Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
On Jan. 6, 2021, a tornado struck the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
At least that’s what some “bridge-building” organizations might have led you to believe from their public statements after the insurrection. One such group spoke on Jan. 7 of the “damage and disruption” to the Capitol without bothering to note that people had committed violence, let alone that it was an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
A burgeoning movement of well-intentioned, grassroots, nonpartisan organizations has emerged since the election victory of Donald Trump in November 2016 to remedy what they believe ails America. Indeed, I am the executive director of one such organization, Urban Rural Action.
To understand the landscape of organizations that bring together Americans across divides, we should examine the assumptions they make—about their goals, the nature of the problem, the solution, and their public posture. Given the intersecting social and political crises that face our country, these differing assumptions can either empower broad-based movements for change—or exacerbate conflict.
We bridge-builders often identify civility as the goal—polarization is the problem, incivility is the diagnosis, and civil dialogue is the solution. If we just bring everyone to the table, the thinking goes, then we can unify. We can heal by accepting a “negative peace,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described the absence of tension in an unjust society.
But today’s crises demand that we aim for what King called “positive peace,” with justice for all, rather than civility, which is sometimes used as a cudgel to uphold an unjust status quo.
We bridge-builders too often view the problem through a narrow lens. Toxic polarization is indeed a major problem, but focusing exclusively on hostility between conservatives and liberals misdiagnoses what researchers have called “a diverse and fractured domestic extremist threat.” This also ignores a range of societal challenges that cannot be solved by right-left dialogue alone.
Instead, we bridge-builders should look expansively at conflict dynamics across our social, political, economic, and environmental systems to identify factors that may lead to violence. This requires considering who is in conflict, both between groups (including the 27,730 hate crimes reported to the FBI from 2016 to 2019) and violence carried out against the state (such as the attack on the Capitol) and by the state (police brutality, solitary confinement, capital punishment, etc.).
Many U.S. experts in international conflict management have shifted their focus domestically because many of the dynamics that exist in deadly conflict zones around the world also exist in our own country, including a “flawed” democracy; widespread distrust of governing institutions; and a justice system that privileges the majority, the wealthy, and the connected over the minority, the poor, and the marginalized.
If we want to increase public safety and prevent political violence, we must move beyond dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and address the causes of violence. We should tackle those causes through collaboration across divides, but still exclude spoilers who support violence to achieve political ends. Let us embrace the spirit of Frederick Douglass, who once said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Consider the issue of misinformation to understand how our different goals and problem diagnoses drive different approaches.
If our goal is “red versus blue” civility, our programming is more likely to equalize facts and falsehoods. Indeed, a recent bridge-building public debate featured two sides: allegations of “major fraud” in the 2020 election versus views based on evidence that it “was the most secure in American history.” Such a frame might bring people across the ideological spectrum to the table, but at the cost of spreading false claims that may drive participation in violence. After all, misinformation about the election fueled the insurrection on Jan. 6 and diminishes trust in our democracy.
If instead we view bridge-building as a vehicle for advancing a safe and justice society, we would identify misinformation as a conflict dynamic. We can counter misinformation by training community members on news literacy, strengthening civics education, and/or rebuilding a civically healthier internet.
We must recognize that we ourselves are actors within the conflict context—what we say and do (and don’t say or do) affects the context. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can or should be “neutral.” When violent extremists desecrate our democracy and we demur lest we face criticism for appearing biased, we are not being neutral—we are normalizing political violence. Instead, we should champion American values of peaceful expression and democratic participation.
At worst, our bridge-building efforts champion superficial civility, celebrate false unity, and uphold an unjust status quo. But at our best, we can expand movements to advance peace, justice, and democracy. Indeed, the future of America depends on it.
Joseph Bubman is the Executive Director of Urban Rural Action, a 501c3 that brings Americans together across geographic, political, racial, and other divides to build relationships, strengthen collaboration skills, explore different perspectives on issues, and work together to address challenges that impact all communities.