Ep 6: I Never Thought Of It That Way - Monica Guzman, Braver Angels
Monica Guzman, Director of Digital and Storytelling at Braver Angels, a nonprofit working to depolarize America, on why curiosity is the key to understanding the other political side.
Arjun: Half of all Americans today say that their families are more divided politically now than they were five years ago. For journalist Monica Guzman, this was all too personal because she fought with her parents over the outcome of the 2016 election. Guzman's a Seattle-based liberal and she just couldn't understand how her Mexican immigrant parents voted for Donald Trump twice as it turned out. So Monica set about finding what she was missing by breaking out of our liberal bubble, and more broadly just exploring how all of us can better understand the other side.
Her book "I never thought of it that way" came out today. It's a fantastic read for any of us that are exasperated by how polarized our families are, how difficult it is to see across the aisle in society. Very easy read and really practical. I enjoyed it very much. So both Dan and I are delighted to welcome Monica to the studio today.
Monica: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited y'all wanna chat about this, this is everything right now.
Arjun: So maybe we'll start with leading off the intro. You fought with your parents for years. What's the relationship like now? Where are you guys?
Monica: I'll start off by saying that relationships, when it comes to political division, are really important and really personal and can make such a difference, for reasons that are really hard to lay out into tips. I happen to have a relationship with my parents now and even in the past, when we were fighting, where we could fight and yell and say some really awful things but then have a glass of sangria and it's fine. It certainly got very intense, starting in 2015 -was about the worst that it had ever really gotten because we were at this impasse, at this unprecedented time, when the candidate for the Republican party was to me -so beyond the pale. And they knew how I saw him, how many people saw him and they felt that tension rise.
And yet, they supported him, they wanted to vote for him. And so that got really hard. That was the toughest.
Arjun: And so now you guys have patched up?
Monica: Yeah. I should challenge an assumption that might be in there, which is that, when we were arguing about politics, we were lucky that it didn't get to the point where we felt that we just couldn't talk to each other, or that things were just that bad. And again, that is not everybody's situation, but we got there. And we have learned a bunch of ways to make sure that even as we're raising the temperature in our conversations and letting a lot of anger flow, we also have ways to bring the anger back down.
Dan: As I was reading your book, one of the things that really stood out at me was the sobre mesa, as you describe it. The conversation that took place at your grandmother's house over lunch, which first off stuck out at me because I happened to be in Mexico while I was reading it.
And I just kept thinking about the food Monica, if I'm being honest, it just sounded delightful, but it kind of reminded me, of my own family gatherings and my uncle who was a die hard Democrat -my dad, who is a diehard Republican sitting over the dinner table and getting into these very, I wouldn't call them heated arguments, but certainly extensive ones, and never having it reached a fever pitch that I think we see today. And I'm curious, why do you think this happened in 2016? Why do you think that was the time when things just broke and people actually stopped talking to family members and stopped talking to friends as a result of their political opinions?
Monica: I think it was the degree of polarity. How far to either side it felt like we were. I don't think we actually were there, but certainly, the candidate had a role to play because he challenged a lot of conventional assumptions about what a presidential candidate should be and his behavior, his demeanor exacerbated a lot of divisions and exacerbated the emotion behind people's ideological differences which aren't actually as big as they feel. It's affective polarization, which is division based on feelings, that is really driving a lot of the animosity.
So yeah, it was the candidate. But I also don't want to put too much at all on the personalities because really I think that any candidate or any personality in our politics ultimately reflects our own behaviors as the public.
So I talk about three forces of human nature that have been growing and taking us to this place and its -sorting, othering, and siloing.
So sorting is -people being around people who think like them. And we know that that's getting more pronounced in communities all across America.
Othering is- the natural human tendency of putting distance between us and them.
And then siloing is- the stories we tell as a result of sorting and othering. Old silos were holes in the ground. And so we go deeper and deeper into our own silos where it becomes harder to listen clearly to anyone outside.
So by the time of the 2016 election, in particular, this had been going on to such a degree that we weren't really seeing each other anymore. We had become really blind to how other people were thinking. And the result of the 2016 election, for the left, was a real shock. When I talked to my parents about it, my mom was like "I knew Trump was gonna win the whole time, I don't know what you're talking about". And it also showed we really were living different realities when it came to the information we were consuming and the information we were trusting. And so I think there were just a lot of people all across the political spectrum that were not aware until that election and that period of time the degree to which we really had separated ourselves and were divided just because we were looking at things and seeing a completely different set of facts, set of realities, set of conclusions.
Arjun: Yeah, it's interesting. If you talk to conservatives, a lot of times they would say that President Obama was one of the most divisive presidents of all time. And so in their minds, they would say- that division was already there, perhaps it wasn't as visible because mainstream press has a somewhat liberal bent in general, maybe it doesn't get picked up as much. And then to your point, Monica and even what you said, Dan, there, all these coincidence factors that all meet together. And then it's- oh my God, we're really divided. But like I said, it's it happened before it's been there for a while. We just didn't see it until maybe 2016.
Monica: Exactly. I think that was it. It was just eye-opening. And it feels like in a lot of ways, everything since has been eyeopening. Things that we didn't realize were happening in our culture, in our society, in our politics, and our communication, we didn't fully understand the ramifications of these changes in our habits. How the platforms are narrowing our communication toolset and what that results in when it comes to what we talk about and how we choose to talk about it. And then how that affects the ways in which we tell stories about our world. And how we tell different stories depending on who we are, and then how those stories just don't have a really great way of negotiating with each other right now.
Arjun: There are a bunch of books in this space around understanding polarization and how we can reduce polarization. In fact, Dan and I spoke with Bob Talisse, who's the chair of the philosophy department at Vanderbilt just a couple of weeks ago. And his books are great on this, all of these books are really well-meaning including yours.
What do you think is going to happen with your book and with all these efforts? Because the cynical perspective is, and you see it in your book, it's so easy to sort. It's so nice to meet people that already think like me and hold my beliefs. I don't have a fight and we bond. So if we're naturally wired this way, Monica, is reading this book going to change us or is it going to be another instance of oh yeah. Nice idea. And then we go back to living our lives.
Monica: I know! So of course you're asking me to see the future. Which I refuse, I refuse. But I could tell you what I hope. But actually, I'm going to begin by trying to articulate the cynic's case. Because in a lot of ways, it's not the cynic's case. It is sort of the natural, playout where we are.
Our social media platforms have very much divided our conversation. And there are economic reasons why those platforms feel driven to do what they do to garner our attention. And it's difficult to want to pull back from that, even if it is healthier for society. So we know that that's true. That these incentives exist for all our institutions- media, politicians obviously have to play the game of attention, and the social media platforms host that game.
It's very difficult to see that reversing. But more importantly, when you think about the individual and people themselves, first of all, we're exhausted. We're tired. In times of high anxiety and high fear, curiosity becomes harder, naturally, because when we are anxious and afraid, what we want is cognitive closure. We want answers. The problem of course is that when you think, you won't think to ask, so curiosity, again just doesn't become possible. It's not even really, it's certainly not accessible. Is the world getting less scary? Is it feeling less scary now? No. A big war started this week in Europe. No, it's not feeling less scary.
NPR just did a really wonderfully recorded story about how our red zip codes are getting redder and our blue zip codes are getting bluer and the reasons why, I get it. I know a lot of folks who have moved different places because of politics. And you mentioned Ezra Klein's- Why We're Polarized book. in that book, he's careful to say we don't really have a lot of evidence that people are moving around because of politics. Now we do, it's happening.
So how do you reverse behaviors people are doing because it makes for an easier life in a scary time, because it allows them to form community more easily. We know this in the bridge building space, in the community building space, communities bond more easily when people are alike. And also when there is an other that they can bond against, that actually helps communities gel.
And then the last and maybe toughest challenge is this idea that by crossing the divides, we're abandoning ourselves, we're abandoning our values, that the moral stakes are way too high. And even listening to the story of someone on the other side might cause harm. I see that idea really taking home. So that's a way to round out the sort of, no, this is all going to get worse.
Okay. So now that I've done that, I can tell you where I see hope. I see a lot of people getting exhausted in a different way. We're exhausted by the dysfunction, but we are more aware. In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of eye opening moments around how our behaviors are creating this toxic environment. That it's not just, you can pin it on the media, you can pin it on the politicians and wait for them to save us. That it's, our behavior on social media. It's the ways that conflicts get embroiled and rise to this place. And we're telling more and more stories about how it works when you don't engage in those behaviors.
So I work at Braver Angels, the largest depolarization organization. It's grassroots and cross partisan and we have tens of thousands of volunteers. Everyone seems to have their own reason to come to the work, but each of them hit a breaking point. Each of them hit a point where they said, this isn't worth it- I don't like the way that this is tearing up my relationships, my life, my family.
And it's still stigmatized. It's still tough. It still feels like counter to where things are going but in my head, it's like the gears are starting to slow. And at some point, I can see us starting to reverse a little bit, just a little bit, and reclaim frankly our power.
And I think that the sooner that we see that even small changes in our conversations go a long way, that's when I think that we can really turn the ship around.
Dan: One of the things I found really interesting about your book was, you actually provided a framework for people to determine- is now the right time to talk about this thing. Which I thought was absolutely brilliant. Can you just outline that for the listener?
Monica: Yeah. So there are several conditions for conversation. It's dipping your toe into the water and seeing if it's good enough to get in. Typically, we don't think about the places where we talk to people and how they limit us. So if we're on the phone, we're on the phone. If we're on a Zoom call, we're on a Zoom call, we're talking to someone on Twitter, let's get into it on Twitter. Let's get into it on text. And so I think if we elevate this awareness, that different contexts for conversation, give us different tools. We can begin to claim a little more power to move our conversations into better conditions.
So the framework is basically this- first it's time. Are you even going to have enough time to be able to handle whatever it is you're bringing up? If you are getting into a politically divisive issue with someone and they are on their way out the door, or, there's a limit here and they've got a meeting coming up or whatnot, you know that you're not going to be able to take the space that you need for people to really look at things and listen to each other.
So that's one. The other is attention and this didn't use to be so hard when everything was in- person conversation. Attention was a given. I could see you and you could see me and we're all here. So you ask yourself how much of this person's attention do I have when you're texting with someone or Facebook messaging, you have no idea what else they might be doing. It might be in their car. They might be walking somewhere. They might be in the bathroom. You don't know, like we don't know if we have people's attention, but without full attention, it's difficult to be present in the conversation.
Then there's one called parity. And this one, I don't think we often think about it. For a conversation to do really good work for everyone in it, for a conversation to build- up to the point where everyone can really learn and that's fully possible, you need to make sure that you are standing on level ground.
So again, going back to our platforms. If you are on Instagram or Twitter or any of these places, and somebody who is posting is the author of the post, runs the Facebook page, they could hide or delete someone else's comment right off the bat. And this is why I think sometimes you go on a Facebook page, right?
And somebody puts something controversial. We all expect at this point that everyone's probably going to agree with whatever that person is saying because it's their friends. And if you disagree, you have this extra reason not to say so because that person might block you. That person has power over your voice on their page. So you're not really coming at a place of parity. You don't have equal power in the conversation.
Another is containment, and I just think it is so true that the less contained a conversation is to the people actually engaging in it, the less honest the participants in the conversation can actually be. So if I'm having a private conversation and there is absolutely no way that anyone else could hear, I'm going to feel a lot more comfortable being really honest, maybe even about the uglier thoughts that come up in my mind that I just want to test for a minute, as we're talking about something nuanced and complex.
But again, a lot of these platforms have this sort of invisible mass audience of listeners, and we don't know who they are, and we have no idea how they're listening. For all we know they're just hate scrolling the whole time, and we're supposed to not care. But it's such an unnatural context to be speaking to a lot of invisible listeners and you have no idea what they're doing, what they're thinking, and they may never respond and you may never know. So what happens with very low containment of a conversation is very high performance. So what you ended up doing is you're performing your conversation. You're performing your opinions, which means you're unlikely to really get curious with each other and open your mind. You're more likely to want to signal to all those invisible people who you are, who you are not. what you are for, what you are against. And it becomes a lot easier to be tribal.
And then finally, it's embodiment. And this just comes down to the toolbox of human communication, where, if I'm in person with you, we have everything. We have the mood of the room that happens really organically. When people are together, we have our voices, we have our expressions or tones or gestures, and then it goes down for there. You stepped down. So a zoom conference, I can see your head. I can see your expressions, but I may not really know the mood of the room, the same way. And then of course you have on the phone, you have voice, but not these other things all the way down to text where you have words and emojis and maybe a meme or two.
And when you really think about how much that limits conversation. The more limited the tool set, the higher, the risk for misunderstanding. So yeah, if we raise our awareness of that we can make new choices.
So for example, this happens to me all the time. I am on Twitter, quite a bit, and I do text plenty. And whenever we get to a sticky point in a conversation, I go- hey, can we call tonight about this? Can we pick up the phone? Or, Hey, I think we're having coffee next week, maybe we should talk about it then. So what I'll do is if the conditions are not right for this topic and this moment. You can dial it up, by getting off Twitter. You can dial up time by picking up the phone, you dial up time and attention, and then you're able to handle that topic better. Does that mean that we don't get the immediate satisfaction of diving into the topics we want to when we want to? Yes, but, it also means that we are far more likely to have a productive exchange where we're actually learning something and maybe it isn't quite as toxic as we think.
Arjun: I like that a lot. You know, The first couple of those guidelines, frankly are I think good marital conflict avoidance. I feel like my wife and I are in a lot better place when we realized that some conversations are not text- worthy. We're like, we should stop and do this in person.
And one of the things that I found the most interesting was containment. Social media doesn't give you an authentic conversation. It doesn't feel like you really get into thoughtful discussion because it is so performative.
And so at The Factual we have these daily discussions amongst our users. We have a poll of the day and people vote and comment. We've managed a variation of containment that I think is interesting and allows people to have really honest and thoughtful conversations.
The first element is everyone's anonymous. And so there's no possible blow back to your friends and family. You're not going to get fired. No one can tie it back to you saying, oh, but you said this in 2019, there's none of that nonsense.
The second is that ,there are no visible signals of popularity. There's no likes and hearts and, oh, he's got 10,000 followers and she only has 800, there's, none of that. Yes, you do get to upvote, but you don't see any counts. We call it upvotes respects. And so there are all these ways that it seems like in engenders, better conversation and lo and behold, at least that's what we do see on the platform. So it's very interesting that you basically articulated the underlying principles that we built on so it was really comforting to have a professional, like you write this and say, this is one of the reasons why social media sucks for conversations.
Monica: Yeah. Another thing that we don't always consider- with time humans learn how we want things to work for us.
And I was there in the very early days of Twitter and I remember how it felt new and fresh and as if it was a corner away from the world, to play and chat and all of that. And then what happened is that over time, all the same kind of pressures and forces that motivate behavior in the world, came into Twitter and populated Twitter. And so what you saw among that is folks whose entire sort of purpose of being on Twitter is to be very partisan. A lot of the people who keep trending on trending politics on these platforms are the same people, and they've gotten good at it.
So that's the piece we forget is with enough time on these platforms, people learn how to be good at it. But what it takes is exactly what you said. It takes an identity to build something up and it takes vanity to be able to measure your popularity. And it takes rewards for that popularity that the platform gives you.
And then it all becomes this compounding thing. And it is wonderful for entertainment. No question. I found myself really pulled in and addicted. It's terrible for conversation. It's terrible for negotiation. It's terrible for actually seeing people for who they are. I like to say that the internet is a non place that makes us into non-people. And so what we have to do is actually go out of our ways to see each other as people.
Arjun: You have so many good quotes in this book. I honestly, I wish I could just read out a string of them to everyone listening but here's one that I love. You said "my deepest personal conviction is understanding people who confound us is always worth it". I thought that was really beautiful. Do you think Monica, that's a common viewpoint ?
Monica: I know that it's an uncommon conviction and I even say that I'm not trying to convince people to believe that along with me. Instead, I'm being honest, that is actually what I believe. So me personally, there's a reason that I found myself pulled into journalism.
I am extraordinarily fascinated by people. I talk in the book too about having grown up, watching a ton of movies. My parents used to take me to the movie theater once a week. And I thought that was normal. It was not normal. And the reason I bring that up is because all that dose of stories, I it was fiction, right? a movie must contain characters whose motivations are understandable in order for you to follow the story and the drama and the conflict and everything else.
So what that means is I just spent all this time, like watching these stories and understanding that good guys, bad guys, everybody in between has their reasons. So for me, it is absolutely true that talking with views may confound me, has always been worth it because, invariably, whatever assumptions I had in my head are wrong. And invariably it's less scary, less extreme, less fiery and less worrisome than I thought coming in, if I happened to be in a place of opposition. And this is the common experience for me, that it just feels like it is always worth it. Now there's so much more to say about that. So I don't want to, I can imagine someone listening to that being like, there's a lot of buts to that that we could go into but I just want to emphasize that it is not something I'm trying to persuade anybody about.
I, it's more about explaining why I have become so obsessed with what it means to be curious even when it's hard and what we can gain from that. And what simple steps anyone can take to be even a little bit more curious. That's enough. That's enough. One more question before you share your own opinion, one more conversation with someone who makes you uncomfortable. That's enough.
Dan: I'll throw a but on there for the folks who might be saying it. So much of politics has become identity-based rather than policy-based and this was even something Arjun and I learned in the last episode that he referenced with Bob Talisse where, the party platforms are more similar than they've ever been. And there are some stances, that I can imagine folks who have a hard time really being able to get beyond. One I'll throw out there is gay marriage. So if I'm a gay man or gay woman, and I'm talking to someone who is against gay marriage, is that a divide I should even try and bridge? Because I would feel, as that person, I might say it's really not my job to bridge the divide if somebody doesn't feel like I'm entitled to the same protections under the laws that are.
Monica: Right. I think a lot depends on the objective and the purpose that you would want to achieve. I remember one person in particular telling me this- what would be the point of my talking to someone on the other side of this issue , if not, to try to convince them to see things my way. And that I think is a really valid point. And I think for a lot of folks that is just true unless, it is something that is absolutely that important. The amount of, oh my gosh, the amount of emotional labor and suffering, that, that might come up if I even just interface with folks who just don't believe that I can be who I am. Yeah, I would not judge or guilt anyone into deciding that is not for me. That is not something I'm into doing.
What I would tell that person is, there's probably some issue that you are not quite so attached to. That is not quite so high threat that you could get curious about. And then it comes back to the purpose.
When we go into these conversations, trying to convince someone else to see it our way, it can make for really good argument, really good banter and really good debate only if there is high trust and a good enough sort of relationship and probably good conditions in that whole time, parity, and all of that, it can make for a pretty good exchange.
Most of the time, it won't. You absolutely will not succeed in convincing the other person of anything. You probably won't succeed in having a very productive conversation either. Things could go south pretty quickly. And so, it brings you back to square one. What would be the point of having these conversations? And here's what I offer.
We really are so divided that we are blinded. We don't see people's views accurately, and social science research has shown us this over and over again, that it is more common than not- pick your issue. That, if you feel really strongly about one side of it, you probably misperceive the extremity of your opposition. And when we live life that way, imagining that the opposition to our views is stronger, sharper, more hostile, even out to get us, even these people want me dead or things like that. That's a tough way to live. That's a lot of anxiety. And what if it's not based on real landscape of people's views. What if, when you can talk where you're comfortable with people instead of about them, what if, when you approach folks and you actually ask what's behind their views, you find that the fear that you have is not justified. And what if the mind that you're really changing is your own, not about the view that you hold, but about the threat level around it. What, if we're all at threat level red, but if we were really looking clearly at each other, we would only be at threat level yellow. How much more creative would we be? How much more connected would we be? How much more productive would we be in building a good society or even just building good lives with our family and our friends? So this, I think, is part of the real promise. We are too blind and we need eye opening moments to see. And the only way we're going to get that, in a time that's this polarized is to actually approach each other and find out who we are.
Arjun: That's so beautifully said. Just great and again, coincidentally ties to the discussions that we have on the doctoral platform. Where we often find that even though people vote differently on the poll of the day, in their comments you can see that they often have very similar ideas. It's just that some of them land in slightly different positions on where they might vote on the issue.
And so to your point, Monica, we aren't really as different as we might think. We have a lot more in common. And we realize the other side isn't quite as bad as we thought. Um, when they see it written in this non performative environment, our discussion platform, people can see that. Oh yeah, I understand. I might not agree with you, but I don't hate you for it. It's a reasonable position to have.
Monica: Yeah. If all we keep relying on is the stories that we hear. We have to understand that those stories exist in systems that reward the most extreme narratives. We know this. I've been in media my whole career. I know this, I've participated in this because I've had no other choice.
Very good people are being elected into office and are sitting in newsrooms trying really hard to work against these systems, but the incentives are really tough. They're going the wrong way. And that doesn't mean I've lost faith in those institutions at all. It made me just the opposite. I know a lot of folks in media that are just serious rebels. it's an uphill climb for sure. I just think that. there's no one else who's going to really do this, except for the people who are suffering, which is, members of the public. It's your family, it's your friends. We're the ones being played here. So, let's stop being played.
Arjun: Let me put you a little bit on the spot, Monica.
Arjun: Increasingly people feel like the media is biased and has a bent, and you're either liberal or conservative. What do you see? Do you as a journalist, ever think, yeah, it's true. We do have a bias. We do have a clear point of view. We aren't reporting on everything. One of the things I loved about your book, you said, get into the habit of asking the question- what am I missing? And reject easy answers. But yet, it seems to me that when it comes to reporting the news, we don't usually get that. The policy should be this or should not be that, it's like black and white everything. How do you reconcile that? And what do you think about that, Monica?
Monica: One thing is that media is this sort of monolithic term that is itself an easy answer that we need to reject. There is no "the media". That all marches in lock step. In fact, part of the problem here is that everyone's marching to their own beat of the drum, regardless of any concern for a shared reality.
You had asked the question in one way, do you ever think that the media is biased. Yes, of course. But I don't think that's particularly surprising when I look around the world. The media is bias because we all are, we're polarized. The media is not operating from another planet.
It's full of people and people are polarized. The thing that's interesting of course, is that media as an institution. And I love this and it sits in my heart. journalists. Many of us take very seriously the mandate to be curious on behalf of the public and to always ask questions. It's an institution of curiosity. That's the whole point.
But you mix that with the fear and anxiety that is swirling around everywhere. The fact that journalists are still very much human and have all these identities where you really just feel like, no, I can't be on here. I will not go. That is just awful. And the way I'm going to write about it is that, it's just awful because that's what it is.
You start to get to epistemological arguments and philosophical arguments and moral relativistic arguments and all of that. But at the end of the day, I at least do believe that journalist's primary mandate is curiosity and a collective search for truth. And to me, the most important thing about a collective search for truth is that it stay collective. which means that there have to be enough forums across this country that are concerned with welcoming all perspectives. And to me, the biggest problem in media right now is that there are not. One by one media that- it seemed really were demonstrating a commitment to make sure that they could still tell stories that could be heard all across the range of perspectives, began to give up on that mission in favor of some other. Whether it was, look, we got to build a loyal audience and the more that we can predict, the more likely we'll survive. Everywhere from there, all the way to, Hey, the people who started this media site really have a point of view about the world. And they have absolutely every right to gather a community of other people who share that same point of view and then go nuts. Let's do this. Let's talk about our point of view. That's wonderful media.
But unfortunately it's, and I know this because I started a media outlet myself, the pressure to select a narrow audience is extraordinarily high because right now what is rewarded is highly defined audiences. Because that's where you can serve value that will keep you sustainable. It is a lot harder to justify the economics of- let's really try to speak to a broad swath. So as our society loses those forums that attempt to do that, we literally lose a shared language. Which of course makes it harder to build a shared reality, a shared set of facts, and to make sure that there is some place where there is a collective search for truth. Instead, we're having little searches for truth in different places, none of which are effectively talking to each other.
Arjun: I just want to say, hallelujah and amen. Because it is verbatim why we're building the factual. Sorry Dan, go ahead
Dan: No I was going to echo the same sentiment. The thing that I see is it seems like so many of the incentive structures are set up against us. For example, social media has us in these ideological habit trails where we're really only hearing from the people who sound like us.
We live further apart from each other, so people are geographically sorting by partisan lean and it just sounds like structurally, all the forces are pulling us apart. So is the goal really for us to agree, or is the goal more for us to expand our opinions, or is the goal really just to understand that, as part of living in a democratic society, people get to vote a way you don't like, you know what I'm saying? Yeah.
Monica: Yeah, it's a little bit of all of that. The one of course is the goal to agree? It does feel like when you follow some of these discussions, such as they are in certain spaces, it does feel sometimes like people think it's possible that everyone could agree with them on contentious issues.
It is not possible.
It is important that we understand what contentious issues are, the anatomy of them. There's a schools of thought that call these wicked issues. And a witted issue is particularly hard because it, at the foundation of those issues are good values that are put into tension with each other. Name the most, persistently difficult issue and it's a wicked issue- abortion, gun rights, COVID vaccine mandates are the values of freedom to do what I want with my body and myself, versus the, value of feeling safe and secure in a community and feeling like we were taking care of each other. Both those values come into play when it comes to something like vaccine mandates and different people will stack those values in their own hearts and minds in different ways. And this is actually good. This is good for us.
The temptation for me is to say I think this about vaccine mandates and it works out for me. So it should work out for everybody that same way, but because we are different people, diversity is a strength. We hear that all the time. It's true here too.
Basically our diverse value stacks are the ways that we have checks and balances in our society. And so the goal is never really to get people to agree on a contentious issue and see things your way. The goal is instead to put everything on the table, the goal to me is make it so that people can be honest about their deep down concerns that come up whenever they consider their stake in a tough issue.
The best journalism does this really well. Let's put it all on the table. Let's go interview. Let's go gather. And this is what's really at stake for people. and we've made it so that people feel safe, not sharing just the talking points that they think they're expected to believe, but what they actually believe.
In the book, I talk about questions of concern being extraordinarily powerful because it's easy not to judge. You can really just collect the concerns, and that's where once you have everything truly on the table, you will see that there are natural trade-offs that are difficult. And they really are difficult. And so what society needs to do, what communities need to do, is strike the balance they can for now, and the world will change and the balance will change. For example, after the attacks of 9/ 11, collective security became much more important to a lot of people in the airport, then the freedom to move. And so we changed, we made decisions, we made different policies, but again, we are not going to be able to do any of that in a smart way if we're not able to really actually see and understand what other people's concerns even are. If we're just imagining them, making them up, exaggerating them, and then not going and checking for ourselves. That's just going to lead us to the most reckless decisions, which we're already making in a lot of our politics.
Arjun: So you live in Seattle, very blue area. In your book, I think you said king county. Voted about 75% for Hillary Clinton. How do you on a day-to-day or weekly basis get out of your liberal bubble. Where are you meeting people from the other side and being exposed to viewpoints that are different than yours so that everything is in fact on the table.
Monica: I do write a good bit about my parents. In the book and we have a very close relationship. They now live in North Carolina and they lived here in the Seattle area. Did they appreciate that North Carolina was not as blue as the Seattle area? Yes, they did. They absolutely did. So frankly, even over the last several years before I was writing this book, talking to my parents was away from me to check myself when I was feeling a certain way about something and I could share it with them and just be like, gosh, like this, I just don't get it. And they wouldn't change my mind about how I felt about the issue, but what would happen inevitably is that they would bring up some angle that I hadn't considered. That whole thing about come back and ask yourself what you're missing. They would bring up an angle I hadn't considered and it made me go, oh yeah. Oh, I never thought of it that way. That actually makes sense. I still don't like that conclusion. That makes it, so it doesn't seem crazy in my mind. But at least one that I understand and that's a lot better than, the world is on fire! Why are these people like this? They are nuts!
And so it walks me back. So that's one, my parents. Also right now, I have put myself in a place where I am constantly surrounded by people of different political persuasions. My, my team had Braver Angels is, half red, half blue because that's how Braver Angels works. The nonprofit where I'm at. I'm meeting lots of conservatives and lots of libertarians. I have been through a crash course in libertarianism in the last year and it's so fascinating. I just didn't fully understand it.
So Yeah, I think of it as there's this rainbow of political thought across this country and it's here for a reason. It's here for a reason. What we don't want is to begin to have 1 shade of that rainbow believe that another shade of that rainbow is just made up of monsters and horrible people. And then we start exaggerating. We have what is actually at its core, really wonderful values at the base of each of these shades of this political rainbow. And if you just get rid of the gamesmanship and the one-upmanship and the vilification, what is actually a beautiful, like spectrum of human experience. When that's allowed to really flourish and talk to itself, everyone gets smarter, everyone gets wiser, and our lives get richer, I really think .So
Yeah. It is not easy. And of course, if you've just moved to a place where it's bluer, or you've just moved to a place that it's redder, it's really not easy. but you can still do it because the same thing that we've been talking about with the internet, cursing us and making it easier for us to be surrounded by people we are like, it also makes it easier for us to be surrounded by people that we don't resemble. So the internet, double-edged sword there, you can go and find even places there as long as you open your mind and you listen generally to what a different community of thought is saying and thinking, and you ask yourself, what am I missing? And you ask, what is beneath this anger? What is beneath these beliefs? That might be understandable. What makes this view understandable is a really powerful question. Not do I agree with this view? No, you don't. Probably because you can tell, but what makes this view understandable? Can be really revealing.
Arjun: That's great. By the way Monica, just as an aside, I'm going to get my niece and nephew to read your book because remember when we were all that age and all of us are full of self righteous indignation, like we know the answers and those guys are idiots. My parents are idiots, government idiots. This is that. And again, it's not that I want them to change their minds in anything, but your book, just the emphasis on us being curious, stuff about politics and society, they have a very single track mind because of course their peers are all young and don't know much about the world. Have you seen are high school students, do they gravitate to your book?
Monica: It's funny cause I recently recorded another podcast and the host there was saying, " I'm part of this like national sort of high schooler thing, and I'm gonna send your book to them. Cause I think it'd be really great". So Yeah. I will say I get a lot of hope seeing how younger people are coming up into this world, looking around and saying, nah, no, we're gonna, no, I refuse to accept this madness.
So I'm really excited about the sort of freshness and lack of exhaustion that young people are going to inspire me every single day. And they just know that this isn't how we are good humans, and this is dumb. And I think in a way it takes a little bit of that, like outsider freshness in a way to just be like, guys, what are we doing? . My nine-year-old son read it, he read a good, a good chunk of it and he seemed to like it. So..
yeah, He helped me with some chapters.
Arjun: All right.
Monica: Oh, Oh my gosh. I love the illustrations.
That's from illustrator, Haley Weaver, who did a fantastic job with those.
Arjun: We've been hammering you with so many questions, Monica I have one last thing, a lot of what we talk about on these podcasts are heavy things, and societal conflict and issues. It's nice to, when we can ,give people a sense of hope and encouragement and Monica, you've done that so beautifully today. Despite the heavy discussion you've been unyielding really not necessarily optimistic or positive, but maybe just curious and honest in a good way.
So I wanted to read this one last quote from your book and you actually quote another guy, John Meacham, and I just thought it was really beautiful and also very thought provoking -you said "to know what has come before is to be armed against despair".
Tell me what you meant by that. Why did you put that?
Monica: About Something else about how we organize our conversations right now and how they operate is that, everything is about this moment. And this moment is the worst, and this moment is about as bad as I can remember. And social media rewards, exaggeration rewards superlatives.
We all get a rise out of it at any place that we talk, right? The person who gets the attention is the one who goes, this was the worst thing I've ever seen. Let me tell you why. Think of all the times that you've heard the TV hosts say that, right? Like you will get the attention.
It doesn't mean it's true. It's not true. We're not even curious about that. When we end up being dishonest about the degree to which things are exceptional in our world, or have never happened before, this makes us hopeless. Because if everything is the worst we've ever seen, good Lord! How are we going to get out of this! But the hole is not as deep as we think.
And so I quoted John in that piece of the book, he wrote a book called The Soul of America, where the entire point of his book is to show he's a historian and we have been here before and we've made it through. Not only have we made it through America, got stronger as a result, we fixed some things, and we're still on an upward trajectory here. Are we perfect? No. Have we done some, yeah, we've done some shit. But we go through these struggles and there's a lot of pain. There's a lot of pain and one is not to dismiss that, but there's a lot of growth too. And so I can't tell you the kind of hope remembering that it's never just about this moment and that we need to be honest about where this moment, sits in all the other moment. And then we need to learn from our stories from the past as well. We talk about that a lot today. so yeah, we need to take that perspective. We really are just people. We really are just people, that's it! these dark and scary institutions are all actually just people. And when I think of that, everything feels possible.
Arjun: Beautiful. Thank you again Monica, such a delightful conversation. I hope everyone listening got out of it as much as Dan and I did both from the conversation of course, reading the book. Again, I highly recommend the book- I Never Thought Of It That Way. It comes out today, March 8th, which is when we're releasing this episode. Get it. It's a great read and I think you'll feel better about society, families, and where the country's going.