1003613585 Marla Estes inner peace.jpg
Marla Estes

Making peace by building bridges

“Let’s build bridges, not walls.” ~ Martin Luther King

Weary of endless partisan bickering, more and more Americans are seeking a way forward. We hear about it increasingly in our media: community-based groups “bridging the divide” are springing up across the country; bi-partisan organizations are proliferating. What these groups have in common is a dedication to promoting peace through building bridges between the two sides.

A fascinating new study, “Hidden Tribes,” indicates that hyper-partisanship is fueled by about 15% of the population — on the far ends of each side. These extremes are made up of those louder, richer, and more influential than the rest of us. Roughly 85% of the population is an “exhausted majority” that is hungry for a path toward a calm, civil, and consilient kind of politics. How can we achieve that? By Building Bridgers.

Who are Bridgers?

Bridgers are those who recognize we cannot continue with the polarizing politics coming from both sides. Hyper-partisanship is driving hatred, outrage and vitriol to new extremes. Bridgers see there’s a better way forward. They are willing to “leave their ideological bunkers,” a phrase that inspirational speaker Brene Brown has coined. Above all, they promote viewpoint diversity — recognizing that reality can only be perceived through multiple sets of eyes.

Diversity is a popular idea today. But viewpoint diversity? Not so much. Bridgers expose themselves to different ways of seeing the world — and they’re ready to take other viewpoints into serious consideration. They cultivate intellectual and emotional humility, willing to set aside their own positions,

at least momentarily, to consider another’s point of view. (“Maybe the other side just does have a point!”) Bridgers come to understand all sides

of issues, why there is disagreement, and how ideology tilts perspectives.

Decades of research by cognitive psychologists has shown how humans are naturally predisposed to confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs. Evolutionary psychologists tell us we have “my side bias” — that human reasoning is more about being right than finding truth. Viewpoint diversity is the only way to counter these innate tendencies: it helps us see what we can’t uncover by ourselves.

Every viewpoint reflects a facet of reality from its particular perspective. And each carries a distortion of reality. By looking together from multiple vantage points we zoom out to get a more expansive and clear picture of what’s going. Each part is a necessary part of a solution.

Hyper-partisans don’t support such bridging. They want to push through their particular ideological and political agenda in order to achieve what’s “right” in their own eyes, often expressing contempt for the other side. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that neither side is 100% correct. The second is that ignoring, invalidating, and overriding the concerns of the other “half” of the country will only create more divisiveness. More divisiveness will create more hatred — and likely violence — as well as gridlocking the system by fighting over ideas instead of forging creative bipartisan solutions.

Bridgers learn how to stop being contemptuous and hateful. Instead of dehumanizing, they RE-humanize. Author Arlie Hochschild calls it “crossing the empathy wall.” They realize that viewing groups of people as good or bad and right or wrong strips the humanity from those on both sides of the equation.

I recently heard a story

of a pro-choice and a pro-life group getting together to problem-solve. They couldn’t get beyond head-butting over this seemingly insolvable issue until they got to a deeper level: they could both agree on taking meaningful action to improve access to birth control. That’s bridging in action.

We desperately need peacemakers today. We can start in our own community by becoming bridgers. As Tony Blair recently said, “We must learn again the politics of building bridges, of reaching out to those with whom we disagree and to seek common ground.”

Want to learn more? Join Marla Estes and Rob Schlapfer for “Building Bridgers: A Course in Political Depolarization,” a free Introductory presentation: Sunday, January 20 at the Medford Library, 1-3pm or Wednesday, January 23 at the Ashland Library, 7-9pm. More information: marla@bridging.online

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