How Meetings Can Bridge the Divide

Author: Michelle Russell       


illustration by Sebastien Thibault

What role can face-to-face events play in bridging a divisive society? It’s the question we explore in this month’s cover story, from a global perspective.  Just a few moments spent on Facebook proves that we are living in a time of unprecedented political division.

Stanford University sociology professor Robb Willer has been studying this rising polarization for several years. “A large body of research,” he said in an interview published by the University of California, Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, “shows that liberals and conservatives tend to self-segregate into ideological silos, consuming different news, associating only with like-minded others, even choosing to live in different places.” They even avoid friendships and dating across political divides.

It’s a safe assumption, however, that they can’t sequester themselves from different viewpoints in the same way when it comes to attending professional and business events, which, in most cases, bring people of different political persuasions together. Just that act alone may break down a few silos, at least temporarily. But what’s really needed to get us talking to each other, Willer believes, is a technique called “moral reframing.”

What’s really at heart, Willer said, is that political polarization is associated with moral polarization. A number of studies Willer has conducted indicate that “if you want to move conservatives on liberal issues like same-sex marriage and national health insurance, it helps to tie those arguments to conservative values like patriotism and moral purity,” he said. Likewise, you’ll gain more traction moving liberals on conservative issues like military spending if you can tie those policies to liberal moral values like equality and fairness.

Willer thinks we need a new set of arguments to collaborate on important issues of our time, like climate change, immigration, and inequality. “To come up with those arguments, liberals and conservatives must take the time to really listen to one another,” he said, “to understand one another’s values and to think creatively about why someone with very different political and moral commitments from their own should nonetheless come to agree with them. Empathy and respect will be critical if we are going to sew our country back together.”

Those qualities seem in short supply these days. Can business and professional events provide a neutral ground for those discussions to take place?

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