The USF College of Arts and Sciences’ (CAS) Democracy and Citizenship Speaker Series, co-sponsored with the Judy Genshaft Honors College, featured journalist and author Mónica Guzmán and ways to hold conversations with those of opposing political views.
Her discussion, “How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” held March 28 at USF’s Charles William Young Hall, was open to the public and filled the auditorium.
Guzmán is a Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, the nation’s largest cross-participant grassroots organization working to “depolarize America,” and founder and CEO of Reclaim Curiosity, an organization working to build “a more curious world.”
Her book, "I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times" was a New York Times recommended read and she has been named one of the 50 most influential women in Seattle, serving twice as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes.
She’s also a Mexican immigrant and a proud “liberal daughter of conservative parents,” as she self-describes.
“Many of my colleagues are interested in the negative effects of partisan polarization,” Solomon said during his opening remarks. “Tonight’s event will provide us with important tools to help us have fearless conversations with those who think very differently than we do.”
USF senior Sam Recheck, a student in the Judy Genshaft Honors College majoring in philosophy and political science with a minor in economics and history and the founding president of the First Amendment Forum—a student organization hosting weekly discussions on contentious issues—served as moderator for the discussion and Dr. Matt Reichel, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Digital Communication, joined the conversation as a panelist.
“We have plenty of research showing us that when one side of the political divide is asked to estimate the views of the other, they make gross exaggerations, wild misperceptions. And, it happens on both sides,” Guzmán said. “So, the question becomes, how can we pretend to be informed if we're not informed about each other? If we're informed about the events of the world, but we're not informed about people's perspectives?”
Guzmán stressed that such an increase in polarization creates a cycle of judgment with less engagement with others.
“We’re so polarized, we’re paralyzed,” she said.
This polarization is the result of something Guzmán described as “S.O.S.”—sorting, othering and siloing.
She says sorting is our tendency to be around people who are like us, othering is our natural tendency to subtly discriminate and put distance between ourselves and anyone different than us, and siloing are the stories we hear and don’t hear accurately.
So, what can we do to overcome this? Guzmán said curiosity is key.
“It’s asking the question, ‘What are your concerns?’ It’s not the ‘why’—why is this your stance on guns? Why is this your stance on immigration? But, instead, what are you concerned about?” Guzmán said.
Guzmán said the simplicity of asking about concerns opens the door for deeper conversations.
“People will say what they feel safest to say. They will say what they have seen on social media and say what others have taken shelter under. They’ll give the processed stuff, but [you should] ask, ‘what else?’” she said.
Guzmán also said a key element to engaging in difficult conversations is story sharing.
“There's research that shows that people understand each other's moral beliefs better when it comes in the form of a story, especially if it's a story about struggle,” she said.
A key principle to having a conversation with others is the importance of making sure others feel heard, according to Guzmán.
“People can only hear when they're heard,” she said. “We need to be seen on some level to then feel like we can give that gift back.”
Guzmán reiterated that “anger is a force that protects what is loved.”
“Heat in a conversation is good, but the distinction is whether its burning or cooking something,” she said.
When discussions are reaching that boiling point, she recommends taking a break from the conversation and to go back to it later.
She closed with a reminder that “curiosity is contagious.”
“In a dangerously divided world, if you are not curious, you’re not going to see the world,” she said. “We cannot rely on the default settings of our world right now. We must check and balance with actual conversations with real people or else there's so much we're not going to see. And curiosity begins by turning an assumption into a question. So, this is the great news, curiosity is not a personality trait. It's a practice.”
The next Democracy and Citizenship Speakers Series on “Media Literacy and Information Quality in the Digital Age,” will take place on April 18.