by Heather Kulp
First published on Harvard Law Today
You roll out of bed, seeking coffee and your morning news. Groggily, you realize it’s Wednesday morning, November 9—the day after the presidential election. S/he’s won.
You may be thrilled. You may not be. Either way, you have to go to work/the dinner table/a church potluck/your kid’s soccer game today with people who may not feel the same way.
It’s morning in America, and it’s time to repair the vast breaches this election season created.
In the lead up to the election, we’ve spent too little attention and energy on what will happen the day, week, and years after the election. By “what will happen,” I don’t mean whether or not the election results will be challenged. Instead, I mean how we will live our daily lives with neighbors and citizens who differ from us.
This campaign season’s bitter rhetoric has not been reserved for—or coming only from—the candidates. We may try to distance ourselves from the violence at campaign events (instigated by both Trump and Clinton supporters, by the way) by saying we would never engage in such behavior. But I have heard and read (and have uttered) uncivil, verbally violent words from people across the political, ideological, and educational spectrum.
We have created a culture in which it is okay to dismiss as stupid or criminal entire groups of citizens because of the person for whom they vote. We have allowed our colleagues and friends to assume the worst intentions of others, without any actual information about the person they insult. We ourselves have called those who vote differently than us “deplorable” or “ridiculous.” We demean people rather than critique positions.
By urging personal responsibility, I am not attempting to exonerate anyone for violent acts; in fact, I am hoping we all recognize the violence we have inflicted on one another this season and begin to work to repair what has been torn.
When over half of us say we have a “very hard time” respecting someone who voted for the other side, the hardest task for each of us on November 9 will not be transitioning one administration, and one Congress, to the next, but walking across our front lawn (or our bedroom) to the neighbor who has the other guys’ lawn sign in her yard. But to deal with this national conflict in a way worthy of our country’s values—democracy, civility, community, freedom—we must take that walk.
How do we do so? Some recommendations:
- Reframe the purpose of our political conversations. When we talk about politics, we often think in terms of a debate; we must prove our position to be right and the other person’s to be wrong. We must defend our cause/candidate/view. What if we considered a conversation about politics just that: a conversation? We can check in to see how our neighbor is feeling without being on the defensive. We can hear some things we disagree with without rebutting them. Acknowledging that you heard your neighbor is not agreeing with what they said. Stepping back to listen to what someone else is experiencing can be a powerful tool to build empathy in ourselves, and to begin to heal our relationships.
- Recognize areas of difference. It is not helpful for us to hide our differences, but too often, we’re afraid that raising issues of difference will lead to irreparable conflict. Instead, I argue that not recognizing difference as an inevitable part of this richly diverse, human process leads us to silo ourselves into groups of people that think like us (or that we presume think like us). The loudest voices or largest groups then become most prominent, and drown out the nuance that makes this country a true melting pot of opinions. Difference isn’t a threat when we see it and share it; it’s a part of healing.
- Focus on shared interests. Recognizing and acknowledging our differences in individual conversations can help us begin to dialogue about what we have in common, and how we want to move forward. We all want our kids to have a good education, our homes to be free from violence, our workplaces to be effective, our paychecks to meet our needs. When we affirm what is common, we can disentangle those pieces from the areas of difference and begin working together on creative solutions that help us achieve mutual goals—without someone winning or losing. This is not just “bi-partisan,” this is human.
- Solve a problem together. Even if we may not resolve the Syrian conflict through a discussion with our neighbors, we can work together on a project that is meaningful to us. After listening deeply, acknowledging difference, and focusing on shared interests, you may find an area of common value. Dig into that. Plan to volunteer together at your local state park or homeless shelter. Join the PTA together to better your children’s school. Write an op-ed together describing how two people who do not agree politically can still work together to better their community.
- Start today. We do not know what else awaits us in the next two days. More scandals could break, more challenges to the results could come, more world chaos could affect how we think about leadership in this country. Whatever happens, we can begin the work of healing relationships right now. Check the language you use about people who may be voting differently than you. In conversations about politics, don’t just stand there; try raising an opinion that might not be your own, and affirming why someone else might think that way. Reach out to a friend or family member you know is voting a different way, and let them know you care about them, regardless of their choice for president.
We must begin repairing the breach before it is morning in America. Otherwise, we may be in for a true dark night of the soul.