Political polarization has been a dominating feature of American politics for a while, and the 2016 presidential election seems to have pushed people further into their blue camps and red camps with little middle ground.
The focus of The News & Observer’s third Community Voices forum on Wednesday, “Talking Trump: How to listen, and be heard, across the red-blue divide,” was an attempt to give people tips for talking – and listening – to each other, despite the gulf.
Five panelists from a variety of backgrounds, with expertise in religion, law, customs and border programs, local politics and opinion writing, encouraged several hundred people gathered in the James Hunt library at N.C. State University to focus less on labels and attempts to move someone into an opinion camp.
Over and over, the panelists encouraged people to use what they described as “active listening.”
“It is a skill,” said Lauren Foster, executive director of HopeLine in Raleigh, which focuses on crisis intervention, suicide prevention and reassurance calls to people in need. “I think listening is the core of being able to have these very important conversations with people.”
In an effort to show the audience different styles for talking with people in the age of Trump, the panel pulled two people on stage, one in a Bernie Sanders T-shirt and another in a Donald Trump hat. The two initially took strong stands and stomped away with neither sharing any common ground. In a second conversation, they asked each other questions instead of shouting insults and realized that though there were things they might never agree on, they shared some common ground.
“Active listening,” Foster said, “is all about seeing that person’s perspective from their point of view.”
The Rev. Christopher Lee, associate pastor at Avondale Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, an African-American clergy member who has served predominantly white congregations, encouraged the audience: “Don’t forget where you came from.”
“The biggest roadblock to building relationships is our need as humans in always trying to be right,” Lee said, suggesting that many of the labels used in this political climate are meant to divide. “Right-fighting,” Lee added, “that goes nowhere.”
Two of the panelists, Saleisha Averhart, a Raleigh lawyer and co-chair of Together We Will NC, a group formed after the November election to shape the focus on progressive issues, and J. Peder Zane, a writing teacher and columnist with a conservative bent who regularly contributes to The N&O opinion pages, advocated for putting strong opinions out for others to hear and read.
During a time when the social media sites and cable airways are filled with people taking strong stands, both Averhart and Zane said it was OK to do the same as long as your opinions were shaped and informed with a breadth of information.
“I’m a drop-the-bomber,” Averhart said about posting her dissent on social media sites. “And I’m not ashamed of it.”
Zane reminded the audience during the 90-minute discussion that much of the country was not hypersensitive to or hyperaware of many of the issues that divide, as social media sites and cable TV programs might have all believe.
“Part of what’s going on here, which is sort of interesting, is you actually have a large part of the population that is completely tuned out to that,” Zane said.
Leslie Boyd, a program manager with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who also serves as one of only two Democrats on the nine-member Union County School Board, urged people to “push past their comfort zones,” to go to places where they might not find others with like minds or circumstances and engage them in conversations.
Though Boyd is a Democrat, she told the audience that she also held many conservative values. She shared an experience from her time on the school board when a Republican and she agreed. He told her he was shocked by their common ground, then encouraged her to switch to the Republican party, something she had no intention of doing.
Toward the end of the panel discussion, many said they thought more conversation would lead to a blending of the red and blue camps.
“Be purple and be proud,” Boyd said.