By Nancy Harmon
As you may have read on our website and in previous blogs, the Center for Global Awareness is launching an exciting new effort called Gather: Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection. We are making our materials user-friendly for adult study and discussion groups, with the aim of providing opportunities to enhance awareness of critical global issues and create possibilities for reaching across cultural divides in our increasingly combative world. (You can find more information about Gather in recent blogs by Denise and on our website at www.global-awareness.org.) Denise and I piloted Gather in January by teaching a class called “Worldviews: Five Perspectives on the World.”
Our goal was to introduce our worldviews concept, described in Denise’s book Five Worldviews: The Way We See the World as a way to understand differing points of view with increased empathy, which could help in reaching across cultural divides. We did this through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Oasis, national organizations that provide lifelong educational opportunities for people over 62 by offering affordable classes on a vast variety of topics, from archaeology to yoga. Participants’ curiosity and desire to stay informed and share ideas provided a ready audience for the beginning of our Gather program.
Many people recognize and are concerned that our discourse in the US has been changing over the years, especially since the last presidential election. It has become so abrasive that we cannot participate in civil discussions of differing ideas. Just yesterday, I was talking to a friend about the recent March for Our Lives, focused on ending gun violence, and he told me of a group of people he knows who didn’t want a pro-life group to march next to them. What a missed chance to find common ground and shared values!
This is just the kind of attitude Gather has been created to explore and respond to—namely, the attitude that “if you don’t agree with us about everything, we are not interested in you.”
Denise and I advertised our class in the Osher and Oasis catalogs as an opportunity to look at five different ways of describing the ideas and beliefs present in the world today: indigenous; modern, including populist left and populist right; fundamentalist; globalized; and transformative (as presented in Denise’s book Five Worldviews). In our class, we examined how people’s values and beliefs are formed, hoping that better understanding can lead to more curiosity and compassion for one another.
There was a lot of interest in the topic. Both classes filled up quickly, and one even had a waiting list. After introductions and a brief overview of the syllabus, we gave participants a unique six-question quiz, designed by Denise to help people identify their own worldviews. We were quite surprised to find that nearly everyone in both classes identified with the transformative worldview, which seeks alternatives to the environmental, economic, and social problems created by globalism. A Powerpoint of pictures, cartoons, and posters then illustrated some of the main qualities of each worldview, followed by lively discussions of participants’ experiences with the different worldviews.
We then introduced the ideas of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, professor of ethical leadership at New York University, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This book takes on the chasm between liberals and conservatives with some fascinating research that also helps to explain our worldviews concept. Haidt’s interviews with a wide variety of people have helped him identify six foundations on which our moral decision-making is based: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. All have contributed to the survival of the human race throughout history. His book provides convincing evidence that while liberals base decisions mostly on the foundations of care/harm and fairness/cheating, conservatives base their decisions on all the foundations. Thus, the divide emerges. It has now been exacerbated by new political rhetoric and media bias that tend to demonize “the other.”
Haidt believes that the chasm dividing America is the most serious threat to our nation today. His research has led him to the conclusion that, as products of human evolution and the tribalism of the past, we adopt moral beliefs that bind us to those who think like us and blind us to the values of others. In addition, through hundreds of interviews in which he asked people to respond to a moral dilemma, he found that moral decisions come from our gut—from intuition, rather than moral reasoning. Reasoning comes later, as we attempt to justify the decision already made. Haidt contends that we will not be able to change one another’s minds about strongly held beliefs, so we must reach out to the other side to identify common ground.
You may be wondering by now if, during the Gather classes, we accomplished our goal of discovering ways to communicate effectively with those in a different camp. Participants did seem to be convinced that trying to get people to change their minds through discussion—usually an argument—was probably futile. Therefore, going for the common ground made more sense. They came up with a list of ideas that would contribute to a productive and civil conversation. Here is the list:
- Show sincere curiosity. Don’t start a discussion unless you really want to know.
- Take the heat out with ground rules for discussion from the start. For example, no one gets to talk for more than two minutes without inviting a response.
- Examine the disgust factor. We have very strong feelings regarding politics today. Find the human face.
- Use respectful language.
- Listen actively. Don’t interrupt or try to have your next response at the ready.
- Be ready to acknowledge and even appreciate a good point when/if it’s made.
- Acknowledge differences, while trying to find commonality. Help each other through the discussion.
To some participants, what seemed to be more problematic than having a discussion was finding someone to discuss with. As Haidt has pointed out, we are increasingly able to surround ourselves with ideas and people we agree with. Our mobility allows us to live in neighborhoods of our choice; our news coverage is often reported by journalists with a bias in one direction or another; religious denominations now promote political points of view; and the internet delivers us information tailored to our leanings. Denise and I were hoping for a class made up of various worldviews, yet participants were pretty homogeneous in their worldviews. Some participants believed that people on another side wouldn’t be willing to talk to us. Others didn’t want to risk alienating someone they loved and respected.
How do we find those who are different from us and willing to talk? One example just appeared for my husband and me at a lecture about Trump and Jacksonian politics. My husband asked the presenter how he responded to those who disagreed with him, admitting that he was struggling with this issue. At the end of the event, a man approached us and said, “I’m a Trump supporter, and I’d like to talk with you.”
Questions to Consider
- Do you agree with Haidt that we are facing a crisis of civility and understanding that threatens the future of our nation? Why or why not?
- If you do agree that there is a crisis, is it important for us as citizens to take responsibility for tackling this crisis?
- How can we find people to talk to about these issues?
The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In February 2018, the CGA launched Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.