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America, Tear Down This Wall

As a kid in the β€˜60s, I learned to duck under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack. As a young man in the β€˜80s I got my first taste of social action, working to help educate the public on the folly of nuclear war and the imperative to end the Cold War conflict. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I remember the intense sense of relief, and the joy of anticipating a brighter future. I also became a believer in miracles, of sorts β€” the kind that come after a lot of hard work.

Now in a different 60s β€” my own β€” I’m helping to tear down another wall, this one entirely of America’s own making and on America’s own soil: the wall between liberal and conservative. Like the Berlin Wall, this wall too serves as a symbolic dividing line between two seemingly incompatible worldviews. It too is buttressed by a growing mutual certainty that the other side wants nothing less than the total defeat of its adversary. And it too obstructs and distorts our perceptions, provoking serious miscalculations that could end our democracy as we know it.

But perhaps the most important parallel between our wall and the Berlin Wall is the dynamic that built it: A psychological construct called the Image of the Enemy.

The image of the enemy

The Image of the Enemy is a phenomenon where each side in a conflict sees in themselves the exact same virtues, and in their enemy the exact same vices. Once created, this mirror image becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Convinced that survival requires responding in-kind to the other’s hostile actions, each side manifests behaviors that fulfill the other’s worst expectations. This explains why, in our conflict, both sides claim the mantle of patriotism while labeling their adversary seditionists, and why each can point to credible evidence of the other side’s anti-democratic activities.

Eventually the psychology of the Image of the Enemy undermines trust, corrupts channels of communication, exacerbates tribalism, distorts truth, justifies dehumanization, and finally leads to violence. Clearly, we’ve reached this point. And while it’s legitimate to claim that the violence so far has been mostly one-sided, that obscures a more salient fact: The dynamics of the Image of the Enemy require the participation of both sides, and any outcomes, negative or positive, are owned by all.

So what can we do? Now that we’ve built the wall, how do we tear it down? Here’s one critical lesson from the Cold War that can help.

Humanize the enemy

At the height of the Cold War, citizen diplomacy β€” efforts outside US government channels to build relationships between the peoples of the US and USSR β€” helped each side deconstruct their Image of the Enemy by creating opportunities to humanize the β€œother.” Well-documented though rarely acknowledged, the impact of these efforts changed each side’s perceptions of their adversary and built critical public support for ending the Cold War.

Thankfully, the humanizing spirit of citizen diplomacy is alive and well today, evident in numerous organizations like Braver Angels, Living Room Conversations, and my own Difficult Conversations Project, which takes a deep dive into the art and science of difficult conversations, and how the tools of self-awareness can help us stay present and creative in any interaction.

Having the tools to engage the β€œother” in a spirit of respect and openness is, in my view, the greatest need of our time. Before I started the Difficult Conversations Project, I set out on a road trip across the country to talk to those who held views different from my own. I discovered the power of listening and genuine curiosity. These simple conversational strategies opened minds. They led to insights on both sides. Most importantly, they created an opening for more conversations in the future.

One obstacle facing many organizations working to bring liberals and conservatives together is the relatively low engagement of conservatives. And no, this is not evidence that liberals are more open-minded. Both groups show equal intolerance of opposing views. The hesitancy of many conservatives to engage, it turns out, may have more to do with perceiving dialogue as a liberal activity β€” indicating that the very idea of coming together to β€œtalk things out” is itself part of the cultural divide.

While this obstacle can be overcome, it's also an important reminder that most opportunities to connect with the β€œother” don’t require structured settings or liberal-friendly formats. Unlike citizen diplomacy during the Cold War, where relationship-building required visas, travel, translators, and other complex logistics, our β€œideological other” is often a relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker β€” people we see frequently, if not every day. And that means the opportunity to connect and humanize the β€œother” comes to us regularly and in the most neutral and mundane settings. To increase participation of everyone, it’s important to be ready, willing and able to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.

Then what?

At this point you might be thinking, β€œSo we’re successful at humanizing the enemy. Then what? Our differences and divisions will remain.” In many cases that’s no doubt true. But energy no longer invested in sustaining our Image of the Enemy will become available for more creative and collaborative purposes. Fear and antagonism, like other negative emotions, narrow our perspective, force us to miss critical information, and limit our range of responses to not much more than fight, flee or freeze. In contrast, empathy, compassion and other positive emotions broaden our perspective, open us up to new ideas, and encourage novel thinking β€” potentially leading to new, breakthrough solutions. Solutions that might just seem like a miracle.

Photo by Donnie Rosie on Unsplash

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I use safe driving not just as a metaphor, but also an action plan to solve our problems. We know how to get along on the roads. We can inspire people to get along in society. Teach everyone to listen (yield), check biases (blind spots), and reject ideological rage (road rage).

Safe driving is proven, familiar, and not favored by any β€œside”. We have lots of agreement in the need and the ways to make sharing roads easier. We can tap into this shared goodwill and culture to introduce much needed changes.

We should listen to others as readily as we yield in traffic. We need effective ways to uncover our biases. We should control our tempers while discussing politics and other matters, the same way we reject road rage. (And we need to deal with misinformation).

Another thing. Couples live with each other (contact), raise kids (team building), go through crises, but can still divorce each other. A number of methods can bring people together, but they're not guaranteed.

I don't believe in telling people to imagine other people's perspectives from scratch. I try to point to people's rich safe driving behavior, and shopping behavior, and use those to draw lessons about others.

Marc Wong
You should be commended for your work to bridge the gap. We desperately need to heal the rifts that exist between people these days.

"Othering" is a big problem in our society, springing largely from the lack of contact we have with those who may see the world differently from ourselves. This has led to echo chambers where people find support for beliefs they share with a select group, which in turn hardens their resistance to beliefs that are different from their own and encourages disdain for those holding those different beliefs.

As a result there is a tendency to see the other as belonging to a group rather than recognizing each person as an individual who should be approached as such. Rather than identifying ourselves as adherents of a particular set of beliefs, we would be well served to remove labels and try to go a little deeper to recognize the feelings and experiences that lead to the conclusions that have been drawn.

We need to do this without judging those who've had different experiences from our own that lead to the beliefs they hold, without attempting to change minds but instead to learn and understand. With that understanding, as you suggest, we might develop the means to communicate and reach a common understanding.
Roger Balson
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