November 25, 2020

Seeking Out Strangers and Disagreements in a Time of Division

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | Nov. 14, 2020

As a dyed-in-the-wool optimistic-pessimist, I have a suspicion that most of the division we hear about in America is trumped up, both figuratively and literally.

There is simply too much that unites us as humans and as Americans for me to believe that we're really as far apart as we seem. My favorite example is close to home: Most Michiganders somehow still rally around the Detroit Lions. Why? I have no idea, but we do.

I also don't know what divides us across the country. Many of us expect the worse from those not aligned with our worldview and expect only slightly better from those who share it. Americans definitely have disagreements.

But in healthy, resilient, and humble communities — and by extension, countries — differences aren't cause for division. Instead, disagreements present opportunities to come together. We're finding out right now how resilient our communities and our country really are.

According to the Pew Research Center, our trust in one other is at an all-time low in America, and we trust the government even less. Notably, higher income and more education correlate to higher levels of trust. Other factors are clearly at play. I don't know if there is a study for this, but getting repeatedly pulled over for your skin color likely does not increase trust in government.

What does increase trust is having comfortable access to food, a home, and the necessities of life. Not surprisingly, people across partisan lines agree these are good things. Surveys continually show that we desire similar outcomes from society. These desires are based on the need for respect, inclusion, and fairness. We also want to feel safe and free to be ourselves and have equal access to opportunities.

So if we agree on the important things, can we find a way to build on those and get things done together in our communities — and in our state and federal governments? Strangely enough, the way we the American people have set up our local governments may offer a solution.

When two people disagree at a community level, and the community wants to move forward, we often put them on a committee together and give them a goal. The committee process works — provided the meetings are run well —because of two things: civic friendship and consequential strangers.

Civic friendship is a strange term for something familiar to all of us: the norms for treating each other and the reciprocity between ourselves and our fellow citizens. It leads us to act when we see someone in need and are in a position to help. Civic friendship is the spirit that begins with our own more intimate connections, the company we keep, and the people we work with on a day-to-day basis to solve mutual issues at home, at work, and in our larger communities of friends, family, church, work, school, and other groups.

"If you don't have civic friendship, disagreements turn us into enemies, and you cannot sustain a republic among people who regard themselves as each other's enemies," said conservative Princeton professor Robert George. He often appears on stage beside his good friend, the decidedly not-conservative Harvard professor Cornel West. You can search their names for examples of their model of civic friendship.

Another healthy model on the national scale is the late civic friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Civic friendships between leaders of groups are one of the most potent ways humans get big things done. It works on the local level, too.

Add to this the idea of consequential strangers. These are the connections we have outside of our circle of closest friends and family. Consequential strangers fall in between our intimates and total strangers. We might not even know the person's name, but the relationship provides meaning to our lives.

Consequential strangers is a term coined by author Karen L. Fingerman, who popularized the concept with author Melinda Blau in their book, "Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter ... But Really Do."

One of the critical benefits of consequential strangers is that they secure us in a social space. They provide opportunities for us to see the world differently while also steadying us in a world that can be topsy-turvy.

A consequential stranger in my life is a neighbor, Tom, who walks the alleys to pick up returnables. We say our hellos when we can, but not always. Our short discussions make life more interesting, and I appreciate his help. Knowing that he struggles with a handicap and trauma, without knowing the details, also helps me empathize with him and others in the same boat. I appreciate knowing that he is all right. I join my other neighbors in watching out for him; we share this sense of purpose.

World events have led us to a place where we really need to work out our issues to tackle existential problems. Our country is going to have to dig deep to do it. In my little corner of the world, I am paying closer attention to connections in my life that are modest but rich with consequential lessons.

On a larger scale, I hope we see people forming purposeful civic friendships at a local, state, and national level. In my life, this will mean seeking out people who challenge my ideas in a civically friendly way. This will definitely result in some frustration that I might be wiser to avoid. But in this time of great national division, it seems wise to take some small, uncomfortable steps. Who knows — in those steps, a solution might be found.

Gary Howe is a writer, photographer, and concerned citizen. He works at Norte as their Advocacy Director. 

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