After the Tucson shooting — which is when we first aired my interview with Elizabeth Alexander — phrases like “social healing,” “moral imagination,” and “civil discourse” entered our public life for a brief moment.
But those words themselves couldn’t address the divisions and hostilities in American culture now. We have no prominent models, no public habits of navigating difference, that demonstrate what social healing would look like. We’ve locked historic discussions of our meaning and purpose as a nation, as well as large intimate open questions of sexuality and family, into adversarial debates. We don’t merely disagree; we demonize, making the bridging of gulfs between us unthinkable. And now we are watching this play itself out in the halls of Congress in an extreme and tragic way.
So this summer we’ve pulled together our civil conversations of the past year as a well of cumulative wisdom. For the next six weeks, we’ll offer them up side by side as a resource of ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.
As far back as the election of 2010, the Evangelical thinker and educator Richard Mouw put a fine point on what became an animating question for this series. I’d offer this as a fine question for our public life moving forward: Can we find new ways to treat each other, to live together, even while holding passionate disagreement? The hard truth is, we are not going to reach agreement on many of the issues before us any time soon.
Indeed, from inside one of the most fractious of all issues — that of abortion — Frances Kissling provocatively suggests that our single-minded fixation on resolving conflict, of getting on the same page, “works against really understanding each other, and we don’t understand each other.”
The pragmatism and hopefulness of these conversations start there — in pointing us at basic action, new beginnings we can set in motion, that bring us back from the impossible task of resolving lightning rod issues by bringing others around to our point of view. The philosopher Anthony Appiah, who has studied how seemingly impossible social change happens in societies across time, proposes "sidling up" to difference. What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”
The magnificent civil rights elder and veteran Vincent Harding reminds us gently that we should not be surprised that this kind of simple association with real difference is hard. We are “a developing nation” when it comes to navigating the 21st century’s magnitude of pluralism and change. He has unexpected, hopeful thoughts on how the leadership for this new era will surprise us too.
And Sherry Turkle, who created MIT’s evocatively titled Initiative on Technology and Self, is an empowering voice with her insight into how technology is shaping human relationship on private and public levels. She insists that we can and must shape it to human purposes.
We begin the series, though, with Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisite wisdom on the power of words to be weapons and to be tools in reaching across the puzzling, utterly predictable “gulf” between human beings. By way of poetry, she asks, “Are we not of interest to each other?” If this question accompanied our more usual focus on who is right and who is wrong — even in our most embattled political spaces — how could it change our debates, our approaches to each other, the possibilities we might live into? For that is the challenge before us — to transform these things in the service of the common life we want for ourselves and our children.
We hope this series will be a contribution to it. And we’d love to hear from you.