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Your Trump-loving uncle is not evil (and neither is your Biden-loving aunt)

If we’re going to hold this country together, we must break the cycle of dehumanizing political opponents

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A white truck has American flags and Trump 2020 flags in the tailgate.

Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

We no longer see our political opponents as simply wrong or misguided.

We see them as bad people.

Evil, ill-intentioned, dangerous people who represent a threat to all that we hold dear.

More and more, we’ve come to see huge swaths of our fellow Americans as enemies who must be defeated at all costs.

And we are approaching a reality in which violent language is morphing into violent action. 

While the number of people prepared to truly engage in political violence is small, the number of Americans willing to tolerate or excuse violence is growing rapidly.

A 2018 study from the University of Maryland found that 15%-20% of Americans, across the political divide, agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans “just died.”

And an even more recent study from the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year found that 1 in 3 Americans now believe that violence is justified if they feel that our elected leaders have failed to protect the country.

Once we’ve begun to dehumanize our political opponents, we’ve started down a vicious cycle whose only logical conclusion is violence.

If we’re going to hold this country together, we must break this cycle.

And that’s going to require changing how we think about conflict and how we approach political conversations.

No, we don’t need to be afraid of conflict. We need to learn how to make progress through conflict, rather than despite conflict.

It starts by acknowledging our differences. We can’t ignore them to pretend we’re all united— because we’re not. We have deep disagreements in this country with profound consequences for justice, truth and safety.

But maybe we can at least agree we are all human beings worthy of dignity and respect. And for better or worse, we’re all in this together.

Then, we can do something else together: really, honestly hear each other out. This means better conversations.  

If I go into a conversation trying to show someone why they’re wrong — or show them why their facts are wrong — they’re immediately going to get defensive. They’re either going to try to shut down the conversation or escalate it into a fight. 

But what if I go in with the goal of understanding the other side’s point of view and then expressing my own, without an overriding expectation that I’ll persuade them?

What if I treat the conversation as an opportunity to learn and be heard, rather than an opportunity to merely convince or persuade?

If you trust that the person you’re talking to is actually trying to understand your point of view — rather than beat you or humiliate you — you’re a lot more likely to transform your conflict into an opportunity for building a relationship that naturally illuminates shared values. 

From our own work trying to bridge divides and reduce polarization between liberals and conservatives over the last decade, here are some simple tips for conversations that build trust, rather than contempt:

  • First, try to understand others’ viewpoints before responding with your own.
  • Try using “I statements” (like “this is how I see it”) rather than truth statements (like “This is how it is!”). 
  • Try sharing your own perspective rather than simply making broad pronouncements. 
  • Try asking people about their own lived experiences and what’s led them to their position. This will help people explain why they feel the way they do, in a way that’s unique to them. 

There are also certain things to avoid if you want to have a constructive conversation:

  • First off, try to avoid raising your voice and getting agitated. Even something as simple as taking a breath before you speak or respond can help you avoid counterproductive escalation.
  • Try to avoid asking “gotcha” questions rather than questions of understanding. A “gotcha” question is a question that sets the other person up to look stupid or ignorant or cruel, versus a question designed to actually understand what someone thinks.  
  • Try to avoid taking the worst characteristics you see in certain politicians and then ascribing it to anyone who supports that politician. Making these assumptions makes people feel like you are intentionally misrepresenting them.

All of these do’s and don’ts could all be summarized in one overarching tip: Try to respect the worth and dignity of the person you’re talking to, even if you are dumbfounded or appalled by their views.  

Yes, this is hard work, and it can be painful. But transforming conflict doesn’t require us to compromise our values or come to some kind of false centrist compromise. 

Instead, what it takes is rethinking our approach to conflict — and using it as an opportunity to grow relationships rather than destroy them, foster peace rather than violence, and ultimately work together to improve our country. 

Ciaran O’Connor is a leader at Braver Angels, a national nonprofit working to depolarize America.