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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

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Opinion: Is this really how we get America to talk?

I recently took part in the inaugural “America Talks” event, which virtually brought hundreds of participants together to simply have a conversation with someone on “the other side.” A short quiz determined my general political leanings, and I got matched with a woman who responded more or less opposite from me. After sitting through a 20-minute orientation video hammering the principles of respectful dialogue, we were left by ourselves to talk.

How did it go?

When the topic turned to climate change, my partner expressed concern about the warmer winters in New Jersey, which allow invasive insects to eat away at trees. I shared my dismay about the dwindling snowpack in Utah and our record-breaking drought. She wants action, I want a focus on stewardship. We both want a healthier planet.

When I brought up how disheartening it is to see politicians perform for social media rather than legislate for their constituents, she emphatically agreed. I listened with a heavy heart as she told me about the racial discrimination she’s faced, and she nodded along when I shared my frustration about people misunderstanding my faith.

If you were an outsider listening in, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were on the same “team,” and maybe that’s because America isn’t as divided as we think.

In a landmark experiment from 2019 dubbed “America in One Room,” researchers brought together 523 voters — a scientifically representative sample of the country — and had them discuss politics and policy for four days. They interacted with each other in small groups, mostly unaware of each others’ political loyalties. They heard from presidential candidates and read a 55-page handbook of policy proposals that gave little mention as to what “side” the propositions came from.

When asked by reporters if any of it had changed their minds, “no” was a common response. But the researchers found something different.

Across the board, the participants seemed to meet in the middle. The most polarizing proposals lost sway among group members. Support among Republicans for reducing the number of refugees allowed to settle in the U.S. dropped by half after the conference was over. Democratic support for a $15 minimum wage went from 83% to 59%.

Most heartening was the percentage of participants saying American democracy is “working well,” which doubled to 60% from 30%.

And all it took was for people to have honest, face-to-face conversations … plus a $3 million donation to fly 523 people to Texas, put them up in a hotel, feed them, prepare written materials for them and curate a four-day agenda.

Those parameters make the thought of large-scale replication laughable, and like the “America Talks” event, the constraints on the participants make for a more artificial interaction than people otherwise would have if talking over dinner.

Yet, it’s telling that these aren’t the only groups hoping to make ripples from pebbles. There’s Braver Angels, The Civil Conversations Project, Crossing Party Lines, Days of Dialogue, Intelligence Squared, Living Room Conversations, More in Common and about 28 other organizations listed by Columbia’s Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. All have roughly the same mission: turn down the volume, find substantive solutions and see each other as human beings.

It shows the market for civility is wide open, which says more about the sad state of ourselves than the determination of the social entrepreneurs running these groups. More than 8 in 10 Americans say our political discourse has become more toxic in recent years, and it’s a strain to think the remaining 2 in 10 are responsible for the decline. Thus, even as society recognizes the problem, it isn’t so interested in fixing it — or maybe it doesn’t know how. Far easier to retreat to silos of opinion than engage in the difficult work of compassionate listening.

Which, to our discomfort, justifies the regimented attempts to save our dialogue. Like landing ourselves in remedial driving lessons, we can’t be trusted to stay the course and expect a different outcome. We’ve squandered the luxury of having 1940s-like decency as a starting point: “If manners are the small change of morality, we’ve gone bankrupt a few cents at a time,” Mona Charen wrote last week. We need coaching and structure and boundaries; and it’s going to be uncomfortable as old habits die.

But it doesn’t take a flight to Texas to get it done. “If you are on social media, on a college campus or in any place other than a cave by yourself, you will be treated with contempt very soon,” says Arthur Brooks. “This is a chance to change at least one heart — yours.”

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