UW associate professor Jonathan Kanter got liberal and conservative students to listen to each other at a recent workshop. Then conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh lambasted the idea.
My sister and I can’t talk about politics. I love her something awful, but when we delve into some issues, it can be … something awful.
If it’s the same for you, and you worry that holiday gatherings will include indoor fireworks, you may take a note from Jonathan Kanter.
The University of Washington research associate professor of psychology published a study about a half-day workshop he held recently, aimed at decreasing polarization between students with opposing political beliefs.
Workshop questions were designed to gauge students’ feelings of political Manichaeism, which Kanter described as “ … when you demonize somebody who’s different than you … basically that, if you’re a conservative, and I’m a liberal, then you’re evil and inhuman, and vice versa.”
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Through “vulnerable discussions of deeper reasons” for supporting hot-button issues such as gun ownership and immigration, the students — some conservative, some liberal — were able to understand each other’s perspectives and have more patience and compassion for each other.
One student, for example, explained his support for the Second Amendment by talking about hunting trips with his grandfather. It’s what he knew; it’s where he came from. In that context, everyone understood.
When the workshop ended, it seemed like the students had a generally better feeling toward the opposite party. No small feat, considering that partisan division in America is worse than it has ever been.
Then the conservative media got hold of Kanter’s study, and gave voice to the very biases and prejudices he was trying to undo.
“You’re not gonna persuade anyone with that,” conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said of the hunting-with-my-grandfather story. “Liberals don’t have any sentiment! They don’t care about your childhood experiences.”
Limbaugh’s show has been the number-one commercial talk show since 1987. Some 14 million listeners a week were taking this all in.
“(Liberals) don’t care about growing up, your parents, your grandparents, and all that,” Limbaugh railed. “They think parents and grandparents are worthless anyway. They’re just like you. Bunch of rules, regulations, trying to deny you a good time. Your parents and grandparents, they have to hide who they are from them just like they have to hide who they are from you.”
Kanter also did an interview with an online site called PJ Media, explaining political Manichaeism and the questions he posed to students.
What was the PJ Media headline? “Students Believe Conservatives Are ‘Evil,’ ‘Inhuman,’ UW Study Finds.”
“It got completely abused,” Kanter said of his study, which was published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. “It certainly is pretty alarming. (Limbaugh) managed to spin what we were trying to do into the exact opposite of what we were trying to do.”
A month after the workshop, when Kanter checked back in with the students, he discovered that all goodwill had been broadcast and blogged right out of them.
“It was gone,” Kanter said. “The current social-political climate is too strong, too toxic. And what Rush did is a perfect example. How can we withstand these influences?”
But he also saw a grain of truth in how Limbaugh saw the study: That conservative students feel marginalized and misunderstood. (“I think that’s a real problem.”)
Beat up as he felt, though, Kanter learned a few things, which he wanted to pass on to those of us gathering this holiday season with those we love, and with whom we may not see eye-to-eye.
When entering a discussion about politics, “remind yourself that you are more than your political identity,” Kanter said. Pinpoint other things that are important to you, such as being a good parent. “Politics are just one slice of life,” he said. “It’s the nonpolitical values that we have in common.”
Understand that we are all products of how we were raised, where we come from and what we haven’t been exposed to. “Incredulity is a function of us not trying hard enough to understand that their beliefs can make sense in the context of their histories and the messages of their families,” Kanter said.
Get personal and vulnerable, even if it seems like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. “There is a way of trying to understand the fear, the threat underneath the political attitudes and beliefs,” Kanter said, “even if you don’t agree.”
For example, Kanter is nervous about President Trump’s deregulation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Underneath that? “I don’t want to lose the natural beauty of the United States,” he said. “I proposed to my wife in the redwoods of Northern California.”
That may not change the mind of a Trump supporter, but it may help illustrate where one liberal college professor is coming from.
And even if that understanding lasts only a month, as it did with the students in his workshop, well, it just might be the greatest gift of the season.