The Last Thing I Want to Do is Talk to You
On July 3, David Lewicki preached a sermon that discussed, among other things, the nation’s current deep divisions. He talked about our need to make space for the reconciliation for all of God’s people under our roof, the need to invite our perceived enemies in, and the need to listen and talk. He related the story of a pro NRA Congressman who was at odds with a gun violence researcher at the CDC. The Congressman invited the researcher to his office to talk, and the researcher warily went. Remarkably, the two developed a friendship that lasted until the Congressman’s death.
The following article, which I wrote earlier this year, advocates for personal contact with our adversaries as a way to begin to heal our nation.
A work colleague came to me about a problem he was having with someone outside our office. He described how difficult this person had been, and read to me their contentious email exchange.
“Have you ever met this guy?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Our only communications have been by email.”
“What about the phone? Have you called him to try to straighten things out?” I inquired.
My friend stiffened and replied defensively, “I’m not going to talk to that son of a bitch!”
Conflict in America is at an all-time high. The pandemic got us further accustomed to hunkering down, watching our preferred cable news channels, absorbed in our assorted social media outlets, communicating by texts and emails, and getting madder and madder at each other. Our quarreling – often played out on impersonal electronic platforms – too often descends into a kind of good-versus-evil tribal warfare with scant hope of compromise.
We resist working things out face to face.
In her recent book High Conflict, author Amanda Ripley explores “the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds” in altercations with others, many of whom they’ve never even met. She defines “high conflict” as one “that becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off. Typically an us-versus-them conflict.” In this disputatious world, the normal rules of human engagement – communicating in person, considering all sides of an issue – no longer seem to apply.
Examples of high conflict abound. A recent controversy in the Queen Anne’s County school district on the eastern shore of Maryland is typical. In June 2020, school superintendent Dr. Andrea Kane wrote an end-of-school-year letter to parents of the district’s 7,000 students. After reporting on sundry routine matters, Dr. Kane, who is Black, turned to “what is happening in our country and across the world right now.” She spoke of recent police killings of Black persons and wrote that, “Racism is alive in our country, our state, in Queen Anne’s County, and our schools.”
According to Dr. Kane, “When I hit send, everything just imploded.” Battlelines soon formed in this school district that is 85% white and mostly conservative.
Richard Smith, a school board member and local business owner, was offended by Dr. Kane’s characterization of racism in the county, declaring, “We do not have a racist county. We do not have a racist board.”
Echoing Mr. Smith’s view, Gordana Schifanelli, an immigrant from Communist Yugoslavia and 22 year county resident, created a Facebook group called Kent Island Patriots. Ms. Schifanelli asserted that the county had “no significant racial hatred,” and that Dr. Kane “needs to end her contract and go!”
The conflict continued its downward spiral into the 2020-21 school year. The stress led Dr. Kane to take sick leave in October 2020. By January 2021 she’d filed race discrimination charges against the school board.
Meanwhile, Ms. Schifanelli made her case on Fox News, where the interviewer – who Ms. Ripley might call a “conflict entrepreneur” – gleefully egged her on.
The denouement came in August 2021 with Dr. Kane’s resignation. “It’s a difficult and divisive time in Queen Anne’s County,” she said in an interview. “It’s beyond unfortunate. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Dwight Eisenhower knew more than most about high conflict from his service as a commanding general and U.S. president. But he always recalled “the code of Abilene, Kansas,” which he learned there as a boy growing up: “Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree.”
What might have unfolded had Dr. Kane and Ms. Schifanelli, instead of relying on national media outlets and the legal system to work out their grievances, first met in person? I can’t say for sure that things would have fared better, but seeing each other in the flesh might well have turned down the heat. Face to face we tend to be more generous towards each other, more willing to see each other as complex humans, and not simply “the enemy.”
One final story illustrates the good that can come from personal contact. Toward the end of a news conference, Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked President Biden a question that he obviously didn’t like. As White House officials scrambled to shoo reporters out of the room, Mr. Biden sarcastically answered the question, and while the mic was still “hot,” called the reporter a “stupid son of a bitch.”
According to the account Mr. Doocy gave to Fox News interviewer Sean Hannity, the president called his cellphone an hour after the incident. It’s nothing personal, pal, Mr. Doocy quoted the president as saying. Summing up the call, Mr. Doocy said, “We were talking about just, kind of, moving forward.”
When Mr. Hannity – a connoisseur of conflict – demanded to know whether Mr. Biden had apologized, Mr. Doocy laughed. “Sean, the world is on the brink of, like, World War III right now with all this stuff going on,” he said. “I appreciate that the president took a couple minutes out this evening while he was still at his desk to give me a call and clear the air.”
Bob Schieffer, a veteran CBS News anchor who has covered 10 presidents, said of the call, “It was something we don’t see that often: a civil exchange. Both of them came off looking the better for it.”
When faced with conflict, it can take gumption and even a bit of courage to talk to our adversary. But if we all did that, we might start to rise out of our current conflict morass.