November 24, 2023
November 24, 2023

How can you have meaningful conversations in increasingly divided times, whether it’s against the backdrop of American politics or about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza? According to journalist and author Mónica Guzmán, it’s by asking yourself during a conversation “What am I missing?” Guzmán, who is the host of the “A Braver Way” podcast and the Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, has long been fascinated by great conversations with people across the political divide that are achieved by seeking understanding over being right. Her new book, “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” provides a guide for finding common ground in a time of polarization. John Donvan sits down with Guzmán to talk about her work at Braver Angels, staying hopeful in times of conflict or during world events, and how using curiosity to navigate today’s polarized landscape is easier than you think. 

  • 00:00:01

    John Donvan

    Hi, everybody, and welcome to Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan, and today a conversation that will start, at least, around the word curiosity, and we are going to talk to my guest tonight about what curiosity has to do with the thing that we do here, which, as you all you know, is debate. My guest, like me, is a journalist by training, Monica Guzman, whose book we’ll be referring to is called I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, but before introducing Monica, I wanna get personal for just a couple of minutes, if you’ll allow me that.

  • 00:00:36

    So I have practiced journalism for a long time. Back when I was starting out, the very big idea in journalism was something called objectivity. It was, under objectivity, my duty as a reporter to be objective, which meant to be neutral and to be impartial and keep my personal views and experiences out of the story. The whole purpose being to avoid bias in my work, and also, of course, the appearance of bias, so that people who saw my work could trust what I was saying to be the truth with a capital T, but though I have continued to play by the rules of objectivity, I long ago actually stopped believing in objectivity as a meaningful guidepost, and the simple reason is I stopped thinking it was possible.

  • 00:01:15

    So the early part of my career, I was a foreign correspondent. Starting in my 20s, I lived in and reported from a number of overseas places, like London, Jerusalem, Moscow, Jordan, I spent a good deal of time in Beirut. I tried very, very hard to get to know these cultures. I studied Hebrew and Arabic and Russian and I read the history of these places, and I tried my best to get into the worlds that I had to explain to audiences back home, but, you know, there really was a lot I did not know about these places I- I went to.

  • 00:01:42

    I was, after all, an American in non-American places. I came in with deeply held values and attitudes that, unquestionably, shaped how I saw these places, and the questions I asked and the way I processed them, and much of this wasn’t even conscious to me. So here’s a short example. I was living in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. My working assumption then, my objective framework, was that all Russians would naturally want to embrace and celebrate democracy the way we live it because, well, that was like breathing oxygen, right? That felt like an objective assumption at the time.

  • 00:02:18

    It turns out it was a lot more complicated in terms of what the Russians aspired to. It just wasn’t so simple, and I had to slowly come to recognize that because my own so-called objective framework was not leading me to the truth. I set myself three new guiding principles that I worked by. So these three principles are honesty, which I think explains itself. The second one is fairness, and to explain that, I think what I strive to do is to depict all of the parties in a contentious situation in such a way that they are recognizable to themselves. That’s the marker for me. And the last one, was curiosity, and that is the assignment that I gave myself to know more on the assumption there’s much I don’t know and probably much my audience doesn’t know, so I am there to fill in those gaps by following my curiosity, and that requires humility.

  • 00:03:06

    Curiosity is the one that makes the story because it’s the one that gets me places, often to unexpected places where there is also, sometimes, truth. So that is why I am delighted to be wrapping this up now (laughs) by welcoming my guest, Monica Guzman, who is making a very big deal these days out of curiosity as a value. Now, not just for the sake of journalism, she has a whole different set of inspiring goals for all of us, and curiosity is her driving value, and we’re gonna talk about the how and the why. Monica, thank you so much for your patience, (laughs) as I explained all of that, and sitting by, and thanks so much for joining us on Open to Debate.

  • 00:03:44

    Monica Guzman

    Yes, thank you, John, and, boy, as a fellow journalist, that all sang to me.

  • 00:03:49

    John Donvan

    So what is the problem that you are making the argument curiosity will help us solve?

  • 00:03:56

    Monica Guzman

    The way I approach it, it’s that we are so divided, we’re blinded. That there is such a fracturing and lack of trust for a variety of reasons that has led us to, regardless of how educated or well-informed we consider ourselves to be, be extremely vulnerable to misperceptions about people who view the world differently, people who disagree on big issues, and combined with how high-stakes politics feels right now.

  • 00:04:32

    That basically means that we are missing the reality of why people believe what they believe, and the path toward coming to understanding common ground and solutions. We are so divided, we’re blinded. We are unable to see at the moment the reality of the debates and the reality of the perspectives that make the world go round.

  • 00:04:59

    John Donvan

    When you say that we are unable to see the reality of the perspectives and- and the debates, can you dig into that a little bit?

  • 00:05:01

    Monica Guzman

    Yeah. There’s been some chilling research about this. I focus on the political divide, but a lot of this can extend to others. There’s a … there’s several studies that show that when people on one side of the political divide are asked to guess at the views on the other side, they do several things. They exaggerate extreme views, they believe that the opinions on the other side are far more extreme than they actually are, or that there are more people holding extreme views than there actually are.

  • 00:05:31

    The other thing is, we’re also seeing that folks on either side of the divide assume that people on the other side despise them twice as much as they actually do. There’s a projection of animosity. So we are misperceiving the perspectives, which makes us misperceive the debate. Uh, one example I can think of is a Facebook meme that I saw that said, “I choose the 2nd grader over the Second Amendment.” So it’s about guns. You can tell where the author of that meme might lie on debates around gun regulation, schools and safety, but on what planet is the debate actually between protecting children and defending the Second Amendment? As if anyone who would defend the Second Amendment wants a 2nd grader dead.

  • 00:06:18

    But, because we tend to discuss these issues in spaces that reward, you know, emotionality and where the messages tend to be shared in a certain way and we’re living in these kind of sorted silos where we don’t get to check our projections about an issue and our- our assumptions about an issue with real conversations, with real people, it becomes harder and harder to see the nuance that actually animates the gun debate, and instead we create these sort- sorts of false binaries which make a solution seem absolutely impossible.

  • 00:06:54

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm. I was gonna ask you with- with what negative consequence, and so what you’re saying is it drives us away from possible solutions because there might be common ground that we’re just not … you- there might be, not necessarily there’s a guarantee …

  • 00:07:06

    Monica Guzman

    Right.

  • 00:07:07

    John Donvan

    … but there might be, but we’re not even exploring it.

  • 00:07:08

    Monica Guzman

    Right, but in our, you know, quick subconscious that tends to scroll quickly through social media feeds without a lot of time to reflect, if you believe, even in that moment that you don’t catch and you’re not conscious of, those other people don’t care about children, boof, you’ve just put yourself miles away from common ground with a lie.

  • 00:07:29

    John Donvan

    I wanna share with our audience more of- of who you are and your work. So tell us what you’re out there doing, in addition to the book, and how you got there.

  • 00:07:38

    Monica Guzman

    I am the senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, and Braver Angels is the nation’s largest grassroots cross partisan nonprofit dedicated to bridging the political divide, the partisan divide, and we’ve got 10s of 1000s of- of folks part of the community, n- almost 100 local chapters we call alliances in cities and states across the country, all of which must follow what we call the Braver Angel’s rule. They must be co-led by conservatives and liberals, and- and that in a balanced way.

  • 00:08:13

    Our origins came out of the 2016 presidential election. The very first Braver Angel’s workshop was in church in South Lebanon, Ohio, between Clinton voters and Trump voters. We were co-founded by a renowned marriage therapist, Bill Doherty. All of our workshops, we have over 50, um, programs and- and offerings, come from this analogy between our politics, you know, red and blue, this- this binary that tends to gobble up everything else, and couples on the brink of divorce.

  • 00:08:48

    So we are … we’re coming into that space looking to s- share skills and have people go through certain experiences on a small scale where they can be thoughtful, they can be curious and they can even see the shortcomings on their own side while being witnessed by the other. It’s pretty remarkable.

  • 00:09:14

    John Donvan

    How did this become the path that you’re taking? It- it sounds like it’s personal for you.

  • 00:09:18

    Monica Guzman

    Very much so. Like you, I’ve been a journalist, uh, for a long time. That’s my main occupational (laughs) identifier, uh, since, you know, I got into the job market, is I’m a journalist. I’ve cared deeply all my life about helping people understand each other because, I don’t know, when my eyes look around at the world, I see a lot of problems that are bred from some kind of severe un- misunderstanding. It’s- it’s not to say that, you know, “We- we all agree under the surface.” No, but we tend to overly vilify or ascribe malevolent intentions, uh, just in our own imaginations when they may not really be there.

  • 00:09:55

    So that was one of the reasons I become a journalist. I’m gonna help people understand each other by telling their stories as responsibly as I can and sharing them with their communities and here we go, more informed citizenry, you know, but over the last five to 10 years, more than that, really, I started to notice this- this foundational kind of … this fundamental brokenness, this distrust, the fracturing even of the media ecosystem to the point where journalists are among the least trusted, uh, people (laughs) in America.

  • 00:10:28

    And I started to think, you know, “It’s not … If I wanna help people understand each other, I- I don’t think that continuing to tell stories into this landscape is gonna work unless I duck out of it and look at it from the outside and start working on it in another way,” but there’s ev- there’s a more personal vein for me, and more personal path, which is my own family. So I’m a Mexican immigrant and I came over with my parents when I was, like, five or six years old. Then we became citizens in the year 2000, which was a big deal for my parents. I’ve got photos of them with, like, their American flags and, like, you know, outfit with my mom’s red, blue, white all over her, uh, her clothes. They be- be- became instant republicans, and I was very clear that I was democrat.

  • 00:11:11

    So we were politically divided from the get-go. The 2016 presidential election tested us like it tested so many families, and yet, somehow, and this is making a long story very short, somehow we were able to have the kinds of conversations that brought me, who was the more angsty one, (laughs) looking at the other’s beliefs, to be honest, brought me to the place where I could say, “If I were my parents, I would’ve voted for Trump too. I understand it. I don’t agree with it, given my politics, but I understand it and I’ve learned a lot.”

  • 00:11:46

    So there’s something about that, taking that experience and looking around and, yeah, you know, my email has become, in the last few years, sort of a confession booth. Um, folks that see my work and- and write and say, “I’m at my wits end. I have these relationships I care about, but here is the way that politics seems to be adding pain and division and I don’t know what to do.” So there are extraordinarily hard things to wrestle with with all of this, but it is so much more than a political thing or a thing you can sum up in statistics. It’s people’s lives and- and relationships. Um, so it- it runs deep and it runs deep for me.

  • 00:12:22

    John Donvan

    We’ll be right back. Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan and we’re talking with Monica Guzman, whose book is called I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. Um, Monica, you were talking about the professional side of this for you, which you said came out of journalism, and the personal side of this for you, which was experiencing a disconnect with your parents who, uh, had, I believe you said voted for Donald Trump and were, um, proud Trump supporters, and you couldn’t fathom that until you kind of sat down and thought through this interesting notion that maybe if you were them, you would also have voted for Donald Trump, as opposed to just vilifying them.

  • 00:13:09

    That- that took a leap of faith on your part that I question whether most of us are equipped to take. That said, I feel that I’m actually pretty good at that as well, that I- I very, very quickly, in a contentious situation with somebody, try to s- to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying, believing what they’re believing or doing what they’re doing, but I think the only reason that I have that habit somewhat ingrained is because of being a journalist.

  • 00:13:38

    But, I’m curious about- about your ability to do this, that you’ve been working on and honing. Do you think being a journalist has been the thing that has given you the tools to be able to kind of go through this process of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to the degree that you would say, “I may not like what they’re doing, but maybe I would do what they were doing if I were them”?

  • 00:13:56

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm. I think that it has definitely helped, but I wanna be very clear that this is not some kind of superpower. One of the things that being a journalist, I think, taught me that was very humbling is how easily I can be wrong. So many times on deadline I would go and get an interview with somebody and I would go in thinking that I knew what they were gonna say. I just needed the quote and get back to the newsroom and write this darn thing, and- (laughs) and I would be so humbled by being surprised, and after a while of being surprised over and over again, I realized how silly it is to assume we know people that we can’t possibly know.

  • 00:14:31

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:14:32

    Monica Guzman

    But I also, gosh, I remember one day, getting a call at Foster’s Daily Democrat, this small newspaper in Dover, New Hampshire, and I was in college and it was my first internship, and I got somebody wrong in a really awful way. It was a- a feature about their business and how it had opened, and I got, like, 10 things wrong in that story, John, all because I assumed. All because I assumed and I didn’t ask and I didn’t check, and I hurt somebody, and I hurt them to their community, and- and to hear them cry on the phone with me, (laughs) was very humbling.

  • 00:15:06

    So tha- that was- that was one of the deepest things of all, is how easily we can get each other wrong, and- and what a tragedy that really can be, and how it’s worth almost anything to try to get each other right.

  • 00:15:18

    John Donvan

    Why do you think we’re not doing it?

  • 00:15:23

    Monica Guzman

    Well, (laughs) one of the big things that I think is the- the- the monster here is certainty. In times of high anxiety, and we’ve seen this in- in the social science research, people manufacture certainly. Why? Because the questions and the uncertainties that plague us are very painful and we don’t wanna sit with them for very long. So you can imagine in COVID, I can’t tell you how many times I refreshed, you know, all these news sites looking for when is the vaccine coming to me, or- or my kids, you know, and I’ve heard the same from conservatives, “When are they gonna lift the mask mandates from my kids’ schools?”

  • 00:15:59

    So there can be all kinds of things, and sometimes we have those questions about other people, “How could they possibly believe this thing that I think is awful?” We go, we read a thought piece on the internet, it’s got some statistics, it sounds confident and we go, “That’s why. That’s why. I don’t need to ask any questions because I already know,” and so certainty is the arch-villain of curiosity. Once you think you know, you won’t think to ask.

  • 00:16:22

    John Donvan

    You write in the book that one of the things that we see people doing these days when they encounter somebody online that they’re in a disagreement with, or maybe it’s somebody in their real world, but they choose to send them some stuff, they start sending links.

  • 00:16:36

    Monica Guzman

    Yeah. (laughs)

  • 00:16:36

    John Donvan

    “Here, read this, read this. You know, here’s the evidence, read this,” and- and you kind of dismiss that, uh, that gesture as not very, very helpful, so talk a little bit about that.

  • 00:16:45

    Monica Guzman

    Definitely not. I- I (laughs) think, you know, amplified by the- the ethic and aesthetic of social media, where we’re all walking opinions, and that seems to be all we amount to in some of these spaces, we get this kind of complete misconception about how persuasion works, and one of those things is this idea that, you know, “H- here’s this reason I’m holding in my hand why I believe what I believe on this particular issue that matters to me. Here it is. All I need to do is give it to you and it will have the same effect on you that it had on me,” and …

  • 00:17:16

    John Donvan

    (laughs)

  • 00:17:16

    Monica Guzman

    … then when people do not respond as we expect. They have more questions, they completely disagree, and so then we go to a couple of other misperceptions, “You must be crazy or stupid or evil, (laughs) because how could you possibly not see what I see?” and I think part of that reason is because places like the internet, the internet is a non-place that makes us into non-people, and one of the things we don’t see about each other is that our opinions are not something we put on and off like a shirt. Our opinions are the result of our experiences, and also the values that have grown out of our concerns and the way that we react to the world over time.

  • 00:17:55

    But we don’t ask each other about that. So it’s like we’re all little tips of icebergs arguing with other tips of icebergs, frustrated that we can’t change each other’s minds, but we’re not seeing where we came from, and without asking where people came from, you can’t understand where they are.

  • 00:18:11

    John Donvan

    Let’s talk a little bit about the practice of- of Braver Angels. So as you’ve mentioned, it’s an organization that is encouraging conversations among people who disagree with each other to talk through the issues and to practice curiosity and to do so in a civil manner, so a- ahead of, um, our sitting down and talking, I watched a number of Braver Angel programs, debates, I guess I would call them, that are on YouTube, and a few observations I had of them.

  • 00:18:35

    One, I just found it curious that one of the rules, at least in the two debates I watched, was that a speaker could not directly address a speaker from the other side. They had to go through a chairperson, what I call it, a moderator. They would … they could address the moderator, but not address the person directly. I found that really interesting and I wanted to understand what you were thinking ’cause it’s not something that we do in our program.

  • 00:18:57

    Monica Guzman

    Oh, it is very much by design. It’s about engaging folks in a collective search for truth where they can truly hear the other perspective generously. Very difficult to do, and one of those structural ways is when people say, you know, “You don’t make sense. I don’t like what you said. Well, how would you explain so-and-so.” Just the use of the second person can make anything sound accusatory if it’s coming from across the divide, but instead what we do is what we want is for people to collect a pool of meaning at the center, not directed at one person or another. What we’re doing is we’re putting meaning here in the space between us, and that’s what we’re looking at. We’re looking at these ideas.

  • 00:19:39

    So the more that we kind of direct at you, you, you, the more that people can feel guarded, but when we say, “If you have a question of the speaker, whoever just gave their- their point of view, you direct it at the chair.” “Madam Chair, I would like to ask the speaker if, you know, they have, um, children who go to school and are afraid of, you know, shootings at schools these days,” and if you do that, it’s remarkable the effect of that one structural change.

  • 00:20:07

    John Donvan

    Another observation I had in watching the- y- your debates, it was my sense that those who are participating are al- have already sort of bought into what you’re doing, and so there is a little bit of a feeling I had of preaching to the choir that- that the folks that you would want … the folks that are outlined … who are online y- yelling at each other and- and slinging links at one another and putting each other down won’t show up for a conversation that’s as constructive and thoughtful as the ones that I’m seeing on the program.

  • 00:20:42

    Monica Guzman

    Yeah. This is something that we run into and we’re- we’re kind of humbly wrestling with ourselves, and I think this is something that all organizations in this space struggle with. Um, there are folks who are already more curious, more bought in to concepts like being intellectually humble, or maybe they hold beliefs where they’re more comfortably kind of able to look at lots of different perspectives without feeling so personally attacked or implicated as easily.

  • 00:21:08

    When you go to the wings, right? The partisan left, the partisan right, or when you start to talk with folks for whom their political opinion is very much an identity, and whatever the disagreement is feels like a complete assault, it becomes a lot harder. And those folks are harder to reach, no question, uh, in these- in these experiences. That said, when we recruit voices to give our s- arguments and statements, um, affirming or against the resolutions of our debates, that’s where, um, we’ve been able to reach folks who are- who are at those wings, and that’s where we see from their feedback that they see something that surprises them.

  • 00:21:50

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:21:50

    Monica Guzman

    When we recruit, uh, folks for our community debates, we only recruit the first few speakers, but it’s actually an open community debate. So after the first four or five or six speakers, only for a few minutes each, go, then we open it up and anyone can raise their hand and say, “I wanna make a statement for or against the resolution.”

  • 00:22:07

    John Donvan

    I didn’t see this happen in any of the programs I watched, but have you ever had to shut anybody down or have someone, essentially, removed from the- from the room because of not playing by the rules?

  • 00:22:19

    Monica Guzman

    Yes. There is a policy for, you know, muting a mic if needed. It- if it happens, it happens often with folks who are asking a question but being very, very insulting, very, very offensive, very, very rude, and so the chair will, you know, mute their mic, remind folks of- of the kind of agreement that we’re trying to make here, but we are not … we don’t police … Um, what we try so hard to do is live by a principle that we call the Braver Angel’s way, but one of its tenets is that we must be able to speak fully, freely and without fear.

  • 00:22:55

    So it’s very important to us not to have to police. It’s in- it’s in not very many circumstances that we have to do it, and I think in part because when you sit in our debates for a while, you can see pretty immediately very, very different views being heard and given space without judgment, and once you see that, it softens, I think, even the hardest heart.

  • 00:23:18

    John Donvan

    It’s interesting, again, when you say that. A- another experience that I’ve had, uh, moderating the debates for what was then Intelligence Squared and now Open to Debate, when we were Intelligence Squared and still doing all of our debates live prior to the pandemic, we did about 180 of them, and I’ve told (laughs) this story before on this podcast, so my apologies to those who have heard it, but one of my fa- favorite parts of the whole experience was after the debate, going to the lobby as people were leaving, and there was such, um, a kind of exhilaration and excitement over the fact that people had just watched this conversation take place.

  • 00:23:54

    Now, there were people who came in, they were never gonna change their minds, but there were people who came in and really, truly listened to debaters that, in most cases, were in good faith truly trying to persuade them of their point of view, and those who had had the change of heart or the change of perception just seemed, uh, uh, kind of uplifted by it. That, uh, uh, something had fired in their brain (laughs) that they had never felt before, and I was always so pleased about that, and it sounds like you’re saying a little of that … a lot of that is actually happening with the Braver Angel’s project.

  • 00:24:27

    Monica Guzman

    Yes, absolutely. It- it’s experiential. It’s the kind of thing you don’t believe until you see it, and there are so few spaces constructed and designed to bring these experiences to life that you kind of can’t blame a lot of people for losing hope.

  • 00:24:40

    John Donvan

    So and then there’s social media.

  • 00:24:40

    Monica Guzman

    (laughs)

  • 00:24:42

    John Donvan

    That we didn’t used to have in our lives.

  • 00:24:43

    Monica Guzman

    (laughs)

  • 00:24:44

    John Donvan

    Um, what’s- what’s its impact on all of this?

  • 00:24:49

    Monica Guzman

    You know, it’s hard to judge it one way or the other, and I’m always trying not to be too (laughs) pessimistic these days, ’cause it’s certainly …

  • 00:24:56

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:24:56

    Monica Guzman

    … easy to. I’ve made the personal choice to pull back from social media because I know what it does to me and I’ve become more aware of that. Now, with all that said, I think one of the key things that it does that compromises our ability to really listen to each other with understanding, is that it tempts us to perform our perspectives instead of explore our perspectives. Among the dynamics that do this is that a lot of social media spaces have very little containment. Meaning, the quality of a conversation where, you know … a- a conversation has high containment if the conversation is truly contained to the people engaging and participating in that conversation.

  • 00:25:31

    Lots of social media spaces are spaces where you don’t really know who’s listening. It could be dozens or 100s of people, and you also don’t get to witness their listening. You don’t know if they’re just judging you the whole time, if they’re really made about something you just said and they’ll never tell you, and so what you end up doing, what many people end up doing, is censoring themselves, and very, very carefully writing what they’ll write, and over time, learning that surprising, you know, (laughs) your group or whoever you feel you belong to, carries a cost, and we end up really caring deeply, and there’s a lot of social science research about this too, (laughs) we care deeply about belonging.

  • 00:26:08

    And right now, it’s- it’s certainly a time where lots of folks have drawn lines in the sand, and there’s a lot of us versus them, and social media’s not a place for reflection. It does not encourage reflection, it encourages reaction, and so that means we don’t get to sit and make space and even get that awareness of how we’re reacting, what we’re thinking, which means we’re not curious about ourselves, and when we’re not curious about ourselves and our own thinking, our own thinking becomes invisible to us and we start to lose control.

  • 00:26:39

    John Donvan

    The habit some people have of blocking people they disagree with …

  • 00:26:42

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:26:43

    John Donvan

    … what do you think of that?

  • 00:26:44

    Monica Guzman

    I think it makes total sense given, again, everything I was saying about belonging.

  • 00:26:47

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:26:48

    Monica Guzman

    People want to protect themselves. You know, I know a lot of folks on Twitter who, you know, (laughs) “This is what I believe, unfollow if you disagree,” but in their defense they’re saying, “I want Twitter to be a space that I’m happy in, and if I get too many … If I hear too much of this, I’m not happy here, so I’ve gotta build my walls.”

  • 00:27:06

    So I get that, but it has a very bad downstream consequence where curiosity becomes somewhat impossible. If people with good faith would ask you, they disagree with you and they would ask you about your opinion, well, you’re not allowing them to, first of all, and you’re projecting a sort of hostility to that, second. You’re doing it because you know that there are bad actors out there and you’re not wrong, you’re not, but when you lock out the bad actors, you lock out the- the genuinely curious.

  • 00:27:37

    John Donvan

    I’m gonna quote from your book, but here’s the thing, when you shove away the hostile, you push away the curious, the people who were learning from you, from whom you might have learned something yourself. It’s exactly what you’re saying right now.

  • 00:27:49

    Monica Guzman

    Yeah, exactly, and- and you know what? Maybe the internet is just not the best place for that, (laughs) given how easily we can fake ourselves, how easily I could just be a bot trying to provoke you. It’s just not a place where trust is easily built, and maybe, to some degree, that’s okay. Maybe what we need to do is change the ratio and find out where we are in the meatspace and have the kinds of conversations where we show up with the full human toolbox of communication.

  • 00:28:17

    John Donvan

    You mentioned something in the book that I found really very, very interesting, uh, and- and I’m … by the way, I wanna tell folks to read the book. It’s- it’s fascinating, it’s fresh, uh, it’s insightful, it’s human, it’s humorous, it’s full of curiosity. (laughs) Um, you point out that Newt Gingrich, when he became speaker of the House, made a decision back in 1994 that changed the culture of Washington. Um, talk about that because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re talking about.

  • 00:28:46

    Monica Guzman

    Yeah. Uh, I- I realize this humbly … Well, a lot of Americans don’t … y- you know, maybe of my generation or younger, sort of didn’t even realize this happened, but the congressional work week is three days, and that happened, um, Newt Gingrich, when he was speaker of the House, and this was 1994 when the republicans had control of, (laughs) you know, Congress for the first time in 40 years or something crazy.

  • 00:29:10

    John Donvan

    Yep, yeah.

  • 00:29:11

    Monica Guzman

    He was not motivated to do anything (laughs) other than ch- change the game so that republicans could have a chance of keeping some of this power that they just gained for the first time in so long. So one of these changes was to make, uh, the congressional work week shorter. Now, he didn’t do it necessarily for bad reasons.

  • 00:29:30

    Um, to sit- to sit in their frame of mind, they were thinking, “You know, there’s this sort of smoky backroom stench of Washington, D.C. where politicians are not in touch with their constituents back home. We’re gonna change that. We’re gonna make it easier for members of Congress to go home every week, uh, so that they can meet with their constituents, fundraise back at home,” and this became a real bonus, you know, and the public thought, “This is a good idea.” But again, a downstream consequence was, it used to be that in D.C., democrats, republicans, our elected officials, you know, they would all meet each other at their kids’ soccer practice …

  • 00:30:09

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:30:09

    Monica Guzman

    … or whatever it happened to be. Their spouses were good friends, and that’s all gone, and- and it really changed due to that structural, uh, modification in the congressional work week. Our members of Congress go home. When they’re in D.C., their schedules are packed to the gills, and even though they share executive office buildings with members of the other party, it’s remarkable how little they interact, especially in any kind of generous context.

  • 00:30:35

    Huh, (laughs) it was Ben Sasse, um, who, uh, left the U.S. Congress. He was the- the senator from Nebraska, and in his farewell address, to the Senate he said, you know, “We all know that what we … our speeches that we do here on the floor are audition tapes to be invited onto the talk shows, where we can speak to our base and rile them up. We all know that, and that is not what this body is designed for.” There’s a lot of awareness (laughs) within politicians that this is not something we want, but it’s a very difficult system to change.

  • 00:31:11

    John Donvan

    Our guest on Open to Debate is Monica Guzman and we will be right back. Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m your host, John Donvan. Let’s return to our conversation. You know, we- we’re talking a lot about contentiousness in discourse, and the idea of curiosity and trying to understand where the person who holds the opposing point of view is coming from, but neither of us, definitely you are not saying that argument is a bad thing, that it’s bad to disagree, and I think people might think that that’s what we’re saying, that we all need to get along, that we need to always find the common ground, is that we need to agree on everything so that we can move forward, and that’s not the point, is it?

  • 00:32:03

    Monica Guzman

    Not at all. First of all, it’s impossible. Total agreement is impossible, but what is always possible is curiosity. What is always possible is hearing out another point of view. If all you’re doing is a contest of assertions and a contest of reasons where there’s no give and you just repeat, except you say your insistent reasons louder, you’re not going anywhere. You’re spinning away from each other.

  • 00:32:33

    So instead it’s about you- you are convicted in your reasons, you stay with that, but allow yourself some room to truly listen to real people express the perspective that you oppose, because you’ll probably learn something that will … it could complicate your own belief. It might even change your mind. Don’t be afraid of that. If it changes your mind, then that’s ’cause your mind was ripe to be changed, but either way, if we don’t add friction to these views for ourselves, we’re not gonna see the full, complex truth.

  • 00:33:08

    John Donvan

    There- there are, though, issues where, ultimately, one thing, only one thing can happen, or only one choice can be made or only one policy could be put into place that are highly divisive in our society, for- for example, um, the right to abortion. Either there’s a federal right to abortion or there is not.

  • 00:33:28

    Monica Guzman

    Yep.

  • 00:33:29

    John Donvan

    It’s one that people have argued over for- for decades now, um, with a very, very big change in the course of events over the past year. I’m not, in any way, asking for you for your opinion on abortion, but I’m asking you for the- for the- a question about what good would it have done for the people who are on opposite sides of that issue to be curious about each other …

  • 00:33:49

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:33:49

    John Donvan

    … when in the end there could only really be one outcome?

  • 00:33:52

    Monica Guzman

    One of the things you- you lose, I think, not listening to each other, is you do lose the opportunities to see where the common ground is, and you might say, “There’s no common ground in the abortion debate,” but there is. Both sides are good with fewer unwanted pregnancies. Both sides want that. That’s a place to begin. It’s true that there are these extremely hard to reconcile views about the sacredness of life and also how the heck you navigate, (laughs) you know, the right of a woman or a person to live the life they need to live versus the right of a being, um, to be born. That’s- that’s really tough and it’s one for the ages. It’s- it’s what’s known as a wicked issue. One that is very difficult to resolve for all time.

  • 00:34:33

    But sometimes, I think, be- believing that there are fixed binaries and the policy has to go one or the other as- as a reason to not engage really misses opportunities to bring us closer to where we will end up. So to give you a- a great example I talk about a lot, the author, Jonathan Rauch, was an activist for same-sex marriage some years ago, and the last thing he and other gay and lesbian folks wanted to do was to listen deeply and generously to folks who really saw them as broken. And some of them still did, and one of the things they learned was that many folks who had held these views also had people they loved who were gay, and so the question that they ended up asking, that began to peel into something, was, “Wouldn’t you want someone you love to experience that joy of committed marriage?”

  • 00:35:33

    And so he said that discovering that that question was hitting right at a really beautiful tension in the hearts of these folks. First, like, one light bulb went off, then another, then another, and then Jonathan says, “There was a room full of light.” So in his view, the same-sex marriage movement would not have moved (laughs) if some people were not willing to listen to the other side, and to listen generously, because here’s the thing, if they had listened with pure condescension …

  • 00:36:02

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:36:03

    Monica Guzman

    … they wouldn’t have learned.

  • 00:36:04

    John Donvan

    Uh, David Blankenhorn is one of the founders of Braver Angels, am I correct about that?

  • 00:36:08

    Monica Guzman

    Yes.

  • 00:36:08

    John Donvan

    So tell us about David’s position on the very one issue that you’re talking about now, because he very publicly did what you’re talking about, and listened and changed his mind.

  • 00:36:19

    Monica Guzman

    He’s the president of Braver Angels and- and one of the co-founders, and really a remarkable, (laughs) remarkable person. So he, himself, personally experienced the following, right? He’s an advocate for marriage between one man and one woman. He’s out there talking about it. This was some years ago, and he became friends with Jonathan Rauch, among others, and in the course of many conversations, grew into a different conclusion. It- it changed his mind on his own, saw it differently, and, I know, once he realized this, he realized, “Well, he has to change what he’s saying.”

  • 00:36:53

    So he did, and what he experienced was, what many folks are afraid to experience sometimes, if they are honest about their views and it surprises their friends, he experienced some exclusion. He experienced some shaming and shunning, and he got sort of first-hand to see what happens when we allow ourselves to move in a climate that doesn’t want it. And so this was part of what motivated him to- to work on Braver Angels, to help folks who are kind of suffering the pain of the divide, whether it’s broken relationships or even a chilling sensation where you, yourself, cannot feel at home in America, or you cannot feel … you don’t feel that you can even say the truth of what you think.

  • 00:37:42

    That’s not a comfortable place to be. It’s not a great place to be, but there’s so much to be afraid of, and he says, you know, “I wanna- I wanna try to help folks get to a place where we can speak fully, freely and without fear.”

  • 00:37:54

    John Donvan

    So there is a risk to pursuing this curiosity, a social risk.

  • 00:37:58

    Monica Guzman

    Absolutely. I mean, I- I was talking about certainty being the arch-villain of curiosity, but fear is also quite the villain. Fear is extra, extra juicy because, first of all, we can’t wonder about something we think is out to get us. We can’t. You know, we need to survive, so that makes sense, and fear is this wonderful … (laughs) I mean, it’s awesome. It brings adrenaline into your bloodstream, like run, you have extra super strength, you know, and what that means for the brain is you’re- you’re in fight or flight mode, you get strong in those areas of the brain, but you get less creative.

  • 00:38:34

    And so the more afraid that we are, the less that we become capable of finding solutions where they might truly exist but it takes a little work to get there. So being afraid, especially when, for example, our fear is motivated by our misperceptions, our fear is motivated by our imagination about what other people think and why, rather than the truth, that’s a pretty high cost too.

  • 00:38:59

    John Donvan

    How do you deal with the attitude that there is not another side to this issue?

  • 00:39:04

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

  • 00:39:04

    John Donvan

    And that’s a very, very deeply held conviction, and in fact, we find people that we ask to debate with us, and they say, “I’m not gonna debate that. I- I don’t wanna give the other side a platform because there is no other side.”

  • 00:39:15

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

  • 00:39:16

    John Donvan

    Uh, do you encounter that?

  • 00:39:17

    Monica Guzman

    Oh, all the time. All the time, and this is our fear of speaking against truth. You know, as a journalist, I- I feel this insecurity constantly in this work, but here’s- here’s the trick, and this concept I borrow from my friend, Buster Benson, who wrote a book, a wonderful book called Why Are We Yelling? And he talks about three different kinds of conversations we can have across disagreement. One is the conversation about what is true. The other is the conversation about what is meaningful, and the third is the conversation about what is useful.

  • 00:39:49

    So if you run into someone who disagrees with you in a way that you think, “But that’s based on just utter … it’s just not even true. It’s just not there.” Your option … your only option is not to just hit abort or to insist and try to convince them. Instead, try to get behind what appears false to get to the truth in their path, to get to the truth in their perspective, because even when we arrive at false conclusions, there’s always truth in our story of how we got there. So what you end up discussing isn’t what’s true or false, but instead the concerns, “What are you afraid of? What do you worry about? What do you hope for?”

  • 00:40:32

    Now, these things are conversations we are all eligible to have, and they do not rely, necessarily, on a studious intellect about facts. They rely on the human experience, and what’s magical is people can only hear when they’re heard. Have the conversation about what’s meaningful and you might just build enough trust to move each other on the conversation about what is true.

  • 00:40:54

    John Donvan

    It- it’s a practice that takes a lot of humility and, I think, a lot of generosity.

  • 00:41:01

    Monica Guzman

    I think that’s right, but as I like to say, practicing curiosity in our conversations is psychologically difficult, but technically, extremely simple. Very easy. (laughs) You know, and- and there are certain- certain kind of tips that really work if you can just make yourself do it once in that conversation …

  • 00:41:20

    John Donvan

    Okay.

  • 00:41:20

    Monica Guzman

    … you’ll already make it more curious.

  • 00:41:21

    John Donvan

    Share. Please share.

  • 00:41:22

    Monica Guzman

    So, for example, instead of asking, “Why do you believe what you believe?” when you disagree with someone, ask, “How did you come to believe what you believe?” What you do there is we- you make them into storytellers. You get them to tell you their story, which, hey, they’re the world’s leading expert on that, and they’re giving you a tour through their perspective instead of you putting them on trial where they feel instantly defensive and guarded and it’s really a proxy for, “I matter more than you.” “No, I matter more than you.” “I am better than you.” “No, I am better than you,” ’cause that, let’s face it, that’s a lot of the conversation we’re having when we’re arguing about politics.

  • 00:41:59

    John Donvan

    I wanna share a couple of (laughs) things that have- have disappointed me in interactions with our audience, um, by they are not doing the things that you’re talking about, and just get your take on it. So we did a debate, um, not long ago, in which we were exploring whether the technology, it’s called carbon capture, was an appropriate response to climate change or not, and the dividing line in this issue was that the technology is being developed, and yes, they can capture carbon from the air and the plan is to bury it in the ground. It’ll be expensive, it’ll- it’ll- it’ll be a very, very major project, and the pushback against it is not that the technology doesn’t work, but that it’s a distraction.

  • 00:42:41

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:42:41

    John Donvan

    It’s on Twitter that somebody who apparently follows this issue said, “All of the experts I follow dismiss carbon capture as a distraction, and proven a very inefficient …” Not really much debate, in my opinion.

  • 00:42:54

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:42:55

    John Donvan

    I almost never respond to anyone on Twitter. That’s kind of my rule, but in this one case I thought, “Oh, I think he’s kind of reaching out a little bit and- and sharing his point of view, I wonder whether he actually listened to the debate,” so I responded, “Well, that …” I said, “Ah, well, that might be why the episode would be worth a listen for the sake of hearing the case for the other side.” I wasn’t trying to tweak him, I was actually trying to say, “Hey, we had a debate and it might be worth hearing before you- you say there’s no debate there.” His response to me was, “What I’m saying is the debate has happened and the conclusion drawn.”

  • 00:43:30

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:43:30

    John Donvan

    I’m okay with him saying that, but it was the next line, “Continuing to argue that a debate is needed is climate denial.”

  • 00:43:36

    Monica Guzman

    Oh, yeah.

  • 00:43:36

    John Donvan

    And so there he was characterizing either the debater or me or our program as being engaged in climate denialism, and that was very, very disappointing to me because it wa- it was not that, and a debate about climate is not climate denialism at all. In fact, the- the woman who was arguing for carbon capture is very, very committed through her entire career dealing with climate, uh, climate change, and I just (laughs) wanted to share that with you and- and- and get your response to that. Do you see that sort of thing happening, or is that the very thing that we’re up against?

  • 00:44:15

    Monica Guzman

    One of the biggest fallacies that we all have, and again, no matter how educated or informed we think we are, we tend to believe that what we see is all there is, and when you really think about it, I’ll be crass about this, but how arrogant of any of us to believe that? What we see is all there is. There are extraordinarily complicated issues out there in the world. What’s interesting is not that he said, you know, “Climate denialism,” but what that- what that means and what that communicated to you, right? I would venture to guess, but I wanna … you to confirm yay or nay is, when you heard that, what you were hearing was, “You’re hurting us. This is hurtful.

  • 00:44:15

    John Donvan

    Yes.

  • 00:44:56

    Monica Guzman

    This is harmful,” and I would say that we are coming up with more and more and more creative ways to basically make the claim that further debate, or further conversation in some cases, or even asking questions in some cases, is harmful. So whether we call it climate denialism or a phobia of some kind. There’s a lot of adding phobe to the end of something, right? And- and again, like, “Hey, there are bad actors out there, and- and there is such a thing as the better way,” and I don’t … I’m not denying that, but we need to be extremely careful when we feel qualified to make that kind of declaration.

  • 00:45:31

    It’s part of being intellectually humble to say, “I might be missing something. I may not see the whole picture. I may still end up with the opinion that I have, but let me stay open. What’s the harm?” right? But here’s where I would turn that on it’s head a bit. To me, the greatest harm is the way we are bleeding trust by not listening to each other’s genuine concerns. The way we are bleeding trust by having fewer and fewer good faith ways to engage, and instead, more and more ways to accuse. To me, the worst society is one where there’s no trust to support the search for truth, the collective search for truth. If we don’t have a collective search for truth, we- we don’t have a sustainable society.

  • 00:46:15

    John Donvan

    Do you think we’re moving in that direction?

  • 00:46:16

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm. I think I’d be disingenuous if- if I said that I- I wasn’t afraid that that is absolutely the direction we’re moving, that we’re still bleeding trust. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I thought different, right? But I see lots of hope. I mean, tremendous amounts, and I think the major thing is awareness. There is more and more and more self-evident awareness of everything from how talking about politics in certain platforms really leaves us too few tools to do it well to, you know, the- the effect of psychology on our minds and how easy it can be even for those of us who are educated and informed, or believe ourselves to be, to manufacture certainty when it’s not warranted, to the effects of fear and anxiety and how little we want that in our lives unless it’s really, really necessary.

  • 00:47:05

    And more and more people are experiencing how- how … the- the extent to which this cannot go on. So I- I’m very hopeful that even if we’re still on the way to rock bottom, that we’re gonna (laughs) bounce back, and a lot of it, frankly, is just the realization that we’re not even as divided as we think, and once we see that, I think progress can come very, very quickly.

  • 00:47:26

    John Donvan

    So to wrap up and to get back to progress, how did you sort it out with your parents when you discovered they were Trump supporters? You found that a problem and they found your politics a problem, uh, in 2016 when people were dividing …

  • 00:47:38

    Monica Guzman

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:47:39

    John Donvan

    … and there was a risk of it dividing your family. How did you sort that out?

  • 00:47:42

    Monica Guzman

    Had a lot of conversations. Mostly, I really wanted to get to how they arrived at their beliefs. I had extraordinary conversations with my dad that went to his childhood in Mexico and how, in a really indirect and fun way, that impacted how he views immigration policy in the United States, and we don’t have time to go into it, but, boy, it’s an adventure. I say in my bio that I’m the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents, and it’s true. Um, I think that the fact that we come at things from a different point of view is not a problem, right?

  • 00:48:13

    I do believe that people have to own whatever their political choices bring about, and I have problems with some of their political choices and what it’s brought about, but they have problems with mine too, and I’m not saying that they’re equal, but in each other’s minds we just … we have a lot to teach each other. We have a lot to show each other, and maybe one of the greatest gifts I’ve gotten from, you know, being outraged and then talking to my parents is they’ll show me something I was missing. When I just assumed there was nothing but benevolence behind this, they’ll be like, “Well, did you think about it this way?” and I’ll be like, “Nope, I did not think about it that way, but that makes sense, (laughs) thank you and now I’m more calm.”

  • 00:48:49

    John Donvan

    And what does that do for you? What does that give you that’s positive?

  • 00:48:52

    Monica Guzman

    It gives me freedom. Freedom to live my life without being afraid of all my neighbors. It gives me hope, and I don’t mean like the silly kind of hope where it’s like, “Everything will be fine, guys.” No, no, no. The hope that is about having a road map and having willpower, you know, and seeing the way through. I think once we get close enough to each other to see each other, we realize that we absolutely have the capacity to get through all kinds of tough stuff. It’s just we have to get close enough to each other to even see that. So that’s- that’s a gift.

  • 00:49:23

    John Donvan

    Oh, gosh. Let’s hope. (laughs) Monica Guzman, thank you so much for joining us on Open to Debate. It was a fascinating conversation, and once again, I recommend your book to everybody.

  • 00:49:31

    Monica Guzman

    Thanks, John. This was awesome.

  • 00:49:32

    John Donvan

    And that concludes this conversation, and I wanna thank all of you for listening to this episode of Open to Debate. You know, as a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, by the Rosenkranz Foundation and by supporters of Open to Debate. Open to Debate is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund.

  • 00:49:52

    Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman, Clea Connor is CEO, Lia Matthow is our chief content officer, Gillian Malphee is our senior producer, Marlette Sandoval is our producer and Gabriella Mayer is our editorial and research manager. Gabrielle Iannucelli is our social media and digital platforms’ coordinator, Andrew Lipson is head of production, Max Fulton is our production coordinator, Damon Whittemore is our engineer, Raven Baker, events and operations manager, Rachael Kemp is our chief of staff, our theme music is by Alex Clement and I’m your host, John Donvan. We’ll see you next time.

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