By Kerra L. Bolton
The COVID-19 virus forced a global slowdown of communities, schools, businesses, and financial markets as countries scramble to contain the spread of the pandemic.
With deep reverence and respect for those who are most at-risk of the disease and those at the frontlines of the virus, I hope the societal changes the pandemic engenders will spark a “revolution by conversation.”
Social distancing and sheltering in place have become the new norm at the time of this writing. Virtual potlucks, video conferencing, and online campfires replace the way we live, work, and play.
And let’s face it, there’s only so much binge-watching you can do on Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services. At some point, we will have to turn to each other and say something other than, “Can you pass the remote?”
Perhaps the crisis, as awful as it is, came just in time.
The social and public conversations about the issues that matter in the United States and elsewhere lacked two important ingredients – civility and discourse.
For example, during the Democratic presidential primary, supporters of various candidates blamed, bullied, and barked at each other to vote for their nominee and were frustrated when the tactic failed. Then, the same people lamented when the diverse field of candidates narrowed to two, old, white men without asking why.
The “why” is important because it will tell us things we can never get from a poll, campaign ad, or talking heads segment. The “why” tells us what our friends, neighbors, and co-workers are really concerned about, the America they hope to live in, and how they want to get there.
Revolution by Conversation
Building a New Reality founder Ted Wachtel first introduced me to the concept of “revolution by conversation.”
It’s the idea, as Ted says, that “given the right context, ordinary people are capable of remarkable outcomes.” Tools like participatory learning and decision-making, restorative practices, citizens assemblies, and deliberative democracy “represent a dramatic improvement in the way human beings interact.” One of Ted’s chief aims is to achieve “democracy in everyday life” by listening to one another.
Revolution by conversation clicked for me when I read a social media post by a frustrated progressive friend who asked for the umpteenth time why her friends supported President Donald Trump. One person responded, “Because he’s the only person who loves America and cares about America.”
We can debate the truth of the commenter’s statement. However, it would be more important to ask them, “What does it mean to ‘love’ and ‘care’ about America? How do such sentiments benefit you and your family? How do you think it drives policy decisions? Why is it important to you?”
From their answers, we get more than a hillbilly elegy. We get what matters most to people and why they vault patriotism over the mountains of criticism leveled at Trump during his presidency. His supporters aren’t dumb or lack a moral compass. We either have different values or different expressions of the same values. But we’ll continue to be mired in tribalism if we don’t talk to each other.
America in One Room
Dr. James Fishkin, a Stanford University professor, quantified the idea in his “America in One Room” experiment conducted last fall in Dallas.
The deliberative polling experiment hosted a cross-section of 526 people who represented the voting public at an all-expenses-paid weekend to discuss their views on subjects ranging from the Affordable Care Act to immigration. Participants received a non-partisan briefing book before the event, discussed the issues in small groups, and were surveyed before and after the weekend to gauge whether their views changed.
Fishkin and his colleagues concluded that when you strip issues of dog-whistles and tribalism, voters are “likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic.”
Empathy is sorely missed in political and social discussions when one group of people ignores or dismisses the concerns of another. There are emotional, physical, and financial needs often underscoring a person’s political position that we won’t know unless we ask. We cannot get to those answers through shaming, blaming, and lecturing.
A New Reality
Whether the societal slowdown ignited by the COVID-19, global, pandemic lasts for six weeks or six months, we will all be changed by it in unforeseen ways.
In the United States and other countries, the governmental and institutional responses to the virus reveal the societal fissures that have always been there but concealed under veils of busyness, social media, tribalism, and uncivil discourse.
A new reality will be created as a result of the pandemic through our daily actions and how we treat each other. The spread and response to the virus prove we cannot function by remaining in ideological silos and hoping things will “just take care of themselves.” In Ted’s words, we must have a “revolution by conversation.”
The United States and other countries paralyzed by social and political discord before the advent of the COVID-19 could be worse off after the virus if we don’t develop better ways of relating to each other. We need a revolution by conversation. Our very survival depends on it.
To learn more about how to start a revolution by conversation, please check out our blog series, “Restorative Culture in a New Reality.”