It’s not every day you get to test your sociological hypothesis, especially when you’re a freelance writer with roughly zero sociological expertise. And, ahem, a non-scientific freelance writer who’s been out of the market for some time. But I recently did, and the hypothesis turned out beautifully.
My idea was to fight the anger and divisiveness of politics with something positive and encouraging. I had been watching with dread the first few months of President Donald Trump’s administration and did not at all like the levels of acrimony his supporters were demonstrating. I was convinced these negative emotions were bad for everyone, including Canadians. Shouting, screaming and insulting your opponents is not healthy, no matter who’s doing it. Not that liberals as a group are angels. But now it’s right-wingers who are in power in the US and their unpleasant attitudes also carry an malodorous hint of racism and general intolerance towards minorities, including sexual minorities.
I am no supporter of Trumpism. I respect America’s system of government but I absolutely cannot stand this president. I don’t care what qualities people see in him. To me he is so vile and vulgar — I can see zero redeeming virtues. I did try to engage online a bit over the issues of frustration and intolerance but I found it spectacularly unrewarding. I can take insults, sure. I’ve been writing about politics long enough to have a tough hide. But I don’t like it.
So I took a break. A vacation from politics. I kept up with the news but refused to engage. I figured at some point sanity was bound to come back. Right?
Wrong. Charlottesville happened. And suddenly everything changed. It’s one thing to disengage in the face of Trumpism. But when protests turn deadly, silence is no longer an option. (Arguably, silence was not an option ahead of that deadly violence. Maybe I was wrong to disengage. But lacking a time machine, I turned my attention to what I should do next.)
I wrote a long piece disavowing this kind of right-wing politics. (In French, and in English.) But I wanted to do something more. I started thinking about options. It took me a few weeks, but eventually I came up with a plan.
The idea was to interview a number of ordinary people (by ordinary I mean “not professional politicians or activists”) and ask them about their views. Get them to open up a bit about their beliefs, engage them in conversation, challenge some of their positions, but in a nice and civil manner. And see where there might be common ground. I was convinced we should be able to find some positions that were held, more or less, by enough people to qualify as common. I didn’t know what those common positions might be, but I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the results.
A good thing, too, because that’s exactly what happened.
I developed a proposal that would involve traveling to meet people where they were for interviews, take pictures, etc. Canada is such a big country; in order to be representative, you have to clock some miles. Problem is, that’s expensive. I would need a sponsor.
I finished my proposal and shopped it around, but nobody seemed interested. I went to see my former editor at Postmedia, to see if she’d be interested in running a smaller-scale version of the project. It took a bit of convincing (she was immediately interested, but needed to get approval from her own boss) but eventually I got the OK.
Except that… given the financial state of the news industry, there was no budget for travel. Interviews would have to be conducted by phone or Skype or with local people.
I also couldn’t do as many interviews as I’d originally envisioned. About 10 was the best I could hope for. I would have to pick my people well to make sure my small group was as representative of the general population as possible. In the end, we had room for 11 interviews, plus me.
I found my interviewees — the first batch, anyway — after calling for volunteers on social media. I screened people for ideological bias. The point was not to censor people in any way, but to make sure I wouldn’t get four people in a row saying the same thing.
Why do people insist on diversity so much? Maybe because they know how good it is for them. To be exposed to differences — different looks, different opinions, different traditions, different everything. It’s immensely beneficial to be exposed to it all. It’s a constant challenge to rethink our positions, our opinions. Just about everyone I’ve interviewed had that experience of saying, hey, wait a minute, is this really what I think? Am I contradicting myself? Do I really mean what I just said? Have I thought this all the way through? Maybe I need to give it one more spin…
When we listen to each other, most of us take the time to think before answering. If nothing else, this project shows there’s hope for a better understanding of each other, a better sense of who we are, a shortening of the distance between us. And we can get there by sharpening our listening and thinking skills. And by trying less to rush around to be right at the expense of decency and good fellowship.
Instead of trying so hard to be right, we should focus on trying to be good. At the end of the day, teams don’t matter. The teams are run by a cabal of professional cynics who are only in it for the love of the game. And who get along just fine with the guys on the other teams, by the way, because they all share the same love. They’re not thinking about us at all. Why should we care about them? We have to get along with the people who are around us, otherwise we condemn ourselves to a life of ignorance and isolation, mistrust and anxiety.
The series started with a piece by me, about the need to stop screaming and pull up a chair. Then we ran the interviews.
Jess Morgan, late 20s, freelance writer, downtown Toronto. Classical liberal/libertarian.
Christine Henderson, late 20s, professional animal lover and self-described idealist leftie. Lives in Spencerville, works in Ottawa.
Roy Eappen, doctor, middle-aged, lives and works in Toronto and Montreal. Active in Conservative politics in Canada and US. Deeply Christian and strong monarchist. Worries Canada is losing the traditions that made it a great place to live.
Shaun Nickerson, mid-30s, works in retail, Toronto area. Mostly Liberal, slightly cranky, cares a lot about trade and economics.
James Holden, late-60s, sort of retired but works as a consultant. Lives in BC and Mexico, currently working in North Carolina. Conservative voter who strongly dislikes the current PM. Trump supporter mostly because of his anti-globalist stance.
Isabel Gibson, middle aged literary professional in Ottawa. Quiet, middle-of-the-road (tilting slightly to the right), the embodiment of good old common sense.
Laurel Roberts, retired teacher, “old enough to collect old-age pension”, self-described Biblical Christian living outside Calgary. Cares deeply about education and history. Thinks both are drastically neglected and worries about the effects this will have on future generations.
Rosie Edwards, late 30s, self-described practical leftie, works as a public health nurse with at-risk populations. Cares deeply about helping the disadvantaged, but realistic about what needs to be done.
Craig Tiberi, early 40s, politically non-aligned. Aboriginal, focused on health care and education for everyone. Wants clean water available everywhere.
Anna Belanger, mid-40s, business owner, mother of 4, grandma of 2, athlete. Blue liberal, not particularly active politically.
Chuka Ejeckam, late 20s, socialist and full-time student. His parents came to Canada from Nigeria. He lives in British Columbia.
And we concluded by another piece by me.