When the young female gun control activist started talking earnestly with the burly firearms pro — a man who had earlier proclaimed that many gun laws don't make sense — I knew that we had succeeded in creating a respectful, constructive dialogue about this intensely polarizing topic.
Around the room at Eureka's Wharfinger Building, a dozen other small groups of political opposites were talking like neighbors: People who wanted stricter gun laws chatted with gun owners who were strongly pro Second Amendment (they call themselves "Pro 2A"); a man who'd said that in an ideal world there'd be no guns was listening to a couple of passionate National Rifle Association members.
When we reconvened the whole group, it was obvious that many of the 40 attendees had been inspired by the dialogue. Some made offers to connect after the forum. One invited gun-wary people to accompany him to the firing range to learn about gun safety. Several asked when the next forum would be held and at least one offered to help organize it. (My co-facilitator Jess Pettitt and I have no plans for another forum but the Eureka Interfaith Fellowship will hold one on Aug. 26; follow the fellowship on Facebook for more info.)
We didn't come up with any new ideas or policies but simply having the conversation that never seems to happen was valuable in itself. "It built a sense of community and I think that's important, whether we solve anything or not," Andy Broese told me later. Broese sells firearms at his Broese's Uniforms, and he supported the event, along with Blue Ox Millworks, Cooperation Humboldt, the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, Humboldt Domestic Violence Services and Pacific Outfitters.
This kind of community building is getting harder to accomplish — and more important than ever. Since the 2016 presidential election, we've seen how political disagreements divide families and end friendships. News and social media feed us information designed to confirm and intensify our biases — and politicians and advocacy groups on the left and right demonize the other side in their quest for more money and/or votes.
Neuroscience and social psychology research help explain why we're so susceptible to partisan thinking, why political disagreements can rupture friendships and communities and how the experience of airing our disagreements in a respectful way can bring us together.
It turns out that we're hard-wired by evolution to react with fear and anger when our version of reality is challenged. "Different facts can threaten our sense of status and survival," said local consultant and author Mary Gelinas in a recent webinar on the neuroscience of collaboration.
"In the face of difference, especially when the issues at hand are important to us, we can become anxious, even angry, as the more primitive parts of the brain take charge and drive us to do combat, flee the scene or play possum," writes Gelinas in her book, Talk Matters: Solving Complex Issues Through Brain Science, Mindful Awareness and Effective Process.
In Gelinas's view, poorly run public meetings often trigger this kind of reactivity. "Although survival is rarely at stake in a meeting, it can feel as if it is [and] behaviors like interruptions or criticisms of ideas can evoke hurt, fear or anger and self-protective behaviors in any of us," she writes.
Jess knows these dynamics well after facilitating many contentious community conversations around the country. At her suggestion, we sat in a big circle — a physical demonstration that all were equal. And we started the forum with an open sharing round, in which each person was given up to two minutes to speak without interruptions, comments, cheers or jeers.
Jess also knew we needed to limit our ambitions for the forum. I'd hoped that we could incorporate a back-and-forth discussion about a proposed law, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban or Arcata's safe storage ordinance. But she knew we wouldn't have enough time. (My short overview of current gun law controversies is available here.)
I hope the good people of Humboldt County can experience similar facilitated conversations on the issues that divide us, such as needle exchanges, homeless policies and the conflicts that Arcata is going through now over racial justice and the McKinley statue. Or even national issues, like abortion and immigration.
People may not budge from their original positions, but the experience of sharing their views and hearing the views of others in a respectful manner can minimize personal divisions and build connections across the ideological lines.
As the gun laws forum broke up, some participants lingered and talked in the parking lot under a gorgeous twilight sky. I doubt anyone left with a changed view of the gun control issue. The "pro 2A" folks probably still view gun violence as a social problem, not a gun problem that can be addressed through more regulations. And the pro gun control participants will likely pursue more restrictions.
But the very act of sharing their conflicting views in a mutually respectful way had psychic rewards. "Part of building community is building understanding with people who have different perspectives, views and values from us," said Broese.
For collaboration guru Gelinas, these types of dialogues are becoming more and more necessary. "Although survival in the past depended on being part of a family or tribe, it now depends on our ability to relate effectively with those whom we perceive as being outside our tribe or group."
Jim Hight is an independent journalist and fledgling facilitator of difficult conversations. He intends to organize similar forums in Colorado, where he and his wife are moving this fall. Jim can be reached at [email protected].
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