If you haven’t already read one or more of the stories from our Respect Project, you’ll find now a great time to dig into the series. For the project, we asked three writers for stories that challenge the narrative of deep and divisive polarization. It’s a collection of interviews, profiles, and features, touching on the full range of issues in politics, education, race, and religion. Among the stories:
- Two veterans of a war-of-words on Twitter find a way to engage in respectful sparring.
- A pair of attorneys who passionately lobby for policies at opposite ends of the LGBTQ rights debate, explore mutual respect to alter the anger and ferocity of their political battle.
- A Canadian TV show brings together rival politicians at loggerheads over policy, but who swap angry sound bites for rational and respectful dialog.
What was it like for our writers to go deeper into their journalistic tool bags to find people with strong convictions, but who could open the door to respectful conversation?
Harry Bruinius, who wrote the introduction to our series, also profiled the opponents on opposite sides of the LGBTQ rights issue. I asked him how he approached the story.
Harry Bruinius: One thing that we're trying to do is to find and locate and perhaps even celebrate those moments when people that have engaged in the kind of vitriol and divisiveness that defines our public dialogs come together, and then find moments of grace, moments of real respect and care for another human being. If you go back to my story on LGBTQ and religious freedom - right now, this is an enormously divisive issue with the Equality Act currently before the Senate - And you will see two people try to come together to find a different way. It was a profound experience.
The Monitor’s Toronto-based writer Sara Miller Llana and staff writer Stephen Humphries in Boston also contributed to The Respect Project. They found that face-to-face conversations often held the key to breaking down the biggest barriers.
Stephen Humphries: When we're in conflict with those that we can't actually see because they're in another part of the country and maybe you're arguing with them over Facebook or Twitter, that digital separation means that you're only seeing an avatar. You're not seeing a flesh and blood person. You forget that you're dealing with an actual human. You often forget that when you meet people face to face and you have an interaction with them, things happen, and you see the humanity. It really helps to have that face-to-face interaction, and I think that also opens up the path to dialog.
Sara Miller Llana: I did a story for “The Respect Project” on political rivals. They come together in a reality television show where they spend two days together. They were both former budget chiefs in Toronto, and they have spent the better part of the past decade really fighting over taxes. But they didn't know much about one another. And in their meeting where they came together in this show, they realized that they both had children with disabilities. And it just brought an understanding between them together to see the full picture and the full person in front of them. It's led to so many more conversations. And it doesn't mean that they've abandoned their ideologies at all, but they're able to have constructive conversations now.
So what prompts some people to begin to back away from the deep partisan divides? Stephen Humphries says in some cases it’s just the sheer exhaustion of being stuck in the same conflicts that results in a change of heart.
Stephen Humphries: One thing I discovered is that people who are embroiled in partisan conflicts often find that they are all-consuming. They're awake at night and whether it's national politics where they’re having imaginary debates in their head or someone that you're upset with on Twitter - those things really start to feel heavy on the shoulders. It's when people finally reach that point of exhaustion and say, “I've had enough of that,” then they step back.
I asked Sara Miller Llana and Harry Bruinius a final question: How did reporting for the Monitor frame their approach to stories like this? Is there something built into Monitor journalism that guides writers when they approach stories that could exploit emotional divides?
Sara Miller Llana: We're very lucky at the Monitor in the sense that we're never going to sensationalize the news. That is not what we do. Our mission is to “injure no man....” We approach a subject or a story with respect in the first place. We're never going to do “gotcha” journalism. I'm never looking to talk to someone and then misconstrue what they say. You know, we are honestly going to people and saying we want to write a story and it's for a constructive reason. We want to shine light on an issue that doesn't get enough attention. We want to help people think about paths forward.
Harry Bruinius: The Respect series is not about any kind of Pollyanna or Kumbaya moment where we can think that everything will be OK. We're at a critical moment. And I think as a Monitor reporter I try to find and highlight where that's working, where people can engage and see it as newsworthy and as a model for others to see. Here's a space where people are making this effort.
Want to hear more from Sara Miller Llana and the Monitor’s Middle East correspondent Dina Kraft on the Respect Project? Visit The Respect Project home page to view a Community Connect conversation, moderated by Monitor Managing Editor, Amelia Newcomb.