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Bridging The Divides

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Paul Sancya
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AP Photo

From climate change to COVID vaccines, it often seems like people talk past or at - but not to - each other these days. Anger is often the result. But a recent virtual conference sponsored by two Kalamazoo organizations tried to change that.

The Zoom event, "Bridging the Divides," was sponsored by the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Fetzer Institute. A promotional flyer billed it as a workshop "to help navigate chaos and move toward unity."

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A conversation with Katharine Hayhoe

One of the conference’s keynote speakers is involved in promoting meaningful dialogue about climate change. Texas Tech University professor Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who teaches climate change policy. Hayhoe says the lack of discussion about the issue is a major problem.

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Credit Ashley Rogers / Texas Tech University
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Texas Tech University
Professor Katharine Hayhoe

"A new survey just this past week showed that only 14-percent of people in the U.S. are even talking about why climate change matters and what we can do to fix it. And if we never talk about it, why would we care? And if we don't care, why would we ever do anything about it? So, each of us has a role to play and that role begins with talking about it."

Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian who works with faith-based groups trying to engage the public on climate change. They include Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Catholic Climate Covenant. Hayhoe is also the "Climate Ambassador" for the World Evangelical Alliance and works with a number of secular groups, including the Citizens Climate Lobby and Science Moms.

Hayhoe often speaks with people who express doubt about climate change and its effects. She finds that many can be persuaded. But she also gets "hate mail" from opponents. Hayhoe's new book about those experiences is Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing. She was the subject of a recent profile in The Atlantic.

Hayhoe says there is a right way - finding areas of agreement on related issues - and a wrong way to talk to climate change skeptics.

"So often we assume that everybody has to care about climate change for the same reason we do. And so, we approach a conversation, I'm sad to say, with an implicit judgement that if they don't care about climate change, it's because they don't have the right values, or they don't have good values, and I need to change who they are to make them care for the same reason I do. I don't know about you but when I pick up on that from a conversation, it doesn't make me want to change. It just makes me want to dig in my heels because they're judging me."

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A conversation with Arlie Hochschild

Steering clear of moral judgments was also a major theme of another speaker at the conference. Retired University of California-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild spent the five years before the 2016 election talking with people in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It's about as far socially and politically from Berkeley as you can get. And for Hochschild, that's the point: reaching out to people with very different world views. She says we've lost institutions that used to help connect people with different backgrounds.

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Credit Courtesy of the author
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Courtesy of the author
Professor Arlie Hochschild

"We used to have a compulsory military draft that mixed and matched people from different classes, different regions, different races, and they go to know each other in a joint project. Similarly, we used to have a vibrant labor union movement. Labor unions have something of a mixed history but, on the whole, they have also bridged the different groups and broken down this 'bubble-ization.'"

Hochschild's 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, chronicles her attempts to understand what she calls the "deep story" of people who supported former president Donald Trump. She says many of those conversations ended well. One woman said Hochschild was her "first Democratic friend." But Hochschild has also received pushback from others on her side of the political divide.

"(From) people on the Left: 'Oh, you want us to go out there and talk to those racists?' On campuses I've encountered some of that resistance. We're in bubbles that are increasingly separate. And I think that building bridges between these bubbles is a very important thing."

Hochschild says one way to do that is to seek out groups actively trying to build bridges. She says the include Bridge Alliance and Hi From the Other Side.

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