Mónica Guzmán really likes front porches – the way they turn houses toward each other, welcome neighbors and make room for spontaneous conversations from the street – but back decks, not so much.
“When we welcome only the like-minded to the back, when we stop believing in each other as neighbors – as community – what happens to the street?” she said.
America’s front porches are disappearing, both physically and metaphorically, fracturing neighborhoods as people turn inward. But it does not have to be this way, said Guzmán, senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels. She discussed this split and why people need to build bridges to the other side in her lecture, “How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater to close the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Four theme, “The State of Believing.”
Guzmán first experienced political division in 2000, the year she became an American citizen, when she saw a Bush-Cheney campaign sign above her mother’s desk. The revelation that her Mexican-immigrant parents were Republicans, while she was a Democrat, shocked her.
Their opinions clashed with hers in many tough conversations through the years, but their confrontations reached an extreme after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
Guzmán was in despair because of the outcome and, despite her mother’s political affiliation, she called her mother to talk about what she said felt like the end of democracy.
“She heard me, she let me speak, and I know now that she was so excited that day,” she said. “She held that all in, and she listened.”
Her mother recalled growing up under a one-party government in Mexico, and how each election day resulted in a victory for the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Guzmán remembered elections in Mexico, too; her grandmother would bring her to vote, a duty she made sure to do even though her ballot would not count.
“My mother told me, ‘Mónica, all I’ve been hearing is that Hillary Clinton was going to coast to victory; all I’ve been hearing is that there would be no point for me to vote at all,’ ” Guzmán said. “ ‘And my candidate won, so democracy works.’ ”
The exchange was what Guzmán called an “I never thought of it that way” moment, and she started to better understand her parents’ position. It was not easy to arrive there, but it has since influenced her outlook on current societal divisions.
“We are judging each other more while we are engaging each other less,” she said. “We’re spinning apart.”
She calls this the “misperception cycle,” which she splits into the concept of “S.O.S.,” or sorting, othering, and siloing. People want to be around others who like them, which puts distance between themselves and those they deem different. Because of this isolation, they only hear one side of the story, she said.
Guzmán cautioned against this cycle, and said whoever is underrepresented in a person’s life will be overrepresented in their imagination. This can lead to an increasingly negative opinion of those with opposing views and more polarization in society, she said.
Taking inspiration from her longtime career as a journalist, she instead called for a new kind of fact-finding in the United States, one where curiosity drives public discourse.
“What we need is friction,” she said. “We need friction that shapes us, polishes us, sharpens us. And the way to get that friction is to expose our ways of thinking to other ways of thinking.”
Guzmán and Braver Angels regularly put this process to action. Shortly after the 2020 election, they invited Republican and Democratic voters to participate in a debate on voter fraud. The goal of the debate was not to change minds, but for people to have an honest exchange of their viewpoints.
“If we’re not honest together, are we really together at all?” Guzmán said.
One debate participant was a fervent believer that the election had been rigged against Trump; he still is. But he also left the debate with a new focus on voter suppression, something he previously knew little about.
Following the debate, he and other participants co-founded Braver Angels Trustworthy Elections Initiative. The project brings together people on the left who believe voter suppression is a threat, and people on the right who also believe voter fraud is a threat, with the goal of finding common ground. They are working to make elections trustworthy for everyone, Guzmán said.
Collaboration across the aisle cannot happen without exposing each other to different ideas. Although it may feel as if the debate stage is already crowded with loud opinions, she said very few people actually share their beliefs one-on-one.
Guzmán attributed this apprehension to people’s comfort with their beliefs, fear of having to change a belief, and equating contradiction with persecution.
“Each one of you, right now, is dead wrong about something,” she said. “You can find out by welcoming friction.”
She encouraged Chautauquans to make use of their porches and engage people they disagree with in meaningful conversations. These conversations do not have to be built on trust; in fact they are often the first building blocks to that trust.
But Guzmán also said she understands it can be difficult to have a conversation with someone who disagrees on basic facts. The most important conversations, she said, are not about what is true, but what is meaningful. It is only after meaningful conversations that a shared reality can be built.
“How we treat each other, how we talk to each other, how we disagree with each other, has everything to do with the glue that holds us together, the trust we need to find a truth that ultimately matters fully,” she said.