Bridging the Gap: Dialogue across Difference in a Time of Political Polarization
In a time of intense and often hostile political polarization, do we bridge the gap of our political, ideological, and experiential differences to understand and work together to seek a common good? This group winter term project aims to offer a team of 10 Oberlin students three opportunities to explore this question: 1) a classroom experience designed to build dialogue skills with nationally recognized facilitator and organizer Simon Greer; 2) a visit to a conservative liberal arts college in Michigan to practice these skills, after which both groups will meet with leaders from a state criminal justice reform initiative that utilized such dialogue practices to envision change; and 3) the development of small group projects in which students from both colleges will collaborate to envision ways these skills might be applied to a range of social challenges.
There has never been a more important time to seek opportunities to bridge the gap. A recent study by the non-profit, non-partisan research organization PRRI showed that 45% of Democrats would be unhappy if their son or daughter married someone who is a Republican. This is up from 4% in 1960 and is in stark contrast to the percentage of Democrats who say they would be unhappy with their child marrying someone who belongs to a different religious group (10%) or marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity (8%). This unease about marrying across party lines is shared by Republicans, 35% of whom would by unhappy about their child marrying a Democrat. A separate survey published this past January found that 42% of Democrats and Republicans view the opposition as “downright evil”. This equates to nearly 50 million voters in the 2016 presidential election holding this view.
Why is there such a growing divide? Kevin Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has written that humans “as a species we’re pretty hard wired to make ‘us v them’ categorizations.” This tendency is exploited by powerful forces driven by power and profits, particularly in politics and the media, advancing the notion that those with whom we disagree are the “other” and should be reviled and ridiculed. In disregard for the complexity of such dynamics, Oberlin College has become a symbol for some observers of this kind of progressive intolerance of political difference. There is an increasing number of voices, both progressive and conservative, at Oberlin and elsewhere, who believe it is critical for the future of our nation that we build bridges across lines of difference.
This winter term project will create an opportunity for Oberlin students to “run toward the noise”, as First Lady Michelle Obama urged her 2015 Commencement address. Through a combination of classroom learning, an off-campus trip to engage with students from a small conservative college, and observations of a broad criminal justice reform initiative in Michigan, “Bridging The Gap” will offer students the opportunity to develop the skills to truly listen, understand, be heard, and seek common ground without attempting to change minds. This will be hard work. It is important to note that the program is not a 2020 election strategy. Nor is it an effort to dismiss the deep and genuine political differences in our country or to minimize the abhorrent behavior of hate groups. How can we develop the tools to connect and ultimately find areas of common interest with those of different backgrounds and beliefs? The program starts with a simple invitation: we will not seek to change anyone’s mind, we will take seriously the things that others hold dear, and we will be curious about why others understand things the way they do.
There is no fee for this project.
Number of students:
January 3rd - January 28th, 2020