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Let’s start speaking human again

By Staff | Jan 23, 2019

Rudeness. Insults. Demonization. If it seems like these behaviors are on the rise, you’re right. You see these behaviors in politics. You find them more frequently in the workplace, online and on college campuses.

It’s a sinister attitude. “If you don’t think like me, you must be evil or inhuman.”

It’s why some universities have started implementing civility campaigns. I was especially intrigued by the University of Washington-Seattle’s (UW) study, “Improving Relations among Conservatives and Liberals on a College Campus.”

It was a small study, really – just a seed of research to examine college students’ political beliefs and explore ways to bridge partisan divides. Jonathan Kanter, a research associate professor of psychology, noted that conservative students, in particular, might feel isolated on campus. So he designed a half-day workshop in 2017 to help a couple dozen participants understand each other better-a useful goal for us all.

Kanter published his research in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science this past fall. “Our study was about trying to improve relations between people on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and it worked fairly well,” Kanter said.

The 2017 study, called “Healing the Political Divide,” drew 23 UW students. Of these, five students who identified as conservative and five who identified as liberal were assigned to complete the workshop together. The other students served as various controls.

For most of the workshop, students shared stories of the life experiences that shaped their beliefs and values. They simply got to know each other as people, rather than liberals or conservatives.

Students were then instructed to discuss their political views, but in a personal way. For example, one Second Amendment supporter told the story of how he hunted deer with his grandfather growing up to explain the origins of his strong support for gun rights. Liberal students, in turn, also shared their stories.

The students were surveyed before, immediately after and a month after the workshop to gauge their feelings about conservatives and liberals. Some of the questions measured levels of “political Manichaeism,” a good-versus-evil framing of political beliefs – such as the level of agreement with a statement, “The country would be better off if most liberals just packed up and left.”

Liberal students scored a bit higher than conservatives on political Manichaeism before the workshop, Kanter acknowledged. But immediately after the workshop, almost all the participants had substantially improved attitudes about people with different political ideologies. Student admitted they were surprised the workshop didn’t deteriorate into arguments. They also said they felt closer to their fellow participants.

But those effects didn’t last. Surveys a month later showed that while participants continued to view other students in the workshop positively, in general they didn’t sustain the same degree of understanding of conservatives or liberals.

“The workshop had a nice effect on participants’ attitudes toward each other, and that effect lasted,” Kanter said, “but after spending a month soaking up all the news and current events, previous attitudes about others in general essentially snapped back into place.”

Is this the crux of the issue? Do today’s political environment and 24/7 news cycle eclipse our ability to cultivate a lasting, peaceable understanding of opposing points of views?

Only if we let them.

Kanter and his colleagues noted that even the short-term easing of hostility created by sharing personal stories, rather than rhetoric, can improve family get-togethers and other group-oriented situations.

This tells me that “speaking human” -sharing stories and listening to others-can’t be a one-and-done. Speaking human is like brushing your teeth -it needs to be done regularly for best results.

So how do we start? Right here at home. When we visit with people face to face, we can ask thoughtful, sincere questions, prompted by a desire to learn about the other person. Even more importantly, we can give the gift of listening.

We can volunteer in our local communities and interact with people who may not believe exactly as we do. We can listen to their stories and help them learn more about us, too.

We can join (or create) a book club at the local library, challenging ourselves to read books we might not choose on our own and engage in discussions that may bring up perspectives different than our own, while allowing us to share our stories.

We can share snippets of our daily life through social media, blog posts or letters to the editor, including little stories about why we believe what we do. I did this every month in 2018 through the Farm Life Journal distributed online by the Iowa Food and Family Project. I enjoyed sharing stories, photos and recipes from my world to help the non-farm audience see the human side of Iowa agriculture from a farm family’s perspective.

While these actions aren’t always easy, and they won’t solve all the challenges, they are steps in the right direction. It just takes a heart willing to listen and the courage to share your story. Let’s start speaking human again.

Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.

Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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