Finding Common Ground in a Politically Divided Age

Recent studies indicate that, as a country, we’ve never been more divided. From Main Street, to Congress, to campuses across the country, hostility and strife seem to be more pervasive. How can we find common ground in this politically divided age? Julian Portilla, Director of Champlain’s Center for Mediation & Dialogue, shares his thoughts on navigating these challenging times.

Q: The Pew Research Center reports that our country is more divided than ever. Do you agree? What’s going on?

Julian Portilla: It does seem like we are more polarized than ever. Polarization tends to happen when we view other people through the lens of a single issue. As human beings, we have so many things in common. But there’s this tendency to see others through the lens of a single issue—abortion, religion, guns, healthcare….

When we do that, all of a sudden, the person becomes that position in our mind. We strip them of their humanity. We lose the ability to see them as a multi-dimensional being. We forget they are a person too, with a family and all sorts of interests, who shares many of our everyday concerns.

In addition to providing mediation education, The Center for Mediation & Dialogue helps people in conflict who are seeking to avoid litigation. It serves communities looking to resolve questions around differing visions of the future, and it designs and facilitates multi-stakeholder conversations around difficult policy and regulatory questions.

If you were to share a meal with this person, I’d bet you’d find all sorts of points of connection. You’d be delighted by the sort of person they are, apart from this one issue. But there’s this tendency to just focus on one single view. And that makes it easy to dehumanize them. Of course, the sense of detachment created by the internet makes it even worse. They hardly seem like people at all online. So we call people names. We make an enemy out of them. We just forget, altogether, that these are real people, with real lives.

And that’s where it all breaks down. It is very hard to talk to someone you don’t value as a human being. It’s easy to get angry, and it is easy to hurl insults. But if you are serious about creating change and making things better, you need to find a way to work with people on all sides of the issue.

Julian Portilla (fourth from right) worked with Haitian farmers, the Haitian government, and the Inter-American Development Bank to develop a plan for compensating farmers who were displaced by an industrial plant built after the 2010 earthquake.

Q: Sometimes it seems as if the stakes are so high, it is impossible to remain calm. So many of the issues that matter to us are deeply personal. What can we do when emotion takes over?

A: I’m not saying you can never get angry. We are not robots, we are humans, and we feel things deeply. There’s a place for anger. But you can’t let that anger blind you. You have to find a way to use it constructively. There’s a difference between people who hurl insults and pontificate, and people who actually get things done. The people who are driving change are the ones who are able to take a deep breath, assess the situation, and find common ground. They are the ones who find the light in these big, dark, murky debates, and figure out a way to dig in to it, create a dialogue, and open up opportunities for change. They seek out the commonalities between the two sides, and start a real discussion.

Champlain’s Student Government Association (SGA) advocates for the Champlain College community and acts as a liaison for students to the administration, staff, and faculty. The SGA strives to affect change on behalf of all students. Photo by DJ Miller ’22 // Marketing

Q: What can we do about issues like Climate Change, where people just can’t seem to agree on the fundamental fact that this is a real thing that’s happening to the planet? How can we find common ground, when we can’t even agree on the basics?

A: The assumption is often that we are not yelling loud enough with the right data. We tend to think if we just found the right fact, we could convince people—that they just need to see the statistics. But data is not the question. Modern psychology tells us that we are emotional beings before we are rational beings. Much of what we believe is constructed to justify the way that we feel. So, if we insist on only appealing to someone’s rational side, we are likely to fail in our endeavor. We have to appeal to the gut and the heart—to the core of what makes people tick.

The Champlain community joined activists around the world during the recent Global Climate Strike.

Climate Change is a reality. The science is certain, but some people still won’t accept it. You can lob all the science you want at people, and they still deny it is happening. This is so frustrating for scientists and climate activists.  But throwing more science at them is probably not going to get you where you want to go.

A way to build a bridge, in a dispute like this, is to find the human story. For instance, take Hurricane Harvey. More than 60 inches of rain fell on Houston. Sixty-eight people were killed in the storm, and another 35 died due to indirect impacts. Families were devastated. Lives were ruined. It’s heartbreaking. That’s the human story. Regardless of their politics, nearly everyone can agree this was a horrible tragedy. So, that’s a good place to start the conversation.

We all have things in common. The key is to find the things we have in common, and find ways to engage people around those points of connection. That’s how change starts.

Q: What would you say to someone who says, “the stakes are too high! I can’t work with these people. Their beliefs are too backward!”

A: Engaging with the other doesn’t mean agreeing with them, by any means. That’s a fallacy. It doesn’t even have to mean compromise, necessarily.

If you have a heartfelt discussion with someone, and share your honest point of view, even if no one changes their position, at the end of the conversation, you will probably gain some perspective. You will see that there are real humans with real experiences on both sides of the issue. That’s how change starts. And someday, if either one of you finds yourself in a position of power or authority, you will hopefully treat each other respectfully, because you took the time to share your points of view.

Q: What’s your advice to students who are trying to navigate conflict with their peers, in these contentious times?

A: This is a great time and place for students to practice these skills. As Champlain students, they have so many things in common. Finding the connection points should be easy. This is the time to practice these skills, so they can go out into the world and make a difference. You have to ask yourself, what do you want? Do you want to be the person who thinks up the most cruel comment, or lobs the most clever insult? Or do you want to actually be the person who helps move issues forward? Who helps to change their so-called “enemy’s” point of view?

It takes effort and presence of mind to find common ground, but once you find those points of connection, you can start moving issues forward.

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