StoryCorps 499: An Experiment
Michael Garofalo (MG): In the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, talking about politics was, well, fraught; especially if you were talking to somebody who had different beliefs than you do.
Peter Stanley (PS): I get a little bit miffed when you say, “I can’t even talk to you, Dad.” And if you’re going to flip out about it then, you know what, I’d rather you didn’t talk to me.
Jenn Stanley (JS): This is what drives me crazy, though. I am not the only one yelling in our conversations.
MG: You may remember that conversation between a father and daughter who just couldn’t see eye to eye. We brought that to you just before the election in November.
Well, since then, it seems like things have only gotten worse. It’s harder than ever to have a conversation with someone we disagree with. So, this past month, we teamed up with another public radio program, called Indivisible, for an experiment. We wanted to see if people would be willing to record StoryCorps conversations with someone they saw as their political opposite.
Charlie Sykes (CS): If you start the conversation basically going, “I hate you, I want to deport your mother, and um, you know, I, I think you’re less than human, would you like to hear my ideas about the flat tax?” Well you know what, no! No, people are not. Now on your side, people if, if you say, “Hey, I think you’re a bunch of redneck bigots, would you like to hear my idea about education reform?” Well, no.
MG: Can we talk across the lines we draw out between us and them? That’s what we’re trying to figure out. I’m Michael Garofalo and this is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. More after this short break.
MG: Welcome back.
In this episode, we’re talking about an experiment we’ve been conducting this month with the public radio show, Indivisible.
If you haven’t heard Indivisible before, it’s a live, national political call-in show coproduced by WNYC in New York, Minnesota Public Radio News, and the Economist. It’s running for the first 100 days of the new administration, Monday through Thursday, with a different host each night. They also podcast their shows. And, we wanted to see if we could get some Indivisible listeners to volunteer to take part in an experiment: to find out if two people with differing political points of view could learn to understand each other a little bit better through doing a StoryCorps interview.
We tried this once before, you might remember, just before the election when Jenn Stanley, who’s 29 years old, a writer, and liberal, interviewed her father, Peter, a recently retired construction worker who is conservative.
JS: Now I feel like we’ve gotten to this point where we’re together and we’re fighting about politics.
PS: And those would be the times when I hear you say, “I can’t even talk to you, Dad.” And to be honest with you, I get a little bit miffed when you say you can’t talk to me, but I … if you’re going to get so angry and and flip out about it then, you know what, I’d rather you didn’t talk to me.
JS: But see, this is what drives me crazy, though. Because you… you… I am not the only one yelling in our conversations.
PS: I definitely voice my opinions…
JS: But you start these conversations…I
PS: Well, I ask questions. What do you think about this and what do you think about that? It’s me trying to glean information from somebody who is significantly more educated than I am and whose opinions I trust.
JS: I’m really surprised to hear you say that. I had no idea that you were genuinely interested in what I had to say. I thought that you wanted to tell me how I was wrong and also make a joke about how I was silly.
PS: Well, I would never feel that way about you. I have nothing but respect for you. I don’t agree with you all the time, I don’t agree with you most of the time, but that’s ok.
MG: The conversation goes on from there and you can hear more of it on our website, StoryCorps.org in the podcast episode that’s called “The Other Side.”
But I want to stop the tape here, when Peter says this:
PS: I have nothing but respect for you. I don’t agree with you all the time, I don’t agree with you most of the time, but that’s ok.
MG: Listening back months later, this line really stands out to me.
I think it speaks to something that’s at the heart of the division we’re experiencing right now — we just do NOT want to engage with people we disagree with. Unlike Peter, we’re not “ok with that.”
Part of this is human nature, of course, and for many people it’s about self-preservation — why put up with the aggravation or, in some cases, even the threat that we feel when we crash up against people and ideas we disagree with? This is why we take people out of our facebook feed, right
So with this experiment, we wanted to find out what might happen if we push against that impulse to shut out the other side. What if we actually take a step or two toward that person we consider our opposite? What will we find if we take the time to ask them some questions about their lives?
Our hunch, maybe it is more of a hope, is that a StoryCorps interview could be kind of like a tool, something that can help people understand each other a little bit better. And, start to restore some of that social capital that seems to have been lost.
Because right now, it feels like we can’t even see each other as fellow human beings — you know, just that fundamental, basic thing. And if we can’t do that, how are we going to work together on any problem at all?
So, we decided on a few things.
First, these aren’t interviews aren’t about current events, policy, or ideology. They’re personal and they’ll focus on the experiences and the people that influenced and shaped how we see the world.
Second, these aren’t arguments and there’s no winner and no loser. They’re about trying to see the other guy’s point of view.
And third, you don’t have to change your mind, and neither does your interview partner. It’s about trying to understand, which is not the same as agreeing.
Among the first volunteers to do this were two of the hosts of Indivisible: Kai Wright and Charlie Sykes.
Both are super passionate about their politics, but by way of very different places. Charlie, who is white, hosted a conservative radio show in the midwest for more than 20 years.
Kai is African American and he’s written for the progressive magazine The Nation, focusing on racial justice, economic inequality, healthcare, and sexuality.
Let’s hear how it went. Charlie starts the conversation.
CS: I always described myself as a recovering liberal, ‘cause I actually grew up in a very liberal, democratic family. My father was the chairman of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, my first campaign was setting up the the campaign headquarters for Eugene McCarthy, who was the anti-war candidate against Lyndon Johnson.
Kai Wright (KW): When you said, that you were raised by people from the ACLU…
KW: …my eyebrows went up very quickly, I did not know that. At what point did you say, “I don’t think I believed what I believed yesterday?”
CS: Part of it was I became a newspaper reporter and I covered urban issues. And I started noticing that a lot of the programs from the Great Society were just failures. And one of the things that influenced me was the whole question of are we actually supporting policies that are helping people or hurting people?
KW: For me, it wasn’t, this has rarely been an ideological question or a policy-driven question. My parents could not go to the bathroom in the same place as your parents could go to the bathroom. And that’s only one generation ago. That’s what shaped my worldview was being raised by those kinds of people who had that kind of life experience. And I think that is, uh, a profoundly different starting point on politics than the idea of what’s happening to other people.
CS: No, I, obviously. And I think that, you know, perhaps at one point Jews might have felt the same way. You know, my father actually was a Jewish World War II veteran, fighting in World War II, where Jews were being annihilated.
KW: May have shaped his liberalism at the time.
CS: Very much so. Let me tell you, though, about one of the formative parts of my view that I think is very different than yours. For me, what Martin Luther King, Jr. said about looking forward to a day when my children are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character was one of the formative things for me — the belief in the color-blind society: that at some point, you move beyond that and you judge people by the content of their character…
KW: See that’s a…
CS: What’s wrong with that?
KW: That’s a great example that that’s what you heard Martin Luther King say, because that’s not at all what my parents heard Martin Luther King say or what I heard Martin Luther King say. His message was justice, not colorblindness. Martin Luther King never said that we should not see race. He also said that repeatedly that we had to undo the injustices that we’d already spent 200 years creating. To put it another way, for me, too, you know, my parents, they put me in white schools. And from the beginning they said listen, that means that you are in a place that is not built for you to succeed. And so, when you go about making your choices, be clear: you will have greater fall than your white peers if you make a mistake. These were things that were delivered to me, time and time again, frankly as I would screw up. Right like, that’s not teaching me to be a victim.
KW: And these things informed my politics. That was teaching me to be clear-eyed about what you face and then go out and be individual Kai Wright.
CS: Well, you know, as I was listening to your story Kai, I was thinking that, in terms of what shaped my worldview, it would be my parents. I can’t imagine being the same person without them.
KW: Are they still around?
CS: No, and they have not been for some time, no. I miss them everyday.
KW: You know, my grandmother, passed, uh, two years ago. She is a towering figure in my life. And much of my politics were shaped in her parlor. She sort of convened the world in that parlor, uh, and people had conversations like these. And, anyway, when my father died which was, uh, I was 30 at the time. He died a young man. He and my grandmother lived together at the time, and I would, uh, talk to them regularly on the phone. And I remember leaving her house after his funeral and she says to me, she says, “well, Kai, you gotta still call.” And you know, I called some, but, I didn’t… nowhere near enough.
CS: You know what? I can so relate to you. My father also died young. He died when he was 63, which is actually one of the reasons I retired from my radio show because I figured, that, you know, I’m roughly his age now. And I never had the chance to say goodbye, never had that last conversation, and those are the regrets that stay with you an awful lot, you know?
KW: In talking about our life experiences what you’re hearing is that we were talk to respect people and to respect ourselves. And, like, we can debate what is the best way to care for people — that’s the kind of debate that both you and I want to have.
CS: Your point about respect, I think, is fundamental here. And this is something that I try to tell conservatives is, first of all, look, if you start the conversation basically going, “I hate you, I want to deport your mother, and, um, you know I think you’re less than human. Would you like to hear my ideas about the flat tax?” Well, you know what, no! Now on your side, if you say, “Hey, I think you’re a bunch of redneck bigots, would you like to hear my idea about education reform?” Well, no, because the conversation stops…
KW: I couldn’t agree more…
CS: If you start with the basis of respect… but that is one of the casualties of where we’re at right now.
KW: You know, I respect your thoughtfulness, Charlie. I mean, you take your politics, and your ideology, and the world very seriously. And I’ve learned in the course of this conversation that’s because it’s rooted in this respect for other people.
CS: Well, I’m going to bear some of that back. The story that you’re telling about the values you got from your parents and the struggles that you’ve gone through, I mean, this is very, very real. It’s not just a series of political declarations, you know? And I do think that, you know, that sort of passionate engagement of your own personal experience makes it impossible not to pay attention to what you’re saying. And I think back on my life and I think that perhaps I’ve approached politics and some of these issues maybe too intellectually, too abstractly, as opposed to cutting through all of it and saying look, we’re talking about real human beings. So I’m grateful to you for this dialogue.
[MUSIC Weinland, “For Land, For Love, For Time”]
MG: That’s Charlie Sykes and Kai Wright, hosts of public radio’s Indivisible.
So we played that conversation on air and we asked listeners to write in and tell us who they would want to interview. We’re still combing through all the responses we got, but I do want to share one of the conversations that’s already been recorded.
It’s between two people who, when it comes to talking despite political differences, they seem to have figured something out.
Cindy Brookshire works at the town Visitor Center in Selma, North Carolina, population roughly 6000. She’s white and a liberal.
Eric Jackson is a retired teacher. He’s black and conservative.
Since the election, Eric has been calling Cindy at the Visitor Center each Thursday morning to talk about what’s going on in the country.
Eric Jackson (EJ): It’s usually about 10 o’clock…
Cindy Brookshire (CB): And the phone rings and I say, “Selma Visitors Center.”
EJ: And I’ll say, “Could you tell me if there are any local book burnings around?” I will do some right-wing thing to make her laugh. It’s my Thursday ritual.
CB: I didn’t realize you were conservative until after the election, ‘cause I remember offering you a ride to go vote early, but I didn’t realize you were voting Republican. And then I had remorse, I was like, I offered him a ride to vote.
EJ: But conservatism is not a dirty word. Liberalism is not a dirty word. I can respect liberal all day long. What I have a hard time swallowing is extremism on both sides. But someone who is a liberal, I can learn from it.
CB: Why do you think it’s easy for us to talk to each other about politics when we’re so different?
EJ: Because I think we respect each other. I respect your experience. I respect your opinions.
CB: See, I feel like I can talk to you because you don’t dismiss me as a liberal. After the election, I panicked and you were the one that talked me down. And it would seem like I would go to my liberal friends to be comforted, but I went to a conservative.
EJ: And I said, “Honey, it’s going to be ok.” We’ve had bigger bumps than Donald Trump. But I still know a lot of people that are still in that fetal position, but you’ve…
CB: I marched on down to the democratic…
EJ: You’ve marched on.
CB: I’ve joined the democratic party, I’m filling out postcards to welcome new members and everything and you haven’t turned away from me because of…
EJ: No, that’s your bailiwick. Go for it. The thing is, if his becoming president has spurred you to action, then this country will be fine, because that’s what this country was founded on and I think that’s why we will always be ok.
MG: That’s Eric Jackson and Cindy Brookshire.
If only it could be so easy for the rest of us, right? But maybe we can get there. If there’s anything that I’ve learned in this ongoing experiment, it’s that there is this one thing that everybody talks about in these interviews: respect.
If that’s there, conversations like these are possible.
We’re recording more interviews over the coming weeks and we’ll bring you an update once we have heard them all.
If you want to give this a shot yourself, write to us at listen at [email protected] Tell us how you identify politically and who you’d like to interview and why. It can be a friend, a sibling, a roommate, or even someone you don’t know that well. One thing we’d like to try is pairing up people who don’t know each other and see how that goes. The address again is [email protected]. It may take us a while to get back to you, but trust us, we’re reading everything that you send in.
That’s all for this week’s episode, which I produced with help from Jud Esty Kendall and our collaborators at Indivisible: Zoe Azulay, Megan Ryan, Paige Cowett, and Brian Lehrer.
Find out what music we used on our website, StoryCorps.org and leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps other people find us and we love reading them.
Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo and this has been the StoryCorps podcast. Thanks for listening.