated by “professional polarizers” so effective in what they are doing that we are simply missing out on some of the more hopeful possibilities right in front of us?
- If all of the above is true, should we be putting more sustained attention into the preservation of our civic ecosystem – with the same kind of concerted energy that we invest in preserving other delicate ecosystems like the wetlands, the grasslands, etc.?
- Could it be that there are many people already doing this – and offering practical, proven answers to these challenges…but that we are largely ignoring this domestic peacekeeping force?
How do these questions get answered (if they get asked at all)?
Um…are you crazy? Those liberals are the big problem…Those conservatives are hurting our country. Can’t you see how Those People are destroying our country? We need to learn to fight them better…not this ridiculous attempt to understand them more…
Why is this rhetoric so much more common? Because one way of thinking (narrative) about politics, liberals, conservatives, disagreement and agreement has become so dominant as to “render other options unthinkable.”
With so many crucial and important issues facing society today – from nuclear threats, to health crises, to disconnection, to mass shootings – even if we could talk about these issues together, it would be a deadly serious time….
But, of course, we can’t even do that. But can we relearn?
My dialogue beginnings. My interest in liberal-conservative dialogue began when I left my conservative community in Utah to attend an ultra progressive graduate program at the University of Illinois. I began my studies there unsure I could say what I really thought.
After my younger brother passed away from cancer, I was surrounded by love from my super-duper-liberal classmates and professors. My lesbian neuroscience professor became my dissertation chair and an amazing mentor figure. My feminist professors inspired me with new possibilities in how to confront domestic violence and work with mental illness. And in partnership with a gay classmate, we did an interviewing study of local citizens about difficult cultural issues that taught me a ton:
Hess, J. Z. & Todd, N. R. (2009). From culture war to difficult dialogue: Exploring distinct frames for citizen exchange about social problems. Journal of Public Deliberation 5(1) Art 3, 1-27.
At one point, I was invited to co-facilitate a liberal-conservative dialogue seminar class for undergraduates between 2006 and 2007. We published an evaluation of this class, the first of its kind in the nation:
Hess, J. Z., Rynczak, D., Minarik, J. & Landrum-Brown, J. (2010). Alternative settings for liberal-conservative exchange: Examining an undergraduate dialogue course. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 20(2), 156-166.
Working with Phil. When I was presenting the results of this seminar at at national conference, a professor from the State University of New York came up and said, “I’ve been looking for someone like you!” He had just finished a book called “United We Fall: Ending America’s Love Affair with the Political Center” about how valuable perspectives on the left and right are being silenced and declared “extreme” by moderate voices in the middle. Phil invited me to a long dialogue about all our disagreements. We published what we learned from the experience in this book:
Neisser, P. & Hess, J.Z. (2012). You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, (But You’re Still Wrong): Conversations between a Die-Hard Liberal and a Devoted Conservative) Dulles, VA: Potomac Press.
Phil and I later published these reflections on our experiences in the Huffington Post:
Since that time, Phil and I also have had some fun opportunities to present about dialogue in various college classes, and to the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation:
- Hess, J.Z., & Neisser, P. (2012, October). Liberal-conservative dialogue co-presentation. Michael Popovich’s undergraduate politics class, State University of New York, Potsdam.
- Hess, J.Z. & Neisser, P. (2013, February) Liberal-conservative dialogue online co-presentation. Diversity seminar in the Clinical-Community Program University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
- Hess, J.Z. & Neisser, P. (2013, March). Liberal-conservative dialogue co-presentation. American Government, LDS Business College, Salt Lake City, UT.
- Hess, J.Z. & Neisser, P. (2013, May). Confab Call on Liberal-Conservative Dialogue. National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation.
And we were invited to give a workshop in Flint Michigan to a community organization wanting to spark more productive exchange. Later, we were brought in by Grinnell College in Iowa to offer some joint workshops (one of the sweetest experiences of my life):
Since then, I’ve had additional opportunities to teach and train about dialogue, including a fun trip back to my alma mater:
Hess, J. Z. (2014, October). The (bright) future of liberal-conservative dialogue and why it’s worth the hard work. Diversity & Social Justice Education Lecture Series. Sponsored by the Office of Inclusion and Cultural Relations, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
And a powerful experience co-leading a session with one of my favorite trustworthy rivals in LGBT/religious conservative dialogue:
Over the years, I’ve had several opportunities to speak directly to a “conservative take” on dialogue and how to attract more conservatives to dialogue, including these two:
- Hess, J. Z. (2008, October). Framing dialogue in a way more accessible to a broader audience / Attracting conservative citizens to dialogue events. Biennial Conference of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), Austin, TX.
- Alliance for Peacebuilding Conference, October 12 “Peace now, More than Ever,” Washington, D.C. Conflict And Peacebuilding in the United States: What is the Problem and the Peacebuilding Solution?
In 2015, Phil and I were honored by Public Conversations Project in Boston for our work together (SUNY-Potsdam, News Release). This video was made around this time to help promote the possibility of what Heidi Weaver-Smith calls “treasonous friendships”:
Working in Utah. I always knew I wanted to do more in my home state. So after moving back, with support from Living Room Conversations, I began working on a reconnaissance to learn about past local efforts in promoting understanding across divides. It turns out, a lot of wonderful things had already happened! (Softening the Great Divide(s) in Utah: A True Story). Collaborating as well with Utah Humanities and the Village Square, I began working to help cultivate our local ecosystem, ultimately creating our own Utah chapter of the Village Square (bringing together religious and non-religious, liberal and conservative citizens to learn how to promote higher-quality conversations…and maybe even have some fun together in the meanwhile!). This piece recently published on the Bridge Alliance blog summarize some of our efforts over these years: Preserving and Protecting Our Precious Civic Ecosystem (re-posted on the Living Room Conversations’s Huffington Post blog here).
Each year, we try to come up with a “season” of events to help promote higher-quality conversation in our state – based on the issues that feel in greatest need of more conversation. For instance, this was one of our season flyers:
Here are some of the highlights from our local team’s work in Utah:
Inaugural Event focused on Sexual Orientation and Faith Conflicts (Highlights Version).
UNCUT Version PART 1
UNCUT Version PART 2
Fall Event focused on Secular / Religious Relationships in Utah (highlights). Our second event focused on some of the secular / religious conflicts in our state and how to work with them in more creative and generous ways:
It became clear how much people wanted more than just watching other good examples of dialogue on stage: they wanted to do it themselves! So we looked for ways to promote smaller gatherings in homes.
Check out this summary video, “Why We Need Living Room Conversations”:
These promotion efforts included filming an example conversation and sharing highlights from this conversation online:
Full Version – 55 minutes
Half version – 30 minutes
The Utah Citizen Summit. Ultimately, these efforts led to a bigger event bringing together national speakers and local dialogue training for a day-long celebration:
Utah citizen summit explores ways to bridge state, nation after divisive election season (Marjorie Cortez, KSL, Nov 12th, 2016)
Carol Mikita produced a half-hour special between general conference that drew upon interviews with some of the national leaders we brought in for that event:
Red blue sexuality dialogue. By far, the stand-out highlight of my red/blue dialogue experience has been an extended conversation with a politically and sexually diverse group of dialogue experts – a group we affectionately came to call the “Sextet” following two national presentations:
- Hess, J.Z., Weaver, H.M., Backman, J., Peña, A., & Neisser, P. (2004, October). Making space for sacred convictions in dialogue and deliberation: Threat, necessity or opportunity? National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation Conference, Washington, D.C.
- Backman, J., Weaver, H.M., Peña, A., Hess, J.Z., & Neisser, P. “When Sacred Convictions Collide: Making Dialogue Work Across Our Deepest Divides” 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States, October 15 – 19, 2015.
I’ve written other public calls to dialogue over the years:
- Can you change the world from your living room? (with Joan Blades) November 2013, OpenDemocracy.net
- American politics: beyond angels and demons July 2014, OpenDemocracy.net
- What If Our Political Opposite Isn’t (Actually) The Devil… What Then? August 2016, Huffington Post
Creating the Red Blue Dictionary. Joining together with a number of colleagues at NCDD, we decided to create a term guide for hot-button political issues called the Red Blue Dictionary (now hosted as the All Sides Dictionary)
- This article by John Elmes for the Times Higher Education cites professors speaking of the value of the dictionary Academics use new dictionary to aid students in era of fake news (December, 2016)
- And a member of our senior Editorial Team, John Backman wrote this explanation for the Huffington Post: A New Dictionary to Explain All Those Hot-Button Words (December, 2016)
- This piece commissioned by 92nd Street Y reflects on the value of the dictionary amidst our current political hostilities: Rediscovering the Common Ground Americans (Sort of…Mostly) Share (December, 2017)
- This podcast interview with Gina Baleria from San Francisco State University: This Is Civity Podcast, Show #11: All Sides Dictionary (October 2017)
Dialogue after the Trump election. In the age of Trump, I’ve also written the following:
- “Speaking Our Mind”: Two Ways to Do It
- Still Don’t Get Trump Supporters? This Might Help
- Dear Fellow Religious Americans: A Wicked Man Is Not Going To Make Our Country’s Problems Any Better
- Dear America, Please Don’t Forget About The Never Trump Conservatives
- Is It Time To Talk (More) About Sexual Micro-Aggression?
- Want to Understand What’s Happening in America? Watch a Divorcing Couple
- Are Mormons Trump’s Biggest Fans? (Really!?)
Mormons in the sociopolitical madness. As things heat up politically, I’ve focused some of my writing on more general socio-political issues specific to Mormons as well:
- Are Mormons Trump’s Biggest Fans? (Really!?)
- Does Taking a Progressive View of Identity Make It Difficult to Be (Happily) Mormon?
Mindfulness & dialogue. I’ve also long been fascinated at the interplay between mindfulness and dialogue: Some Mindful Advice in Connecting with Your Political Opposite (And Not Hating It) [posted soon on the blog @ BenFranklinCircles.org]. At the upcoming Utah Citizen Summit in January, I will also be co-presenting with Shelly Sawyer-Jenson on “A Mindful Approach to Dialogue: The Art of an Honest Question.”
Policing, climate and other tough issues. Connected to a policing dialogue that our Village Square team supported (led by Emily Christopolus), we wrote up reflections on policing dialogue:
- How Can We Unite If We Don’t Even Understand Each Other?
- Police-Community Relations in Salt Lake City: A Dialogue Report-out
From my climate change conversations with Joan Blades, I also wrote this: Warming Up to Global Warming: A Case for Climate Dialogue
Creating our dialogue practice network. When one of the pioneering leaders in the dialogue field passed away (creator of an organization that had inspired my own work for years: Public Conversations Project, now called “Essential Partners“), I wrote this tribute: Celebrating a Founding Mother of American’s Dialogue Renaissance
A long-term dream became reality this last year when the Bridge Alliance gave us a grant to bring this same organization’s Power of Dialogue series to Utah as part of an attempt to further cultivate the local ecosystem. Out of that, we are creating a Utah Dialogue Practice Network to support both citizens and community leaders who want to refine the “craft” of dialogue in their own neighborhoods and spheres of influence. This Bridge Alliance blog summarize some of our efforts over these years: Preserving and Protecting Our Precious Civic Ecosystem (re-posted on the Living Room Conversations’s Huffington Post blog here). Here is the flyer that provides more details – and here is a link to where you can apply for the Utah Civic Engagement Fellowship.