Examining the relationship between truth and trust can be a difficult feat, and when looking to bridge the political divide, toxic polarization is an issue.
“We are so divided that we’re blinded,” said Mónica Guzmán, senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels. “We’re not able to see the truth around us, the truth about the world (or) about the issues that we’re debating. We tend to get distracted by projections of what they’re about.”
Guzmán, author of I Never Thought Of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, will deliver her lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater to close Week Four of the Chautauqua Lecture Series.
To counteract this distraction and divide, Guzmán said other perspectives need to be taken into account — to be seen for what they are and where they come from.
“Part of this is because a lot of things have moved us into a place of inner curiosity,” she said. “My work focuses on curiosity as the key to get us through some of this messiness, and what curiosity looks like.”
Her work encourages people to get to a place of “openness of intellectual humility” enough to open themselves up to the world and its many perspectives.
“We know from the social science research, even if you’re really well educated or if you read a lot of news, a lot of people think ‘I’m safe from all of (the messiness),’ ” she said.
When conversations are more curious, Guzmán said people’s postures toward the world are also more curious, which results in building more trust.
“The well of trust underneath us is drying out,” she said. “A lot of us want to force truth down each others’ throats, but it doesn’t work that way. We don’t have the complete truth, even if we’re really confident that we have the facts.”
Guzmán argues the truth is not just facts, but the human interpretation of what people do and believe about the world.
Whether debating issues with family members or in their communities, Guzmán said she hopes the audience can get out of “stuck places” in their lives.
“The work of bridging divides over tough issues is psychologically felt as ‘very difficult,’ but is technically very easy,” she said. “There are certain tactical things you can do that are a cinch, if you remember to do them in conversation.”
Guzmán said her “key thing” is implementing tactics people can use to build trust and understand each other. Still, they often want agreement to be the outcome and “that’s part of the problem.”
When it comes to the CLS theme “A State of Believing,” Guzmán said she is “always” in a state of believing.
“Our beliefs about the world — about ourselves, about each other, about our relationship to each other — are absolutely critical and often wrong,” she said. “The most important thing is to be able to examine our beliefs, and not just be defined by them.”
At Braver Angels, Guzmán said she is “obsessed” with what it takes to equip people to cross divides in their everyday lives, rather than institutional change within media or politics.
“Everything starts with individual people, with regular people and ordinary interactions,” she said. “I believe that politics and media are mirror institutions. They take their cues from the culture and the only people who can change the culture are all of us.”
This isn’t easy or predictable, she said. Guzmán formerly worked as a journalist because she thought it was a way to help people understand each other.
“Journalism, as an institution, is aimed at creating an informed citizenry by telling stories to the community, among the community,” she said. “Everybody and everything was hunky dory on that for years.”
Around eight years ago, Guzmán said she started to realize that to help people understand each other, telling stories within the boundaries of journalism wasn’t working.
“Journalism itself is losing trust,” she said. “There’s so much fracturing of the media space that it’s just not working. It’s not effective. Something has to change underneath it all.”
Before she left daily journalism, she was the vice president of a media startup with seven to eight reporters on the ground in different cities. While she “loved it,” Guzmán said she had to step away and focus her efforts elsewhere.
She studied how journalists can better meet the needs of a participatory public, and can do so by leading conversations in a more constructive way.
“No conversation is deep and profound,” Guzmán said. “We need to equip people to have conversations across lines of difference. If they’re not equipped to do that, and all we do is tell stories at (specific communities), they’re just going to divide and fracture more.”
On its website, Braver Angels outlines its approach to “building a house united,” and how every citizen can ensure that the American Experiment can survive and thrive, as was the vision of the Founding Fathers. Those men were “enlightened, inspired thinkers,” Guzmán said. “They were very young. … Most of the guys were 18 to 22 when they signed the Declaration of Independence. We were founded on ideals.”
Guzmán said it’s “beautiful” that America was founded on something other than ethnicity or geographic convenience.
“The idea is that a government by the people, for the people, works and can’t perish from the Earth,” she said. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can animate a society — and that democracy thrives on conflict.”
Systems have been built to manage conflict, but they’re currently being tested, she said. The phrase inspiring Guzmán the most is “a more perfect union” — she thinks the founders knew “we would never get there.”
While the current state of America can be seen as “depressing,” Guzmán said there’s a “pretty optimistic” way to put it all into perspective.
“My very strong conviction is that, through all of this, we are learning how to hear each other better,” she said. “Our institutions will be informed by that and we will become more productive.”