Getting a bunch of Deep South conservatives and New England liberals together sounds like a recipe for fireworks. But a funny thing happened when this potentially combustible combination came together online this fall.
Comprehension. Civility. Maybe even friendship.
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at LSU and the University of Southern Maine gave political opponents the opportunity to talk to each other during eight sessions. When it was all said and done, the participants discovered that they weren’t as opposed as they thought they were.
This gives hope to the participants.
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“I had lunch with one of my fellow students from OLLI yesterday and asked him, ‘Am I exaggerating here that most of us Liberals and Conservatives are agree on most issues most of the time, at least to some extent ‘much more than we disagreed?’ Said Bud Snowden of Baton Rouge. “And he said it was absolutely true.”
How can it be if, as experts say, Americans are as divided as at any time since the Civil War? The creator of the program thinks the experts are wrong.
Mike Berkowitz, of Saco, Maine, organized and moderated the program. He says traditional and social media have distorted Americans’ real political and social differences, exaggerating disagreements and obscuring commonalities to create the impression of an unbridgeable rift.
He said he believed that if the Liberals and Conservatives took the time to understand each other’s beliefs and spoke to each other rather than to each other, they would be surprised.
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Thus, Berkowitz launched the “conservatives and liberals; “Not Conservatives Against Liberals” course.
The Louisiana-Maine program allowed participants to meet at the Zoom videoconferencing site for two hours per week for eight weeks to explore different philosophies on hot topics like abortion and gun control and to discuss their individual perspectives. Berkowitz moderated the meetings and encouraged them to keep the discussions respectful.
This is not to say that the participants did not come with preconceived ideas.
“I haven’t seen compassion with the Tories,” said Dorry French, of Falmouth, Maine, when asked about her stereotypes. “Redneck, uninformed… maybe I should stop while I’m a little ahead.” “
“My stereotype of liberal Northerners: rude, arrogant and condescending,” Snowden said. “This stereotype has been dispelled. It really was.
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The process of dispelling such stereotypes involved more than just conversation.
Berkowitz guided participants through the book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which explores why liberals and conservatives have different intuitions about right and wrong.
It allowed the students in the class to see how those who disagreed deeply about things like abortion based their beliefs on something that both sides valued.
“Conservatives and Liberals have a lot of compassion,” said Keith Fleeman of Auburn, Maine. “The Liberals have compassion, it seems to me, for the caregiver, and the Conservatives have more compassion, I think, for the fetus itself when it comes to term. I have learned to see compassion on both sides.
“It made it clear that it was about value differences, not about ‘these people are stupid’ or ‘these people are wrong’,” said John Kovich of Baton Rouge. “The training helped me a lot.
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No one changed their political views, Berkowitz said, but that was not the point.
On the contrary, they discovered that they looked more like their political opponents than they suspected. They said their chats were more productive than those they had attempted with family and friends, and much better than those that took place online.
Those who attended said they enjoyed it so much that they discussed continuing the virtual meetings.
“It made a huge difference to be able to look people in the eye, even on a screen, and feel like you got to know a person rather than just a set of opinions,” Snowden said. “It made a huge difference for me in terms of saying what I needed to say and hearing what I needed to hear. It wouldn’t have happened in a purely digital exchange, I don’t believe.
“But being surrounded by Yankee liberals was a new experience. What I understood is that these are just people like me.