In Search of Civility

In King County, Washington, 74 percent of voters cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Sherman County, Oregon, 74 percent voted for Donald Trump. After discovering this, Seattle-based journalist Mónica Guzmán connected with the publisher of an e-newsletter in Sherman County. Together, they decided to organize what they dubbed “Melting Mountains: An Urban-Rural Gathering.” King County voters rode a bus down to Sherman County on a mission to ask questions.

During their gathering, Sherman County residents and King County residents engaged one another in a series of structured conversations, starting with the question, “What’s your favorite childhood memory?”—a question borrowed from author and social entrepreneur Michael Hebb and intended to ensure that participants “saw a person before they saw an opponent,” according to Guzmán. The result of this experiment was not just constructive conversation—but meaningful friendship. 

It also served as an inspiration to Guzmán as she wrote her book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, published in 2022.

Guzmán offers a needed exploration of how we might relate better to one another in a society that is increasingly polarized, siloed, and sorted. In a time when public discourse takes the form of “Ranting to our people, who get it, while raging at those people, who don’t,” Guzmán holds on to the “conviction…that the barriers between us are lower than we think.”

This conviction mirrors my own experience over nearly a dozen years as an elected official in state and local government. During that time, I was not surprised by an occasional nasty email or social media response. For those who left a phone number, I would try to call them personally. We usually would have a very pleasant conversation. They would often apologize for the brusque tone in the initial communication—they would say they weren’t expecting anyone to actually pay attention.

I found it reassuring to think that the same person who could be downright insulting from a distance could also be pleasantly civil. Perhaps, I reflected, there is hope in this transition from animosity to conversation that we can find a way forward as fellow citizens.

America is a big, complicated place—and, as the Founders knew, pluralism was essential to holding together our shared experiment in self-government. But the alignment of personal identity and political identity increasingly strains our pluralist commitments. “One reason we’re dangerously divided is because when so many of the identities and preferences that matter to us line up with our politics, it changes how we feel our politics,” writes Guzmán. “It makes politics way more personal.” When people closely identify their cultural values with their political opinions, the stakes appear higher, and the prospect of political defeat becomes more personally devastating.

Yet Guzmán contends that Democrats’ and Republicans’ views of one another are often badly misaligned from reality on a range of issues—and we hold far more in common than the partisan narratives would suggest. On this count, Guzmán cites a 2020 study entitled “America’s Divided Mind” that identifies what it called a “disagreement divide.” It turns out that people on the left and people on the right have views of each other that are wildly misinformed.

As an antidote to this, Guzmán enthusiastically calls on her readers to listen to people’s stories.

Stories are critical starting points for civility. If we understand one another, we are more likely to see each other as fellow human beings and fellow citizens rather than opponents or even worse, enemies. If we know each other’s stories we are more likely to trust one another. In an age when people may know more about the partisan characterization of their neighbors than they know their neighbors themselves, we should look for ways to capture and share our stories.

As a state legislator, I had the opportunity to facilitate workshops on civility for state legislators, sponsored by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. I heard a number of people involved with these workshops attest to the impact of the “Political Journey” portion of the workshop. During this time, participants shared an experience or two that shaped them politically. It may be a moment in a class or a meeting. It may be a national crisis or the influence of a political role model. It may be a career choice, an event in the family, or a friend who suggested going to a meeting one evening. However we come to be who we are politically, everyone’s journey is profoundly human.

This is why Guzmán grounds her book on the simple, profound idea that “people matter.” People are “inexhaustibly interesting,” writes Guzmán, who as a journalist found herself with an “incurable” interest in every aspect of people—”our stories, our passions, the totally unique way each of us sees the world.”

For all the ways we are divided as a country, many Americans are asking questions of each other, truly listening, and pursuing mutual understanding.

Guzmán’s interest went beyond individual people “to the conversation itself, that unpredictable meeting of minds where individuals with wildly different lives can surprise, delight, and ultimately learn from each other.” After all, she writes, “connecting with other humans is what makes our lives rich and meaningful.”

Listening to other people’s perspectives and stories is not just enriching for the listener, it is also affirming for the other party in the conversation. Guzmán writes, “Listening is showing people they matter.”

Guzmán writes eloquently about the curiosity and listening skills we will need to move forward as fellow citizens. In an age when scoring points seems to be the overriding goal of public discourse—on social media, on TV and radio talk shows, and in the predictable ads and emails during election season—Guzmán offers guidance to those who would pursue a higher path. “The main test of a good question, for the purposes of crossing the big divides in our world, is whether it leads to better understanding between people,” she writes.

Guzmán’s insights about listening reflect the American Founders’ belief that citizenship is a deliberative process. In Federalist 71, for instance, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs.” In a republic where the people are sovereign, the Founders believed that the common good could only be discovered by the push-and-pull of healthy debate among engaged citizens. Guzmán inspires hope that Americans can reclaim that vision of citizenship.

Guzmán’s book is uplifting, and it is imminently practical. Rather than dwelling on abstract theories about the problems with public discourse, she writes at the level of human relationships: one on one. She shares her own experiences with honesty, authenticity, and humor. She challenges us to understand our own proclivities and biases, to watch our politically-charged vocabulary that so often serves as a stumbling block to meaningful conversation, and to tune our listening ears to one another.

It is refreshing that the bipartisan grassroots organization Braver Angels—for which Guzmán now works as director of digital and storytelling—is growing and prospering in its nationwide campaign for civil discourse. For all the ways we are divided as a country, many Americans are asking questions of each other, truly listening, and pursuing mutual understanding. Guzmán’s book serves as a powerful encouragement to do more of that.