I’ve written a lot about how you can talk to people you disagree with, including those who are angry or afraid. Perhaps you’ve already done that. So, what else can you do?
I found the same answer in two different places. Journalist, historian and author Anne Applebaum, who has studied Eastern Europe and peacemaking, says that societies that recovered from crises did so by focusing on a real problem and working together and solving it.
Here’s what she had to say in a podcast (link here):
“All of the lessons are about getting people to focus on practical and real issues and getting them away from the culture wars. You will not win by shouting at people, “You are fascist,” even if they are. And you will not win by arguing your case. You will win by getting people to talk about fixing the roads or building a bridge. Or solving some community problem. Infrastructure or health care. Getting people to focus on a real project in the real world that a community can do together. … Everybody who has ever done peacemaking or post-conflict says that these are the best ways, if you don’t talk about the thing that bothers you the most — so don’t talk about the civil war, whatever it was that started the civil war, talk about something else, then you can at least get people in the same room who would otherwise not speak to one another. “
Keep in mind that the point of this project is to do something in real life. It should not be an online-only venture; the project needs to take place in person. That serves a dual purpose. It’s not only giving purpose to the society, but it also creates an opportunity for previous opponents to get to know each other. This counters the alienating effects of social sorting and social media, where we only interact with people like us. We need to stop thinking of people who aren’t like us as one-dimensional caricatures. Working closely with them on a project gives us a chance to get to know others better.
I see the power of that in my own life. Shortly after I moved into my current home, I volunteered for a committee to accomplish an important objective for the community. I spent time working with several other people and in doing so, I made new friends. Further, when I later discussed the election with one member of the committee, we had a lot of goodwill stored up, and the discussion was more civil and respectful than it might have been. We are still friends, despite our disagreement.
I would also suggest that the project not just be one that raises money for something. Instead, it should draw on skills that people in the community have. Things like cleaning up a vacant lot, fixing up a broken-down house, or painting a mural are just a few ideas. It needs to be important to the community, something that solves a community problem. What are the biggest problems where you live? What type of project will help to solve one of those problems?
In his recent book, The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich argues that anthropological evidence has demonstrated that societies can come together after being in conflict when they accomplish something together. But for these kinds of societies, the activity that brings them together is a ritualistic ceremony that all participate in. This highlights the power of ritual. In addition, he also emphasizes the effect of synchrony — when people move together, especially to music, it blurs the boundaries between people and makes them feel as one. This isn’t just for indigenous societies; ritual serves a binding purpose for all us humans. That’s why we hold weddings and funerals.
So, let’s put together the two ideas. To come together, you need to get people to work together on a project that solves a community problem. The more it uses people’s skills and creates a way for people to work together so they can get to know each other on a different level, the better.
Beyond that, if you want to increase the power of that project, kick off and close the project with a ritual, one that includes music and movement. Have the mayor come to speak and ask the high school band to play a song or two. Create a chant that centers around the purpose, which includes a movement. All of these will help bring people together and focus on the project and not on the differences. And that can help us heal.
When I first wrote this, I thought that this would work because it would increase our sense of belonging, a key value. And that is important. But more than that, I think it also will work because it gives people a sense of purpose, a shape to their lives, a sense of meaning. When I read an advance copy of a book on cults, what stuck with me was how the cult members struggled with their place in the world and how the cult preyed on that need to make a difference. We all need a sense of purpose.
I know writing my book and this newsletter has given me a sense of purpose in my life. Thanks for reading it. I hope you find it helpful.