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Shining a Light Beyond Polarization

The article, Shining a Light Beyond Polarization by Jessica Weaver was published April 20, 2016 on Public Conversations Project blog. She reflects on the recent tendency in our National discourse to focus on division and how many is discourse often refuse to see the “other side”. Weaver shares a personal experience at a women’s leadership conference which reveals how experiences are greater and more complex that polarizing narratives often give describe.

Below is an excerpt from the article and you can find the original in full on Public Conversations Project blog here.

From Public Conversations Project…

Mikulski_PCParticleInstead of bemoaning how partisan bickering had stymied their work, Senator Barbara Mikulski (pictured center) was almost indignant. “That’s not the whole story,” she said, and argued that in fact this had been one of the most productive years for women in the Senate that she could remember. And she would know: Mikulski started a monthly bipartisan dinner group just for female senators that encourages relationships between women across the aisle, and creates mentorship opportunities between generations of politicians.

The exchange made me think about something we talk about often at Public Conversations: the danger of focusing solely on conflict, especially in binary terms. By rehearsing the narrative of polarization, we are at one level simply making reference to a political reality, but at another, are pushing a wheel over the same groove, in jeopardy of deepening the schism. The story is self-fulfilling, according to recent research out of University of California – Berkeley, titled “Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization,” which concluded that citizens across the political spectrum perceive one another’s views as being more extreme than they really are:

“Thus, citizens appear to consider peers’ positions within public debate when forming their own opinions and adopt slightly more extreme positions as a consequence.” In other words, being inundated with information about polarization doesn’t make us more moderate, it makes us more extreme.

This is a difficult position: how can we acknowledge the realities of deep conflicts without reinforcing narratives that are devoid of anything else? The question isn’t just relevant for polarization or other identity-based conflicts; it’s a question about how to discuss humanity’s most destructive creations – hate, bigotry, fear – without letting negativity define the whole story. I think an important answer lies in choosing to “shine a light on the good and the beautiful,” in the elegant language of writer and Muslim thinker Omid Safi. He writes, “Why shine the spotlight on the hate? This is somehow part of our national discourse. Someone does something offensive and crazy, and we immediately advertise it. But I do wonder about the mindset of always being quick to rush to publicize bigotry against us — and forget about the many who rise to connect their humanity with ours.” He ends his reflection by naming specific people whose work he wants to “shine a light on.”

So, Senator Mikulski and your dinner companions, I want to shine a light on you. Perhaps more importantly, I want to shine more lights in this often black or white world. This isn’t a call to end conversations that are challenging, simply to make space for celebrating good work that is of equal importance in the stories we tell. As Safi concludes:

“So, friends, let us stand next to one another, shoulder to shoulder, mirroring the good and the beautiful. Shine a light on the good. Applaud the good. Become an advocate of the good and the beautiful. Let us hang on to the faith that ultimately light overcomes darkness, and love conquers hate. It is the only thing that ever has, ever will, and does today.”

About Public Conversations ProjectPCP_logo
Public Conversations Project fosters constructive conversation where there is conflict driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values. We work locally, nationally, and globally to provide dialogue facilitation, training, consultation, and coaching. We help groups reduce stereotyping and polarization while deepening trust and collaboration and strengthening communities.

Follow on Twitter: @pconversations

Resource Link: http://publicconversations.org/blog/shining-light-beyond-polarization

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