Meaning Lab
#103: Tired, scared, and busy: why can't we all just get along? (feat. Mónica Guzmán)

#103: Tired, scared, and busy: why can't we all just get along? (feat. Mónica Guzmán)

Mónica Guzmán is a gift to world. We should all be listening to her.

One of the central themes of this show is the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves. But in focusing on the egocentric stakes of storytelling, one of the things we overlook—I certainly do—is the importance of the stories we tell about others.

We make sense of life in the terms of our own experience. We conceptualize the world in a way that corresponds to what we’ve seen and what we understand. This allows us to tell our own story in a pretty nuanced way. But it limits us in the kind of stories we can tell about others—particularly others who, for political or cultural or social reasons, might be very different from us. We put other people into a box: and not the box that would best fit them, but rather one of the ones we have lying around which we’ve previously used to make sense of our own world.

This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot in my writing, my previous choice of podcast guests, and in my academic research—but what I love about my guest today is that she, more than anyone else I know, has actually lived it. Mónica Guzmán is a journalist and Director of Storytelling at Braver Angels, America’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to political depolarization. Her new book is I Never Thought of It That Way, in which she explores her own experience trying to connect people across political and social divides.

In this conversation, Mónica and I cover so much: from the importance of stories in movies and TV, to our relationships with our families, to Mónica’s specific tactics for understanding others. But one of the things that stood out to me is this great line she gives later in the conversation about modern life being “tired, scared, and busy.” It reminded me of the famous characterization of pre-modern life by Thomas Hobbes: nasty, brutish, and short.

I think it speaks to something, it’s so easy to forget: Each of us is living out our own complicated human experience. There is no one who has everything figured out, no one who has reached the point of quiescence. It’s easy to see other people—particularly those with different beliefs from our own—as emblematic of some nefarious other way of life. But, when it comes down to it, there’s no simple way through existence. Everyone is dealing with their own struggle. We’re better off as human beings the more we can come to appreciate the process of that struggle, rather than judge its results.

Mónica’s book is I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. It’s out now.

Let me start off with a question that you cited in the book and in some other conversations I've heard you have as one of your favorite questions, and that's “why you?” And in particular, why have you become so devoted to understanding others? And why is your instinct to be curious and not necessarily defensive in the face of encountering ideas that are oppositional to your own?

Yeah, I guess the first thing I'll say is that I'm not some kind of Zen master of this. I have been caught being quite conflict driven in a bad way, and I still am. And so this is not something I've sort of figured out for all time or anything like that.

But writing this book and all the work it took did get me to reflect on “why me?”—exactly that. And there's several threads.

One is the movies. I grew up going to a lot of movies. My parents would take us to the movies once a week as kids, which we thought was normal… but was not normal. And there's something about fiction where you see the hero, you see the villain. But a good movie, really just a decent one of minimal quality, should get you to understand characters’ motivations. If you don't understand why people do what they do, the movie doesn't make any sense and you're not entertained or enlightened. So I watched a lot of movies, and whether they were good or bad, everybody had their reasons.

In the book I talk a good bit about that because something from fairly early on put that in me that in real life I don't get the benefit of watching everyone's movie. And that's why I don't understand them—not because they don't have reasons for doing what they do and believing what they believe.

Another thing is the thread that brought me to journalism is just this general fascination with people. For a long time, I have found people to be the deepest, richest mysteries. I think it's kind of beautiful—and we don't often think about it—that people who've been together a long time or married a long time never run out of things to say to each other. You would think an entire lifetime would dry the well, but that's not how it works. It's just every moment there's a fractal kind of relationship. You zoom in and there's always more and more and more and more and more. So we're just bottomless. And that's really cool. It means that understanding each other can be really difficult, but also really illuminating.

And then as far as the topic of the book in particular, which is curiosity across the political divide, the biggest reason that I wrote the book was my parents. I lean Liberal. I've always voted Democrat and my parents, as soon as they became citizens in the year 2000, went straight Republican and haven't looked back since. So that has been really interesting and has led to a lot of very loud arguments over the years. But it became personal to me when I was here in Seattle: I would hear people say things about Trump voters that I thought were not just wrong but really dehumanizing. And it's because I had parents that I absolutely loved and understood in mind that it just didn't seem acceptable. And I wanted to dig deep to try to figure out why because it's not the easiest thing to defend in some communities.

There's a real danger here of me taking you up on that first point about the movies and we just talk for the next hour plus about that.

Why is that dangerous? Why don't we just do it? I love movies.

I love that point so much. There’s one thing that I've been thinking about, and I just want to share with you on this front. I think I have always felt this way, and I suspect you feel pretty much exactly the same way—that there's so much power in these really nuanced renderings of stories of complicated people, whether that's in the movies or in novels or whatever. And one of the things I love about living in this year, this kind of era, is that the ability to go deep on those stories in television is completely incredible.

This was something I was thinking about recently. Like last week my partner and I watched, we binge-watched a bunch of seasons of the show Billions. And if you haven't heard of it, it's, like, okay, so there's this lawyer (a defense attorney that's played by Paul Giamatti) and then there's this kind of Ray Dalio-esque hedge fund dude and they're like, okay, yeah, they're going to make a bunch of money, and going to take down each other. And typically what happens in a TV show is that there is moral ambiguity with respect to: okay, here is the bad person. I'm going to show them doing bad person things and we're going to judge them for it and maybe we like them even though they're a bad person. But here's the thing. One of the beautiful things about this show is that everyone is just trying to do what they think is right. And in trying to do that, there are these really severe conflicts, but there's nothing singular that you can point to and say, oh my gosh, well, that was clearly a moral infraction. We should really be angry about the fact that it shows them doing that. And I think stories like that are so powerful in a way that speaks right to your point.

Absolutely. You've made me think of—so I studied film as my minor in college and the way I got into newspapers and journalism to begin with was being a film critic for my college paper. And movies just give you such a fun glimpse into human nature. If the stories make sense, it's because they resonate with us because we recognize something in the world about them.

And I was just thinking about that cliche thing. In every superhero movie where there's a villain, there's a scene where the villain gets to explain himself. Or I was just watching Wednesday on Netflix and you see, like, the villain get to explain—and I won't say the gender because that gives too much away, and everyone should see that show. And even in those scenes, right, they're diabolical, they're evil, but they always have a reason. And there's this funny thing that happens to the viewer in those scenes where as a viewer, you're understanding why they did it, and you go, oh, my gosh, that makes sense. Even though it's terrible, that makes sense. I know why Lex Luther has this world domination thing. Right? I know why they all think they know better, why Thanos wanted to snap away half of existence. Right? And it's this weird moral thing that happens in your heart. Even like Austin Powers makes fun of those moments where the villain explains himself and then gives the hero the way to save the day and things like that. But but you know, even with villains, they have their reasons. It has to make sense.

“Meaning is in people, not in words. Language is a tool for communicating our meaning.”

Absolutely. And I think part of what I think is really worth highlighting about that is that from the outside, if you just were to say, “hey, here's the plot summary: There's this dude Thanos, he's going to snap his fingers and everyone like, half the universe is going to disappear,” right? That is, from the outside, an objectively bad thing. And maybe we don't need to do the Thanos example exactly. I don't know if that plays out in what I'm about to say, but I think there is this thing that when we see someone do something we don't like, we assume that they're doing it to accomplish the things that we don't like. Where in reality, they're often motivated by their own set of values, which we may not have considered. And furthermore, they may not, even when you start to look at their situation, have an option that would allow them to play out in the way that we would want it to.

I'm a big fan of books by Jonathan Franzen, and he does these really large studies of these novels about American families and everything. And one of the things that strikes me about reading his books is that, like, everyone is kind of fucked in their own way. Like, there's something that's not working well for them. But when you sit down and look at, like, what are the actual choices they can make? There is no choice they can make to unfuck their situation, so to speak. And from the outside, we would just assume that there is. And so I think there's a whole constellation of ideas in this. This is what stories allow us to really understand the nuance of in ways that nonfiction and everyday life and that sort of stuff can’t. We're either too abstract or we're too close to it personally. That's why I love stories, as they're told in really great novels and TV and movies right now.

Yeah. And there's research that shows that when we share stories to illustrate why we believe what we believe, it is more persuasive—not to get people to look at things the way we do, but to get them to understand how we look at it differently. I find that research so interesting. And it's the same exact thing that happens in these TV shows that have become like movies but exponentially more powerful because they take that much more time with characters and stories and layers and things, and that just gives us even more nuance and more depth to question our assumptions.

So often there's tropes and stereotypes we can apply at the beginning when meeting characters for the first time. And then good shows, I think, uncover that for us and show us that there's angles on these characters that we didn't recognize. A lot of times characters keep secrets from each other because of shame or guilt. But as the viewer, we have the privilege of seeing inside their hearts and their minds, right? And we watch them be stupid with each other because for some reason they can't connect. They can't see each other for who they are.

And that's really my hope, ultimately, is when I think of my vision: it's to build a more curious world. And what's a more curious world? It's a world that sees itself. Because a lot of times we just don't want to see, for whatever reason, we don't want to show, for whatever reason—we don't trust each other. We don't trust the contexts in which we attempt to share where we come from. So we don't, or we misrepresent ourselves, or we misrepresent others, or we attack—or we oh, gosh, it's a mess. Right? It's a mess. But but we tell a lot of the same stories over and over again because it is something that I think the human spirit needs. We need these stories, and we need this way of connecting to each other. Even if we make up the stories, we recognize something in it that's true. And I find movies and fiction to be so powerful on that front. For us to imagine situations we have not been in and actually be able to feel what that character might be feeling is an extraordinary gift.


“And what we end up doing is we feel like what we're doing is we're approaching an invalid idea. Instead of what we're doing being we're approaching a valid person. I think it's important to begin there.”

I want to go back and ask you a little bit more about your parents. This was a part of your book and your story that I found really fascinating, because it really echoed a lot of my own experience. I also was raised in a Republican household, and until I went to college in LA, pretty much everyone I knew was a Republican, especially my parents, and pretty much everyone in my social circle was a born-again Christian. I didn't really have a reason to question that worldview, so I just sort of went along with it.

And then you know the story from here: I spent my twenties in the bastions of liberal civilization and all that sort of stuff, and my views changed and everything. But I retained this really deep sympathy for that initial worldview that I grew up with. And I felt like, in a way, this has been a kind of advantage over my friends who were raised in a liberal environment—is that I feel like I have this really deep-seated appreciation for why someone would hold conservative beliefs or a Christian worldview.

And a lot of my peers back home, maybe their views also changed, but they didn't really retain that sympathy. There's a lot of feelings of kind of being betrayed, or lied to even, in a way that they don't seem to be able to forgive yet. And bringing it back to your book, you cite lots of stories of people who are not able to overcome this ideological conflict with their family. So from that particular lens, what is it about your particular experience with your parents beyond just having those differences that allowed you to seek that desire for understanding? Why are you able to disagree and get along with your family so well when so many others aren't?

I mean, it's difficult to answer that question declaratively or in any kind of final way. So I consider it very much an open question, something I'm still exploring. It was something that drove a lot of the book's research and reflection: just how come it works for us? It doesn't make sense. It's really hard. It ought to be really hard.

And it is really hard. I like to make that clear too—that again, it's not like we're Zen masters of this. We yell all the time about this stuff, and it can get mean. But I think part of what's happened is over time we've built up a lot of trust so that even when we do sort of insult or get pretty close to the bone, it still doesn't get that dangerous in terms of our relationship.

So there's a lot to that that I didn't address in this book because it's more about how you build deep relationships, right? And how loving or supportive those relationships feel. So I think that that is a factor. Some relationships feel thin or thinner or like all along it has been not to bring up really challenging things and so the muscles haven't been worked on that as well.

But another thing is that with family there's expectations. So when we encounter strangers and we start talking, you know—there there's a sense of safety because they can't disappoint us all that much. We don't have a certain associational relationship with them. But I think with family members, sometimes we carry it with us. That how could my mother believe X? How could my sister do Y? How could someone who is close to me and therefore I somehow need to speak for do these things? And so I think also expectations are a piece of it where we it's hard to just get past that. How could you? How could you? How could you? But you can turn the how could you to how could you? Wait, let me let me turn that from a judgment to an actual question of curiosity. There is a reason, and it's not that there are bad people. So what is the reason?

And so that was what happened with my parents and myself. “Wait a minute. How could you? This flies in the face of things I understand about you, so explain it to me.” I write in the book about one night that me and my dad got into a great conversation and we happened to go to this kind of jazz show because we both love music. And before the big show started, we just ended up in a really deep conversation where I was just: “explain your views on written immigration to me.” But I didn't actually say, “Explain your opinion on immigration.” We didn't talk about immigration hardly at all. It was more like, tell me your story, dad. Like, take me for a walk through what it was like in Mexico and then to move your family to the United States. How did you grow up into this? And he told me these wonderful things that, in my mind, just fleshed out that story, that nuanced story of who he is and the how could you not support a much more free flowing immigration policy? And now I know the answer, and it wasn't because I just shouted that question at him over and over again.

I think what I want to ask you about are some of the themes that you've described either in the book or in other conversations that I've heard that really resonated with me and just kind of have you explain a little bit more about what they mean. And I'll ask some followup questions about that.

But one of the things that story kind of reminds me of is this quote that I have from you about how trying to change people is a way of saying you don't accept them. And it sounds a lot like the principle that you're using, especially in engaging with your father in that example: “Let's hear you out, and let's worry about changing things later on.” So can you say a little bit about what that means?

Yeah, it brings me back to another point that I'm still deeply kind of processing, which is my conviction that listening is about showing people they matter. I don't believe people can truly hear unless they feel heard, which puts us in a chicken and egg situation. When we get together with someone who disagrees with us and neither of us feels heard, somebody has to be the first one to basically—in their gesture, their words, their posture, their tone—communicate: “I accept you. So tell me about yourself. I am interested, I am curious. Tell me your story. Flesh out this or that piece of things.”

More often than not, when it comes to these political issues, we come in with so much heat. We've already made lots of judgments about people who could possibly believe this or that. And what we end up doing is we feel like what we're doing is we're approaching an invalid idea. Instead of what we're doing being we're approaching a valid person. I think it's important to begin there. Whatever the idea, you are approaching a valid person. Everybody is a valid person and in my view, everybody matters. So begin there. Their ideas are different. Their ideas are unsavory, their ideas are confounding, their ideas are horrible to you—but they are still a person and we have to contend with that.

So yeah, there is a level of acceptance when you begin a conversation or a disagreement or a debate, basically by attacking, attacking, attacking the idea, it feels like you're attacking the person. It feels like you're not accepting the person. Then all the person will want to do is defend themselves and pretty soon you're not even really exploring your perspectives candidly anyway. They aren't, and you aren't. And you end up just thinking, what's the weapon I can hurl at them? What's the talking point I've seen work on social media? Let me throw that at them and see if it blows them up.

But what will never happen is that you're going to throw one of these memes and they're going to go, oh my God, you're right. No, not after that kind of hostility. We have pride, we have dignity. That's not how we behave with each other. If you do want persuasion to work, which it can, you have to keep dignity, you know, and you have to show them that they matter.

And being curious about them is one of the greatest ways to do that and to keep that posture. So that's where persuasion is most effective. Right? When people feel like you get them and you begin to speak each other's language, you know their values a little bit, they know yours. Now you can deliver insights to each other that might actually impact how you think about things. So you mentioned this notion that everyone is a valid person. Even if you don't think they have valid ideas, they themselves are valid.

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“But they're wrong because the conversation about what is true is not the only conversation you can have. You can have the conversation about what is meaningful.”

And that reminds me of another point that I hear you make, which is that and this is quoting you, “meaning is in people, not words”. And also your concepts about shifting from what's true to what's meaningful and asking people what are your concerns and sort of reframing things as opposed to this ideological conflict over the nature of verifiable reality and all that sort of stuff. You're saying, tell me what matters to you. And I feel like that's really in line with that framing of let's not talk about which ideas are valid off the bat. Let's start with a respect for the validity of each other's experience and then work from there.

Exactly. Yeah. Meaning is in people, not words is a very profound statement for me and it comes from a lot of places and I'm already seeing the scenes in my mind. Sometimes I wish I could be like data from Star Trek to Next Generation and just kind of download—we just link up by cable and you see what I mean. Right? But that's actually the point: Meaning is in people, not in words. Language is a tool for communicating our meaning.

And so it's particularly tragic when we use language as a weapon to tell other people that they're bad. And we do this a lot when language becomes a battleground and a reason to say you're stupid because you just called this this and you did this here and you don't know what you're talking about. But what's the game we're playing? Is the game we're playing trying to get an A plus in a certain type of jargon? Or is the game we're playing trying to understand each other? Because if that's the game, then everyone's doing their best to try to articulate and communicate what's in their hearts. But if we judge everybody by their language, then think about who you are prioritizing. Right? You're prioritizing the savvy speaker, the intellectual, and you're not necessarily prioritizing the ordinary person, but everyone is a valid person. Everyone has had experience in life. Everyone is an expert on their own life.

So I just look at it very differently, that sometimes it's on the listener to try to understand the language in which the other person can fully speak their meaning instead of holding the other person to some kind of linguistic litmus test. So I find that really important. And in my journalism, I have found it really, really important. Some of the projects that I've done have been about trying to make sure that people who aren't usually put on stage or given a voice have a way of expressing their stories. And people, some people are not born communicators, so we help them. I want to help them do that because I think we can learn from each other and we shouldn't put these kinds of things in our way. So that's it. Languages has to be a medium through which we communicate meaning, but not the end of it. Not the place where we judge whether someone's meaning is good or complete it's in the person themselves. So find other ways to get to it.

And then you had brought up another point, another quote or another piece that was tied to that: The concept of what is true versus what is meaningful. And that's inspired deeply by my friend Buster Benson and the book he wrote, Why Are We Yelling? which is a great book. And I think that basically what happens is that we often want to have the conversation about what is true. When we are having disagreements, it seems like the only conversation to have, the only one that's relevant or good or possible. But we get really stuck on that conversation really easily when we're so divided.

People talk about having different facts, different realities. And so then what do you do? You just insist on your reality, and then we'll watch the other person reject it over and over again. People think that they have to stop talking, and that there's no place to go from there. But they're wrong because the conversation about what is true is not the only conversation you can have. You can have the conversation about what is meaningful. So step back from facts and agreed upon interpretations of certain events and turn to the person that valid person and try to understand what's meaningful to them. What concerns you about abortion or immigration? What do you hope to see happen in the conversation about guns? What personal experiences come to mind when you think about your position on this? And then you get a human picture and you get an original picture of this person's actual self instead of them borrowing talking points to try to survive your attacks. That's not what we want. And the best thing about it is the conversation about what is meaningful is the only conversation that builds trust. And I think that's the thing that's dried up. We talk about restoring truth. You can't do it without restoring trust.

There's another idea that I want to bring in here. It's a slightly different point, but one that I think is kind of helpful to put in juxtaposition to what you're talking about here. And it has to do with a lot of the stuff that we're talking about, particularly in politically charged arguments, there is this sort of feeling that what we're litigating is this high stakes ideological value of what's right and what's wrong. And the stakes are so high and oftentimes what's helpful—and maybe just talking about things where people are conflicting ideas in general, not just politics—is holding one's ideas lightly.

And this makes me think of something that I used to really consider a lot when I was younger, particularly in college. And it's about how I used to think of trying on opinions like trying on clothes. If you don't put it on and walk around in it for a bit, how are you going to know if it fits or not? And so I really love this idea because it sort of takes aim at the assumption that we can think our way through the implications of every idea and for any idea that you hold or any sort of larger position that you take. It's going to interact with other beliefs that you hold and different kinds of experiences that you're going to have and that sort of stuff.

And I think if you're going to adopt a given belief as a core part of who you are and something that's foundational and unimpeachable and that sort of stuff, then there should be a rule that you first need to spend two weeks going through life holding the opposite point of view. And then once you've done that great. You're totally allowed to believe the other thing for the rest of your life. But the thing is, I suspect that if you go through life really trying on the other belief and sincerely trying to see the world through that lens, it might really temper your certainty about that initial position.

Yeah, I absolutely love that. It reminds me a mentor of mine in journalism, Tom Rosenstein, who's just fabulous. He told me about an editor at an alternative weekly who was talking to a reporter. And the reporter said, I want to do more advocacy journalism. I want to write more of an advocacy piece on this particular issue. But the editors basically said, yeah, you can do that. But first I want you to deeply understand as generously as you can all the points of view in this issue. That's when you're kind of green lit to just argue for the just kind of have the one and speak from that lens. And he talks about that as an ideal in journalism when there's a storytelling institution that carries such weight and power in helping us all understand each other.

I think it's a great goal that those folks should go through an exercise that's similar to what you're talking about, generously open your mind and fully explore why good people believe different things. And a lot of people get stuck on the good people part. They believe that only bad people can believe certain things. But that's something to really stop and challenge when you have that kind of assumption. So I love that. I think that that's very wise, very difficult to do, and for sure not something we can do with everything.

I also love what you said about challenging the assumption that we can think our way through any idea that just in a couple of minutes I can just completely destroy this other point of view in my head and then I don't need to think about it anymore. But like you said, when you wear an idea, when you put it on and you look at the world through it, you'll see maybe some of the good in it that you didn't see before. You'll understand what it adds to a life to look at the world that way. There could be all kinds of things you discover.

And I love what you said about we so often think this all comes down to reason and rationality and logic, because again, we're kind of a technophilic society. Everything should be countable and logic-y and that's it. It's like you add it up and you subtract it. And math has one final answer and if it has a lot, then you haven't done your work. But that's not humanity. Never has been, never will be. We're not going to calculate and quantify everything. It's not going to happen. Some things you do just there's a sense, there's an intangible to everything. People are very frustrated, I think, by the fact that you can't turn all this into some formula. They prefer it when we think we can.

So far we've mostly been talking about these kind of mechanisms for understanding, I guess you could say, whereas a lot of what it comes down to in the situations that we're talking about is not necessarily your strategy for understanding others—and that is important, there's no doubt about that—but it has to do with your motivation for understanding others. And that's why I think curiosity is so central to all of the arguments that you find yourself making and that sort of stuff because it has to start with this desire to overcome whatever kind of ideological obstacles are there.

And so I want to kind of frame this in terms of problems of contact and geography and all this sort of stuff. So you're talking about if you, Monica, write a piece of journalism and it's making an argument for a liberal policy or something like that, what are the chances that that is going to make it onto the desk of a Republican who is in a place to really deeply and sympathetically consider that? And the answer is that increasingly in our society for both technological and kind of logistical reasons of how people are self segregating into different ideological factions, the answer is not very often. And so there has to be an ever increasingly large motivation to want to overcome whatever that boundary is and then our toolkit of understanding and sort of conversational strategies really comes into play.

So how do you think about the problem of building up that motivational impetus to want to overcome whatever geographical or other kinds of boundaries are in between us and people who we don't necessarily agree with?

You named a lot in that. It often is geographic blue zip codes are getting blue or red zip codes are getting redder. Sometimes it's about opportunity, not motive. It's difficult to spontaneously run into someone and then discover that they disagree with you in some key way and then build from there. So there's a sense of helplessness, I think people feel, where they go, well, how can I even do this? How do I even begin? And I think it helps to see things differently because I think that some of these narratives we tell ourselves about how we're divided have closed too many doors.

So for example, I talk about how we're so divided, we're blinded. And it's not just one side looking at the other. A lot of the most captivating emails I've gotten from readers of the book, both on the left and right, talk about how they feel that they can't give their true opinions to people on their own side. So even when we think we're surrounded by people who agree with us, of course we're not. There's plenty of places you disagree. It's just that there's this expectation that you shouldn't and so it's it's equally important, I would say, to make sure that you can see the nuance even within a side. So yeah, even if you are surrounded, if you're blue surrounded by blue, red surrounded by red—trust me, there are interesting conversations to be had and you can crack open assumptions that you have about what you believe and find some fascinating stories.

This happens particularly often with guns and abortion, I've noticed, where people go “I just assumed you thought so and so because you and I vote the same way or whatever” and people are like “no, here's what happened to me, here's how I think about it differently.” So that's one.

The other is that while it is true that we are sorted into like minded groups in extraordinary ways that are hard to overcome, it's also true that one person has never had more access to more different perspectives in the history of the world. The internet is motivated, it's built to give people what they want—the attention economy, get eyeballs to stick on someplace or whatnot. But with the right strategy you can turn that on its head. I find this to be effective with certain communities that are really kind of just articulate with each other. So for example, on subreddits on Reddit, there's some wonderful communities that you can go in and just kind of read how a certain community of belief talks to itself and it's really cool, it's really revealing, right? A lot of times we want to go into those communities and just raise hell because we disagree but we can do something very different which is listen. So even on the internet, where it was much harder to have these kinds of interactions, there's a lot of difference that you can run into. So that's also important.

But I guess the bigger point is that it is so much about approach and a place like the internet still the internet is a non-place that makes us into non-people. It is difficult to be in that place of “I'm approaching a valid person” when that person has a little cartoon character for an avatar and behaves like a jerk. How you see the person there, all you can do is your id and your ego are just constantly being pummeled in your mind.

And here's the other piece of helplessness people feel: they think that that one conversation they could have with that relative or that coworker isn't enough—that it won't move the needle. But what I say is it's absolutely required. It may be insufficient, but we're not going to change without that. Because as you said, people have divided and split off into so many of these silos. The trust isn't being built anymore in between those places. So the only place where we can have high trust is where there are preexisting relationships. So when you do go to Thanksgiving or you do go to your holiday dinners or you do hang out with your family that you usually don't see who thinks very differently from you, it's true that there actually could be a lot of power. And if you just establish enough trust to help each other empathize in a different way with the opposite point of view, it's extraordinary how that travels.

So at Braver Angels—which is the nonprofit I work at—it's the largest cross-partisan nonprofit working to depolarize America. I see this over and over again where just a handful of reds and blues will get together in a workshop and in a structured setting, they'll be able to see each other's points of view in a more curious way. And it really kind of makes them go, Whoa. What that means is that the next time that they read an article that dehumanizes the other side, or the next time that they're tempted to just make a rash judgment, they'll remember that experience that they had and they'll pause. So it does extend beyond that one conversation and it also shows that that's how bad things have gotten, right? Where we're so certain of these assumptions we have of each other that one counter example will go a long way.

… to hear the full conversation, you can pick up in the audio version around 39’.

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Monica’s three books that have most influenced her:

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Meaning Lab
Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.