Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
TALKING ACROSS THE DIVIDE
By Justin Lee
272 pp. TarcherPerigee.
On the 23rd of June 2014, a Tumblr user accidentally created a meme. Her riposte to a friend questioning her choice of drink, “I came out tonight to have a fun time and I honestly am feeling so attacked right now”, led to thousands of reblogs and a rightful place in Internet history. The latest from Justin Lee, ‘Talking Across the Divide’, is essentially the friend attacking us but in a really honest manner. Practically a necessary intervention, the book asks us to take a pause and reflect on our increasing isolation inside our tailored echo chambers. One distinct feature of the digital media age is the freedom to filter information. The natural instinct of a person is to listen to social media influencers and join online groups that share the same opinion and beliefs as his. The result is a relentless echoing of shared ideas and the filtering of opposing information. Echo chambers destroy meaningful conversation leading to a polarized society. Lee proposes a method on “how to communicate with people you disagree with and maybe even change the world”. He offers an alternate solution called strategic dialogue, a tool for breaking barriers for both sides to understand and see each other clearly.
I know what you are thinking: “You mean to tell me talking strategically (makes air quotes) to my homophobic friend will change his prehistoric notion on gender? I do not think so because he is impossible”. I hazard the friend also shares the same skepticism and distrust. Simple differences may not have far-reaching consequences but imagine the same type of conversation played out in a bigger arena like public policy or foreign diplomacy or the Internet. That is a major problem. Lee grounded his thesis on social psychological concepts and real-life practice. His first book is entitled ‘Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs Christians Debate’. Basically, he has been spending a significant part of his life conducting dialogues between gays and Christians. Plus, he also had to reconcile the debate with himself because he is both gay and Christian. I mean, come on, he has the credentials to talk about strategic dialogue.
The first part of the book discusses the dangers and pitfalls of falling into an echo chamber and the importance of engaging the opposing side through strategic dialogue. The succeeding chapters are split into the five barriers to a successful dialogue: ego protection, team loyalty, comfort, misinformation, and worldview protection. Talking to someone you completely disagree with is a formidable assignment and at times a futile undertaking because our built-in echo chambers have shaped our minds into thinking an idea different from ours is misguided. But the premise is communication is a fundamental element of a functioning society. So, three-fourths of the book is about the reasons why we refuse to consider the other side of the fence and why we remain audacious despite a staggering amount of data contradicting our opinion
Though the book is a reaction to the rampant hyper-political partisanship in the United States, it is also pertinent to us. Social media became the epicenter of regular debates during the last presidential elections in the Philippines. Ten minutes of scrolling your online feed will most likely end up in frustration. Suddenly social media, once the domain of adorable cats and babies, became the battleground of digital foot soldiers. The relentless GIF assaults, the rigorous emoji attacks, and relentless meme ambushes have run our political discourse aground. I remember a Facebook post reminding people that it is not worthwhile to lose friends over politics. Strategic dialogue hopes to provide a pathway to understand people different from us and maybe even heal impaired friendships.
The most fascinating detail of strategic dialogue is that it begins with ‘knowing the enemy’ and ends with ‘knowing thyself’. Our personal beliefs are rooted on religious (or philosophical) orientation. So if you criticize your Bible-quoting homophobic friend, it is the equivalent to condemning his faith. Exercising strategic dialogue does not mean tolerating homophobia but rather finding a way to make a person see the other side of the issue. This is where ‘knowing thyself’ enters the picture. You cannot engage in a dialogue if you have been, to paraphrase Socrates, living an unexamined life. It is going to be pretty embarrassing when you realize the reason you fail at communication is that you, like your enemy, is also guilty of ego protection and intolerance. The method recommends sharing stories, your personal story, to make people understand your perspective. Bibliophiles like us recognize the power of stories; so imagine the potential of sharing personal stories in real life. To put it succinctly, strategic dialogue is about empathy and communication as a means to reconcile our seemingly irreconcilable society.
Disclosure: 2018 marks my tenth year as a social media manager of a politician. Now, I know what you are thinking, “That is why she felt attacked reading the book.” Picking battles is definitely not part of my skillset as proven by my 38,000+ Twitter posts and replies. But I do recognize the need to change the vitriolic online discourse because social media is a brilliant idea and I have witnessed its erosion first-hand. The Internet is a lush amalgamation of the prosaic and the essential, of the absurd and the rational – the last bastion of free speech indeed. Debates need to remain robust to keep the Internet zoetic but hatred and falsehoods do not contribute to its fitness. Talking gets a bad reputation because people prefer action. But reaching across the aisle is taking action. Putting oneself in the shoes of another person is taking action. Justin Lee does not make promises but his idea of strategic dialogue offers hope. Hope is a good thing.
Talking Across the Divide by Justin Lee will be available soon at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowana.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]