2017 has been a tough year for conversations. Following a deeply polarizing presidential election, we’ve experienced a year of serial controversy, often hinging on identity fault lines. Among other flashpoints, we saw marches escalate to murder in Charlottesville as enduring elements of hate and darkness were thrust into August light. It feels like divisions are deepening and rancor is rising with no relief in sight. According to the latest Civility in America survey, 75 percent of Americans now believe the lack of civility has reached a crisis level.
Passionate disagreement and debate over issues is a critical tenet of effective democracy. Our individual positions are informed by life experiences, worldviews, values and priorities. Thus, broad agreement across complex issues is impossible and unnecessary. The growing crisis in American society is that animosity for positions is becoming disdain for the people who hold them. This “affective polarization” means we don’t just disagree with one another but dislike and distrust those who don’t share our views.
The stark divisions and distrust now apparent across American society did not originate with a candidate or an election. While we have seen leaders cynically throw gas on simmering conflict, the underlying social and political tension can often be traced to economic, demographic and cultural changes sweeping America. That means this problem is unlikely to substantially abate with any change in leadership or political power.
Change is up to us, the people, and it’s beginning in North Carolina.
I’m heartened by the fact that our fractured society is still made up of individual people. So, each person who sets aside interpersonal conflict for conversation and resolves to listen first – especially to those with whom they disagree or have different life experiences – tips the scales toward a new direction for society at large. Over the past year, I’ve seen many North Carolinians engage in such conversations, laying the groundwork for the rest of the United States.
It was political rancor boiling over in my home state – viewed with fresh perspective from Africa in 2013 – that inspired Listen First Project. North Carolina has continued to grab headlines as an epicenter of difficult and divisive issues in the years since, but at the same time has, more quietly, been home to some of the most encouraging bridge building moments. And America is watching. Washington, DC’s The Hill newspaper has praised our “heroic steps to get people to talk to each other.”
These steps have included the North Carolina Leadership Forum hosted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The forum, led by conservative John Hood and liberal Leslie Winner, continues to convene leaders from across the political and social spectrum to tackle challenging issues in civil conversation.
The Chatham County Republican Party partnered with Listen First Project in June to host a Listen First Conversation among young conservatives and young liberals in Pittsboro, which news coverage called a “miracle.” At the August protest of the Confederate Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill, I – after first being shouted down for suggesting a Listen First Conversation – witnessed diametrically opposed and frightened individuals develop a rapport in conversations that ended in hugs and pictures.
One of our national partners, Better Angels, visited North Carolina in October and hosted its Red/Blue Workshops among students in Chapel Hill and then among a diverse group of citizens in Raleigh, while training dozens of North Carolinians to conduct the workshops themselves. One workshop participant reflected that “we need each other with our different priorities for success in America.” Also in October, 5,000 people gathered in small groups across Mecklenburg County as part of On the Table-Charlotte to interact and exchange ideas on the most challenging issues facing their community.
In November, 30 students from Duke, Carolina, N.C. State and N.C. Central convened for a two-day Leaders for Political Dialogue forum in which they practiced methods of bridge-building conversations and envisioned ways to encourage such conversations on their respective campuses. Later in November, our Duke Listen First chapter hosted a Listen First Conversation among leaders of Duke College Republicans and Duke Democrats. Our college chapters at Duke and Carolina are establishing a model for new school chapters across the country.
Meanwhile, my entire Weekend MBA class of 45 leaders at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has joined the Listen First Project leadership team to grow our movement nationwide as I work with senior political and civic leaders in North Carolina to pilot major initiatives here at home.
Fifty-six percent of Americans expect civility to get worse in the next few years, says the Civility in America survey, but it doesn’t have to. 2018 can be the year that we begin to turn this destructive tide, one conversation at a time. In partnership with dozens of Listen First Coalition members coast to coast – including Charlotte’s Red Boot Way – we plan to boost that change with events such as Listen First in Charlottesville and a National Day of Conversation.
As we enter a new year, each of us must decide what role we’re going to play in shaping our shared future. Will we passively accept perpetual ‘us versus them’ conflict or will we actively encourage ‘me and you’ conversations that bridge divides? In listen first conversations – and the relationships they build – is hope for bridging the divides that threaten the fabric of American society.
May we make a fresh choice for 2018 – a new resolution to listen first – and may North Carolina continue to lead the way.
Pearce Godwin is founder and CEO of Listen First Project and the Listen First Coalition. He drives the national Listen First movement to rebuild civil discourse and bridge divides. Godwin can be reached at Pearce@ListenFirstProject.org.