The intensifying political division and violence in our country is concerning — but it’s not unique. And few know that better than Tim Phillips. For 30 years, his organization Beyond Conflict has been bringing people from opposing sides of violent divides together to find common ground. He shares insights from their research into human psychology that could hold keys for overcoming violent division, along with lessons from Northern Ireland, South Africa and beyond to help us fight polarization here at home.
Tim Phillips 0:03
Any notion of reaching across these divides is seen as compromise is seen as selling out. And yet what experience in other countries have shown, and not just the Mandela's and many others, is we have to find a way to bridge this.
Baratunde Thurston 0:21
Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that re-imagined citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of, what can we invent, and how do we change the culture of democracy itself? Relieving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves. Throughout season four, we've spent a lot of time dreaming up, and defining what a culture of democracy can look and feel like, and that collective vision is beautiful and motivating. But to build the culture we want, we also need to face the one we've got. And right now I think that culture is conflict.
Our democracy is based on this extreme version of in-group out-group. We don't just disagree, we dehumanize, and I'm not a both sides kind of person. I think the right has done a lot more of this, but I've experienced it from the left too. And I know that nobody's got a monopoly on our garbage culture. We've all become more deeply entrenched in our differences, and many of us don't see or don't want to see a path toward being in community with people on the other side. Throw in guns, sensational media and a political system that rewards outlandishness. And the division we experience looks much more like a feature than a bug. Listen, sometimes I wish everyone I disagreed with would just read that article I sent them, and realize how wrong they are. Other times I find myself asking if we can just split the country in half, call it a day we tried, and we move on separately.
But community cannot be defined by total alignment on everything. That's not community, that's a cult. And we are trying to live together better here. That's the mission. And that living together requires living with an incredible amount of difference. We've been talking a lot about bringing democracy home, but it's hard to practice democracy at home when there are members of our families we can't talk to, because they've been sucked into conspiracy, because they're part of a dehumanizing political culture, or because of their opinions and mere presence feel so opposed to our own that it's hard to practice anything with them. But if we stop trying and just accept that this is the way things are, this division will only get worse.
I must confess that I have this fear. I fear, and I feel the possibility of truly escalated armed conflict along politically divided lines in this country, something we haven't experienced on mass since our civil war, and we're not currently in that state. We're not living through that literally right now, but it's a nightmare many of us carry, and it's a actual-lived reality that other people around the world have gone through quite recently. Tim Phillips and his organization, Beyond Conflict, have been facilitating conversations between the victims and perpetrators of extreme violence and harm for over 30 years. I reached out to hear how they've helped people work through life altering conflict, so we can gain some insights into how we avoid the path that Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and so many other countries have already been down. After the break. My first of two conversations with Tim Phillips, which took place a few weeks after the January 6th insurrection. Tim, thank you so much for spending time with me and with us, and I'm here with you in part because I had a great experience with your organization through a gathering in downtown Los Angeles a few years back. And the specifics are no longer with me, but the emotion is, my mind felt almost literally blown. I've done a lot of work around race and people feeling disconnected from each other and polarized, and there was something your facilitators did that helped us all see the world a little differently. So I just want to take this personal, selfish opportunity to thank you for that experience. Thank you for training people, not just you, to do some of this work. And thanks again for making time. I'd love to start, Tim, with a more personal question. Can you tell me something about yourself that surprises you?
Tim Phillips 5:28
Yeah, thank you. That's a really good question. Maybe this is getting very personal, but I've been doing this work internationally for over 30 years, and I still struggle with feeling agency in this work. And it surprises me, but it also reflects on the challenge of the work I think we both are trying to do, which is how do you give people agency in this world? How do you give people a sense that they can really become agents of their own personal lives, but of the people around them? And because we're coming up on 30 years, and most of our work was international, and the last five years started working here in the United States, I really started reflecting on the work I've done internationally to bring it home to this country.
And I started really thinking about what allowed me to go overseas in my late 20s was I knew what exclusion felt like. I knew what humiliation felt like. I knew what feeling less than equal felt like, and that in a sense gave me an emotional connection to the difficulty of this work. And thinking about where we are as a country, and the challenges we face has also been a reflection on my own journey.
Baratunde Thurston 6:41
Can I press you on the humiliation that you were familiar with, which sounds like it's helped you do this work? What was that for you?
Tim Phillips 6:50
Well, I grew up the youngest of six children, grew up in a housing project here in Boston, what was used to be called Veterans Housing. I didn't like the fact that we lived there, because I was being taunted, I was being judged. Often hearing parents will say, to their son I was in school with, why are you hanging out with that kid from the projects? And so that really shaped a part of me to feel I know what this shit feels like, but also I had a mother who said, no, you live in Buckingham Palace. And years later I saw the real Buckingham Palace, I took her on a trip to London with my sisters. I said, let me just show you this ain't Buckingham Palace where we grew up. But the point is that I had both an upbringing that knew what exclusion and humiliation and fear felt like, but I also had many parents who said, this isn't what defines you as a human being in your family, in your community.
But to your point about humiliation, I remember when I started going overseas in the late 80s, early 90s, particularly at the end of the Cold War, when I would meet these dissidents who are now serving in government or leaders of journalism or civil society organizations, they knew what it felt like through a different lens, which is to be a victim, to keep your head down, to feel like you're always on guard, and you don't really belong. And was just really an eye-opener for me about how this manifests itself on a human experience, and not just defined by the country we grew up in.
Baratunde Thurston 8:17
For someone who's never heard of Beyond Conflict, what is it?
Tim Phillips 8:21
So it's an organization that started in 1991 when I had a chance to go to Central Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, and had a chance to meet, as I mentioned earlier, some of these dissidents who are now running these post-communist countries. And I remember asking them, how do you deal with your past? How are you dealing with the legacy of repression or dictatorship, what it did to individuals and communities? And the response was, well, that's what we talk about amongst ourselves, but that's not the help we're getting right now. Because at the end of the Cold War, we were getting help to write constitutions, build new democratic institutions, design market economies. Nobody can understand what we've gone through. We're being asked to manage these new governments and transitions, and we don't know where to get this help. And so that led me to this simple, what I thought one off conference notion, or bring together these new leaders of these post-communist countries, but with people who themselves have been through a transition from dictatorship to democracy.
And in 1991, the examples were Argentina, Chile, there was a process and a couple of African countries, Spain after Franco denazification in Germany. And so I had said to some folks, you guys should do a special session, bring in these new leaders of these post-communist countries, but do it not with self-described experts, but people from these other countries that struggled with these transitions, who never imagined that they could have come out the other side, almost like a big support group. And so what started as a one-off conference became a second and third, but there was a real growing interest, and how do we learn from the experience of others? How do we deal with our past? And, of course, at the end of the Cold War, you not only had what happened in Eastern Europe, but at the beginning of a peace process in Northern Ireland or the Central American peace accords or the beginning of a negotiated transition in South Africa.
And then on the flip side you had the disintegration of Yugoslavia and so forth. And so this whole period became ripe for work. Not only about how do you build democracy, but how do you deal with these countries that are coming out of a brutal past. And so for these 30 years, we have worked in probably 75 countries with this notion of shared experience, meaning, bringing in people to model as former enemies, what change could look like.
Baratunde Thurston 10:40
Do you remember the moment you became interested in conflict resolution?
Tim Phillips 10:45
Well, I think, actually, in late 80s. 1987, I was watching the Super Bowl at the home of a woman who was sort of well known, Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard Goodwin at the time.
Baratunde Thurston 10:56
Tim Phillips 10:57
Yeah. And I knew her and her husband through some work in a political campaign. And there was Bob Dole, a senate majority leader, and he had flown to Managua, Reagan was president, to criticize and ridicule the Sandinista government, and then got back on his plane and flew home. And I remember seeing this in between the Super Bowl sort of innings. And I remember thinking, what just happened here? Why did he not go and actually see the leaders? Who was he playing to? What's actually going on in the region? And Dick Goodwin had been the author of the Alliance for Progress as a speech for JFK. And so he had a deep tie to the region, and I remember just speaking to the two of them, and saying, this is pretty incredible that you have one of the biggest issues on the foreign policy agenda of the United States, and people are just sort of playing politics for domestic purposes here in the United States.
Can we understand this better? And so I ended up organizing a trip to Central America with Doris Goodwin and others, to see firsthand what was going on. And then I ended up meeting the Sandinista leadership at the time of Nicaragua. I met the Contras in Costa Rica, the FMLN guerrillas of El Salvador meeting in Nicaragua, because it was safe. And then people from the other side in other settings, and it was just mind-blowing. And it was a huge eye-opener to not only the region, but the nature of conflict and the fact that people can learn from each other, as sort of kumbaya as that sounds. But that was really at the core.
Baratunde Thurston 12:24
You set up this mentor program, this support group of people who've been through something like this before. For those who are new to the process, democracy sponsors, if you will, where did that support group idea come from? Were people seated in a circle holding candles?
Tim Phillips 12:41
No, but I think that's the nature. You're a very creative individual, human being, right? Creativity just sort of emerges, right? And in this context, it just struck me that sitting in these rooms, whether it be a workshop, a conference, or sitting around a dinner table with people who are struggling with even the notion of sitting across the table from their enemy, and having from South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, who's now president or Roelf Meyer, who was the chief negotiator for the de Klerk, come into a group of Protestant former paramilitary leaders in Belfast, and say, we're here now as friends. We just negotiated about a year ago the end of apartheid in South Africa. And we want to ask you, what is making it so difficult for you to imagine change here? And you would hear these people across the divide in Northern Ireland saying, if they could do it in South Africa, why can't we do it here? If they could make peace with their enemy, then why is it we're struggling to even imagine sitting in the same room with these people?
Baratunde Thurston 13:48
I've read too many newspapers over time, so I kind of know a lot of these names you've dropped. But could you explain, for someone who may not have heard of it, what was going on in Northern Ireland?
Tim Phillips 13:57
So the Northern Ireland conflict lasted about 30 years, starting in the late 60s, literally 30 years until 1998. And over 3,500 people were killed. Many of them innocent civilians. And the equivalent in this country would be a million civilians being killed in the United States. And if you are Catholic, you view the conflict as a legacy of centuries of repression by the British government in one form or another. If you're a Protestant, many of them thought of this conflict as a 30-year aggravated crime wave. And so you had really diametrically opposed views of what the nature of the conflict was. Middle class affluent Catholics tended to join, if they joined a political party, the social Democratic Labor Party led by John Hume. They wanted eventual unification with Ireland, but were willing to do it politically and not through arm conflict or resistance, but often more working class Catholics, who lived in many of the poorer communities, were known as Iris Republicans, and they tended to support Sinn Féin, and many of them joined and supported the Iris Republican army, and felt it was a legitimate resistance to colonial repression.
And their view was we couldn't wait for unification. It has to happen now. And if we have to use armed resistance to get it, we will. And then on the other side, you had two mainstream unionist or Protestant political parties, the Democratic Ulster Unionist party, and the UUP Ulster Unionist party. One was sort of more middle class, which is the UUP, DUP was led by Ian Paisley, and they wanted to preserve their British identity. Protestants were British, and they were going to defend it. And the working class equivalent of Sinn Féin and the IRA were the loyalist paramilitary parties, and they are two armed wings, and they ended up killing more people than the IRA did. And I mentioned a friend of mine, David Irvine, who was a loyalist paramilitary leader. And I remember taking him to not only the Balkans but the Columbia to meet with the ELN, and the FARC, and others over the years.
And he really connected with them, because even though he was white Protestant from Northern Ireland, he was a working class socialist as you would say. But somebody who said that we took up arms to defend a community that we thought was under threat. But he said, we went from defending our community, in other words, feeling that we had to kill to live than to living to kill. And he said something about a conflict like that takes over our psyche and our community and the narratives that you wake up a decade later and saying, we're living to kill. This is what we know. And so where it ended up is the Good Friday Agreement brought them together, but it didn't get to that point of resolving these underlying differences.
Baratunde Thurston 16:54
Wow. Thank you for that, Tim. Most of us, we really didn't know the details of that conflict. And I think as Wikipedia, Tim, you did a good job of breaking that down. So I want to know, when you bring these leaders together, where their trust falls, Tim? What's the vibe of those gatherings?
Tim Phillips 17:12
If it's the first gathering, it's often very tense. I'll give you an example. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, I was asked by Richard Holbrooke, if I could bring together in London the leaders of the three communities in Bosnia, Serbs, Croats, and Muslim. I mean, the Dayton Peace Accords forced a sort of peace agreement, but in many ways those communities were not done fighting each other. And there was such profound anger. And so we ended up having this gathering in London, and in the beginning we had the three communities come in and the last ones to take the seat were the Serb leaders of Bosnia, they call themselves Republika Srpska. They were kind of a proto fascist state, frankly. And the Bosnia Muslim leaders saw them, and walked out and said, we can't sit in the same room with these war criminals. And the people who got up and went to the Bosnia Muslims and said, please come back in, were the Palestinian and Israeli leaders who were in the room, who were women, a South African leader, and somebody from Belfast, because they immediately understood how difficult this was.
And they went on their own out into the lobby and spoke with them for about 45 minutes, and essentially we're allies, and said, please come in and sit in this room. We know how difficult this is. And in moments like that, it's really difficult to imagine sitting in the same room with people who were involved in at the cleansing or involved in killing. And then in that sort of support group approach, when they're sitting there, at first they're like, how do these people from Northern Ireland or Bosnia, El Salvador connect with my experience? And then when you hear their stories, and what they went through, then the differences start to fade away, and people start to listen. And there was one moment when a man named David Irvine, who unfortunately has passed away, who was a Protestant paramilitary leader, who spent a decade in prison for terrorism, was sitting there with these Kosovo leaders at a different conference, and they were shouting and yelling and saying, how do we learn from you?
What do you have to share to our experience? And one person yelled out, we had artillery raining on Sarajevo or raining on Mostar, you didn't have any of that. And David looked over at a former IRA commander, and it was the first time the two of them had met. And they said, if we had access to artillery trust us, we would've used them on each other. We used everything we could to destroy the other side. And you could see that the Bosnian coastal leaders stopped and begin to listen. And then somebody said, but aren't you a terrorist? And David said, terrorists have to come from somewhere, and injustice is a powerful place to come from. And what would happen is you could see people start to pull back and listen and realize they're not here giving a history example. They're speaking in profoundly human terms, in ways that resonate with their own experience and challenge.
Baratunde Thurston 20:21
Just gave me chills with that one. You've mentioned, and been a part of a lot of different gatherings of people who've been on opposite sides of issues, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Bosnia region. What outcome has surprised you the most in all of this experience? Is there one that stands out?
Tim Phillips 20:45
One of my great honors of life is Heaven met Nelson Mandela in 1992, and he actually served on our advisory board, and I had a chance to meet him in New York. And I went up to him in our brief sort of encounter, and I asked him, as you negotiate the future of your country, are you thinking about how are you going to deal with your past? And he looked at me, and he said, that's exactly an issue that I've been thinking about, and we've been thinking about. And he called over his aid, a woman named Barbara Masekela at the time, and I had this sort of, I guess, presumption of writing a memo, and I gave it to his assistant, and it laid out the question of, as South Africa's negotiating this big transition, what are the models to look at? And so, of course, it was Argentina, Chile, what happened in Europe at the end of World War II.
But what struck me was Mandela came back to me at the end of that reception, and then there were all these greats and the good, and here was I, this young guy who got invited through a friend, and he came up to me, he said, I'm going to follow up with you on this, because this is really important. And he did. And over the years I was able to bring people from Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East to South Africa when he was president and after. And he would sit there, and he would say to them things like, "Be tough on structures, be tough on institutions, but don't be tough on each other." And it had a power coming from Mandela. And we tend to forget or think because Mandela became such this iconic figure, that what he did is used his political and moral authority to essentially create a pathway for the other side to cross and said, "Okay, it is up to you to cross this bridge." And I've seen less famous individuals do it in other countries. John Hume in Northern Ireland did the same thing with the IRA, meeting with them secretly in the eighties. And when his own party members found out they wanted to expel him, and he had the same view.
Baratunde Thurston 22:47
When you describe this scene or describe his intervention and counsel to others in conflict, how do you feel in that moment when you witness that? What's going through you emotionally?
Tim Phillips 23:01
What's going through at the time, me as an American who wasn't from those countries was, "Is it landing? Is it making the impact?" Because you know it's difficult for people to change, particularly when the change you're going through as an individual, maybe as a leader isn't reflected in the community you're from. They're not meeting the enemy face-to-face and they're in that community that reinforces legitimate grievance and anger and strategy. But there's something that happens on that human level, when you recognize your enemy is human. And so, to your question, I wish Mandela was alive today. I wish a number of these leaders who are still alive, I can get on a plane and go and see them to bring this home to this country. Because now as an American caught up in this moment, I'm seeing it through a different lens. I'm seeing it through a lens of, "This is shit difficult." I had the privilege and not appreciating it, of pushing people to sit across the table from their enemy to make peace with their enemy. Literally telling families in Bosnia and Srebrenica, after, that they should move back into those villages and to those homes that have been rebuilt next to families that try to kill them. And I felt like I was doing the right thing and I was. But here at this moment, in this country, the last few years, I'm thinking, "This work is difficult." I was at a safe emotional distance from that. And the other thing you asked me about trust, I remember we brought leaders from Bahrain to Belfast a few years ago after the Arab Spring, and they were talking to people separately from Protestant, Shifang, other political parties, and they would ask, "Do you need trust to negotiate?" And independently they all say no. If you had trust, why would you be negotiating like this? But would they say you need to build a support network underneath, recognize that if you had trust, you wouldn't be in this moment.
Baratunde Thurston 25:08
Yeah, yeah. This conversation about trust makes me think about this concept I've heard you talk about: the zone of discomfort. Can you explain what a zone of discomfort is and how do you get people through it?
Tim Phillips 25:22
One of my mentors is a friend of mine, Jose Maria Agata from Guatemala. And a number of years ago he said to me, "It's difficult to move people from A to Z at one moment. You need to move them from A to D and then D to G." And this was without knowing the science or research, just empirically. It's very insightful, because he worked in how do you bridge divides in Guatemala? How do you build trust where there was no history of trust? And what he just observed over three decades was that where people didn't know each other, where they fail the other side, you would have to bring them together where they could begin to see the other, understand the other and predict the other's behavior. And then you have to take them through some very difficult realities that they may not accept. And he said, "That's a zone of discomfort." And then you give them a landing pad, as you would put it, in that A to D. Let them process it that, and then you take them to the next level of change.
Baratunde Thurston 26:18
In the US, can you paint a picture of one of our zones of discomfort for one of our communities that needs to get from A to Z, but an A to D leap is a more appropriate path to get there?
Tim Phillips 26:32
Yeah. After the election in November, we have this team working on polarization in American social divides. When 74 million people voted for Donald Trump, 10 million more than last time, a lot of people here just wanted to not erase these people but feel like, how do you talk with them? How do you cross that divide or bridge that when they had no excuse in voting for this man four years later? And I remember as we looked into it, we recognized that there was a lot of fear in this recent election on both sides. And one thing, there's a lot of research on what they call status threat. And so, for a lot of people who, let's say, supported Donald Trump, there's fear of the changing cultural demographic terrain of the United States. And that is rooted in human psychology because you can see that in Northern Ireland among Protestants as the demographic changes, or in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, or in South Africa when apartheid was ending.
At the root, that human predictive brain is trying to navigate its environment. And when things are changing in a profound way and leaders don't come along to help them navigate that, to change and update that mental model that gets set up, it becomes very difficult for people. What often happens is populist demagogues come along, in turn legitimate fear into grievance then gets weaponized into something else. And so, when I look at this country, the reality is, and there's research in this, white Christian evangelicals think of themselves as a persecuted, prosecuted community in this country. And it's very difficult for people outside that community, particularly on the left to accept that. What it means, I think for the left is to recognize, "You know what? These are legitimate psychological, almost biological states of mind."
And on the right I've seen people respond when we talk about status threat and they feel, "Well, that's collective blame. You're essentializing us. You're thinking, we all feel that way." And so, there are all these landmines right now in the United States because we are so divided and because Donald Trump was such a personality type, and was so outrageous on so many levels, it put more oxygen and fuel into that space. And so, any notion of reaching across these divides is seen as compromise, is seen as selling out. And yet, what experience in other countries have shown, and not just the Mandela's and many others, is we have to find a way to bridge this. Doesn't mean you compromise, it doesn't mean it's unity for the sake of everybody get along. It's about clarity. It's about being clear about what's going on. Being clear at this moment. Being clear of how we got to this moment as a country, but also where we want to go together in this country.
Baratunde Thurston 29:32
One of the frustrations I've had in talking about bridging divides, and outreach, and empathy and understanding someone else's journey is I have perceived, I'm using my word so carefully, Tim. But I have perceived that the folks who I'm associated with on the left have been doing a lot of that. Trying to do a lot. "Let's go talk to a Trump voter. Let's get inside their head, let's get inside of their psychology. Let's superhumanize them." And I wonder if you can take me through a zone of discomfort exercise, maybe it's shorter, that looks at things from a different perspective. Because I've also heard, and felt a lot of anger around, "Black Lives Matters, it's a terrorist group." Is this, is there a zone of discomfort example that will help me and others understand this phenomena around the divide over Black Lives Matter in the US?
Tim Phillips 30:24
Is there an easier question, Barry?
Baratunde Thurston 30:30
Tim Phillips 30:30
Here's the thing. Somebody asked me a similar question in the last month or so after what happened at the US Capitol. And I said, "We really have to be as precise as we can with words and what we're saying." And what's really interesting in the world of conflict resolution, there's a distinction that I and others make between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. To resolve a conflict, think of the Dayton peace accords in Bosnia or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the one that ended the Salvadorian Civil War. That's about a brutal civil war, people dying, people being killed, people disappearing. We need to end this. It's triage.
And the way you achieve that is getting people across the table to, in a sense, have unity for that moment of change, but it doesn't fully transform the underlying dynamics of the society. That conflict resolution is about unity for the sake of that agreement. But conflict transformation requires clarity. How did we get here at this moment and where do we go together? Because if we're going somewhere in the future where it's going to be a democracy, a more representative democracy, a more inclusive democracy, a more shared democracy, we need to understand how we got to this moment as a nation and a community.
And in that clarity, you need to create a space for people to come together to feel like they're being heard. And it's very difficult. Take South Africa, where 90% of the population was black, Malaysian other communities. I mean, that was a brutal regime. But what was interesting that the African National Congress leadership, even before Mandela got out of prison, people like Albi Sachs and others would say, "That we came to realize that we didn't understand where the Afrikaner people were coming from historically."
How did they set up a system of apartheid? What experience did they go through to justify setting up something like this? What were they afraid of, this dynamic they created? And they came to realize, they said, that they suffered at the cleansing and genocide in the bore war under the British, and they had no country to go back to, unlike white South Africans of a British background literally had a passport in the back pocket. The Afrikaners has had no country to go to, so they're going to fight to the very end. And the point is that the ANC leadership, in a sense, went through a zone to discomfort, saying, "We are absolutely clear that this is about liberation and resistance, that this is a brutal dictatorship that's been dehumanizing. But what does the future look like? Are we going to share this place or are they going to flee?"
Well, these people have nowhere to go to, so they're going to stay, which means we have to figure out together how we're going to live in this country and share it. And it may not be, " Kumbaya, everybody come together."
Baratunde Thurston 33:32
No, it's literally uncomfortable.
Tim Phillips 33:35
It is. We have to share this country together. And so, a shared future has to be built on a shared understanding of how we got here. And that's about clarity. And that clarity requires discomfort. It requires a discomfort like, "I may want..." And from the other side, Mandela. I mean, I'm believed that the reason why Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela got divorced within a year or two is they lived in two realities of apartheid South Africa. He was in prison for 27 years and had a lot of time to reflect. She was in the social reality of apartheid South Africa where day in, day out, she could find no moment, no chance to really sit back and say, "What is the nature of the struggle about? And where do I want to go with this?"
And I've seen this by the way, in other settings where leaders in prison said they had to make sense of their experience to figure out where we want to go from here. And so, the zone of discomfort in this country is we have to have a reckoning, but I also think we have to have a summoning. We have to summon people to something else. Because Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, this is our country. It's a country where what connects us is a common citizenship but not a common participation in it. I mean, this real legitimate, I don't have to tell you this, suffering and loss and need for healing and repair dehumanization of Native Americans and African Americans in other communities for a long period of time. And yet, we also have other communities who either legitimately have had real loss over time or have narratives in their communities of loss.
And so, I think that's the point of clarity and the discomfort. And I don't mean just the left and the right. Americans across all have to sit back and say, "This is a defining moment. This is about transformation," otherwise we're in deep trouble. Sorry to be so pessimistic. But I do think that that is what's required at this time. And I think of myself as progressive and liberal. My whole life is on social justice. But there are moments in this country in the last few years where I told my friends, "You know what? You've got to give people the capacity to change." Those who don't change, you start to figure out who are the people who will never change, and now you've identified them further.
Then there are those who are fearful of change because change is difficult. And then more than not, most people want to change and they have to go through discomfort. But in recognizing that takes a discomfort, because we want that certainty about what this process should look like. And that's why I say that reckoning is so important, but it's also summoning at the same time. How do we both reckon and summon? Because reckon is dealing with a reality of the past and the today, but summoning what to the future. And I think that's that moment we're in as a nation.
Baratunde Thurston 36:45
You've reflected a few times on bringing your work home. You've done a lot of work outside of the US and it sounds to me like you feel a sense of urgency about what's happening in the US right now. Do you ever feel a sense that the divisions and conflicts in the US are irreconcilable?
Tim Phillips 37:07
I don't. I do at moments. There are deep divides and there's anger on all sides. And I say all sides, it's not just both sides. I think we have to go through stages. I was saying earlier about clarity and unity. I think it sounds good for some, but unity is actually a disservice to talk about right now. One is clarity. The other is coexistence or dissent. Recognizing and living with difference and dissent is going to be really important because people are not going to change quickly and overnight. They're really these in entrenched positions. You have media platforms whose economic incentive is to drive that. And so, we have to be realistic about those. And so, what do we do in the interim is I think find ways to live with difference. And I don't mean just cultural and demographic difference, political difference. It's okay to be dissenting. It's okay to have profound disagreement, because at the core, democracy is about managing difference. And I think that's what we have to do here is to say it's not an irreconcilable. Why? Because what's the alternative? It is find ways to live with difference, to manage that and find ways to reconnect and to see how much we have in common, and then together figure ways to define a country that reflects the reality of what we are and where we're going in a positive direction.
Baratunde Thurston 38:49
After the break, we fast-forward to this current moment we're living through, and dig deep into Beyond Conflict US-based work to understand how we can apply the lessons they've learned abroad. Plus, our in-studio virtual audience talks with Tim about ways we can counter conflict and extremism in our communities.
Tim, you and Beyond Conflict's work has historically centered on these facilitating these in-person cross-party dialogues. Over time, you've then layered in a lot more behavioral science and neuroscience to understand what drives division in the first place. What has science and research taught us about social conflict? What have they taught you?
Tim Phillips 39:33
This year is the 30th anniversary of Beyond Conflict. And for the first 20, 25 years, we would go into countries that were trying to imagine how do you go from dictatorship to democracy or from conflict to peace. And so, having done that for a number of years, we saw some successes, but we were also coming up against a lot of intractable conflicts and a lot of fragile peace agreements. And the question that I and my colleagues asked is, "What are we missing about the human experience? What are we missing about the struggles that people go through?" The Guatemalan friend of mine and a mentor said to me, "Exclusion is the main driver of conflict." And I was like, "Okay, how does that play out in the human brain and our cognition and our emotion?" Because if we understand that better, could we actually be more effective in framing strategies, interventions and ways to advance real transformative change and peace?
And that's why we started looking at brain and behavioral science. And I'll just maybe quickly end there by saying Jerry Adams, he was president of Shigin, which is the political party associated with the IRA. Though he won't admit it publicly, he was one of the top IRA leaders, and I had him come to a course, I was teaching at a university here a few years ago. And a student sat across the table and said, "How do you make peace with somebody you may have tried to kill or they may have killed somebody very close to you?" And he paused and he said, and a very thick Belfast accent. He said, "It's tough to make peace with a humiliated partner."
And there was a retired neuroscientist sitting in the room who had been observing the class. And he come up and he said, "I've heard Adams talk about humiliation. I heard somebody from the Middle East talk about fear, and empathy and what it is to be a victim and things that are sacred." He said, "There's a lot of brain science research behind that." And I said, "What do you mean brain science?" Because I knew from either social psychology, what I observed, what I experienced growing up. And I thought, "Tell me more." And the key thing he said that got me on this path, he said, "Well..." He was in the seventies at this point. He said, "Speaking as a scientist, we are not rational beings. We are emotions. In fact, we're just the opposite. We're emotionally based beings who can only think rationally when we feel that our identities as we see them, not you or others as we see them, are understood and valued by others."
Once we feel understood, he said there's a deep psychological, almost biological necessity to feel understood, then literally we can begin to engage rationally with others. And that's what put me on the journey to look at this.
Baratunde Thurston 42:11
Yeah, that's powerful, man. It's just this like a prerequisite. There's a emotional safety, emotional acknowledgement, psychological acknowledgement, prerequisite before you can enter some of these higher levels. In terms of, were you able to look back at some of your previous interventions that maybe didn't stick? You talk about these kind of fragile peace agreements. Was that in hindsight a clearly missing element? The emotional side? The neurological side?
Tim Phillips 42:39
It was clear that these emotions were playing an outside outsize role in making peace and reconciliation possible, like intractable conflict. In the last negotiations with the PLO under Yasser Arafat, when Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright were trying to negotiate the Camp David Accords, it collapsed at the last minute. And the two most difficult issues were the right of Palestinian refugees to return and the future of Jerusalem as a sacred city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And years later, I found that there's research coming out of brain and behavioral science that those things that we hold sacred to us, and I don't mean just religious terms, but things that have a profound, almost sacred importance to us are process in a different region of the brain than utilitarian decisions we make.
And there's even neuroimaging that has confirmed that this gets processed differently and is in a sense more entrenched cognitively in the brain, when people are still being forced to compromise things that are above compromise. And the research found as a simple, a powerful gesture of symbolic concession. "I understand how sacred this is to you. I understand how important this is to you," actually creates a cognitive shift where people feel like, "Now I'm being understood." And it goes back to what the scientist said a few years earlier about Jerry Adams comment. We have a deep need to feel understood if we're able to navigate the world and connect with others.
Baratunde Thurston 44:06
That is profound. And you've anticipated where I might've gone with that, which is, does that mean you then need to fully concede to their perspective or that sacred deeply held belief if that's anathema to your own? But you use the phrase symbolic concession, that we need to feel understood, even if we're not completely fully understood, that kind of opens the doorway. Am I interpreting that correctly?
Tim Phillips 44:29
Yeah, I mean that's why understanding science is not to make it more complex, but to decomplexify it in a sense, if there's such a phrase. And that is, well we all know, without understanding all the structures of the brain, is we need to feel understood. We relax, our stress levels go down. And by the way, there's research that affirms that. And we can begin to think about hearing others. But it doesn't mean, to your point, that I have to accept and endorse your point of view. It just means I understand what this means for you.
And Bill Clinton, I had reached out to him about a year ago for this work we were doing on status threat and identity threat in the United States. I said, "It's become really existential threat in this country right now. How do we navigate this when fear of change, demographic, economic, has been weaponized and let's be honest, particularly by the right for decades now, how do we deal with this?" And he said that when he was running for governor of Arkansas in the early eighties, he would always ask himself, " How do I get on the right side of fear? How do I acknowledge it? How do I have people feel like, 'Oh, somebody's understanding me' without validating it." It's like, I hear you. Now, let's move in this direction and that's what we need to do.
Baratunde Thurston 45:43
Understand doesn't necessarily mean agree with.
Tim Phillips 45:46
Baratunde Thurston 45:47
Which is a relief. Now, I know you and Beyond Conflict have been doing deeper work recently, looking at how Democrats and Republicans, for example, misperceive one another and their viewpoints. Can you walk me through those studies and what you're finding there?
Tim Phillips 46:03
Sure. So leaders from other countries that I had worked with from South Africa, Central America, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, they had been telling me for fully a decade beforehand, "Oh, you need to work in your own country." They, like canaries in a coal mine, could sense where things were going.
Baratunde Thurston 46:19
And they would know. They've been through it.
Tim Phillips 46:21
And they would know how to navigate these environments. And they pick it up in the ether, like, "Uh-oh. That language is really unhealthy. There are real problems emerging back home." And they were picking it up when Barack Obama became president in 2008. And so what we did was we now had this relationship with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools, and we said, "Okay, with some funding, let's understand how polarization is being shaped at this moment and what can we do about it. And so that report you mentioned, we called it America's Divided Mind, done by my colleague Emile Bruneau, who you met a few years, years ago, who unfortunately passed away from cancer and he's deeply missed. We looked at how polarization is being shaped psychologically, and what we found it was becoming more identity based. When that happens, a whole range of unconscious psychological processes come online that only serve the drive us further apart.
Baratunde Thurston 47:16
And when you say identity based as opposed to idea based, so you and I could have a strong disagreement about a policy or we could have a strong disagreement about each other's value or validity or humanity. Is that the distinction?
Tim Phillips 47:31
Yeah, I mean, in the 1950s, I had to dig up and breed over the last few years a lot of political science about polarization, and political scientists in the United States said that the United States was not polarized enough because if Republican and Democratic parties were bigger tents, and there were fewer choices for Americans of different political interests or persuasions to vote, unlike the UK or other countries that had broader political structures. And therefore, with more polarization, like a local election is a polarization process because you have people from different sides competing, that's natural and healthy. But when it becomes the way it's become in this country where all these other distinctions, class, race, culture, geography get aligned under a Democratic or Republican, more white Christian evangelicals are under the Republican, more people of color, professionals, educated, urban, are under Democrats, I mean, you can see a whole series of how these new alignments have happened, then it takes on an identity piece. And it goes from we're, "Citizens," quote unquote, of a nation maybe with profound disagreements, and we don't really feel this democracy maybe fully works for all of us, but when it becomes an us versus them, then you are profound threat to my community and identity.
The good news is that we did these surveys nationally and we would ask representative Democrats and Republicans, so a Democrat, "Where are you on immigration and open borders?" "Well, we need immigration reform, but we need a process that works and allows people in." But a lot of Democrats were in the middle. Republicans, we need stronger restrictions, but a lot were in the middle. But if you ask a Democrat, "Where do you think the Republicans are on immigration?" "Oh, they want the borders completely closed." Republican, "Where do you think the Democrats are?" "They want them completely open."
So on big issue after big issue, and on how much you think the other side dislikes you, and even more concerning dehumanizes you, it's up near 50%. So we sat back and said, wait a minute. A huge chunk of the country, probably close to 50%, are overestimating by 50% how far apart they are. And all that does is further drive this tribal polarization.
Baratunde Thurston 49:46
And perception is reality. So if I believe that, I'm going to behave based on that. So what happens when you tell people, "Actually you're not as far apart as you thought?" What comes of that?
Tim Phillips 49:57
So we actually, in the last year and a half, we hired a filmmaker. I said, "Let's create a short video, take the research on these misperceptions, and get representative Trump and Biden supporters, ask them the same question." And capturing their response, it was like a holy S moment. Like, you're kidding, but where am I getting at my information? Well, what about this? What about that?
That video, we then tested, up in Stanford, tested in a big strengthening democracy challenge a few months ago with 32,000 people. Out of 250 interventions, it was rated number one for reducing support for political violence in the United States and partisan animosity because it corrected these misperceptions. And Americans do not get information that says, "You know what, yes, we are divided. We have some profound issues to address, but there's much more overlap." And when people know that, and I've seen this in other countries, it's what makes peace possible in deeply divided places, that you have allies that you may have never imagined.
Baratunde Thurston 51:00
How much did the propensity toward political violence decrease and how did you measure that?
Tim Phillips 51:06
We followed up, I think it was every quarter, and asking certain questions to see, does this change your view about the use of political violence? A warmth thermometer in terms of, how warm you feel? Do you feel like a greatest sense of being understood? And so forth and so on. And what we found is that all of these measures improved because people sat back and said, "You're not asking me to compromise. You're not giving me a symbolic concession. You are not saying that I could potentially betray my tribe by saying, 'Well, I have something in common with you,'" because there are all these cognitive, not just explicit, but implicit forces that are telling us, "Don't do this." But this is simple, it's neutral. It's saying, "Wait a minute, you have more in common than you ever imagined."
And think of that in a family situation. If you thought a colleague or a friend really disliked you and then you found out no, it's just the opposite, how does it make you feel emotionally?
Baratunde Thurston 52:07
Tim Phillips 52:08
Baratunde Thurston 52:09
Yeah. Also, I need to get my hands on that video and plug it into the TikTok algorithm for everybody.
Tim Phillips 52:15
No, please do.
Baratunde Thurston 52:15
And hijack the Fox News airwaves and make sure that those viewers see, no, it's if it's the number one out of 250 interventions, we need to scale that.
Tim Phillips 52:25
And I would love to follow up with you enough because we even did research on misperceptions around democratic norms. Yeah. Now I will say that after January 6th and Donald Trump, I assumed that Republicans had decreased their support for Democratic norms and principles. Our recent research with colleagues in Chicago found that Democrats, Republicans still today equally value democratic norms and principles, but if they think the other side doesn't, they're willing to violate them. And it's the same 50% gap. So getting these out at scale is what we're now looking at doing.
Baratunde Thurston 53:01
Well, when I hear the rhetoric of the people trying to protect the election and showing up with guns, their verbalized rationale is, "Well, because the Democrats are going to steal it."
Tim Phillips 53:10
Baratunde Thurston 53:10
So because they're going to violate the norm, that gives me an excuse to violate the norm. And then Democrats see that and "Well, they're violating the norm, so we got to..." So it becomes this escalation. I know that you are also working on a more current intervention and process. Where Do We Go From Here, you're calling it. Tell us about that.
Tim Phillips 53:31
Sure. So I mentioned that our sort of traditional historic work in other countries was bringing together former enemies across profound divides at different levels. But then I realized on a personal level, for the last five or six years, when things started to go off the rail here in my country, our country, it has a different emotional resonance. It's like, wow, my history, my identities, my narratives, my family members, who I can talk to or not talk to, and it's very different. And I realized I was at a profound safe distance.
So over the last year, I reached out to a lot of these friends and I said, "I need to bring you out to my country. The way we would go to these other countries, we need to bring it to this country." And not just in Washington, but across the country. To meet with people across divides, whether it be community activists, bridge builders, local elected officials, megachurches, small synagogues, because there are few Americans who have the direct experience of navigating such a profound crisis in their own country.
Baratunde Thurston 54:34
And that we also lack a historical memory. I talk with my partner Elizabeth about this a fair amount. As the World War II generation leaves us, we are collectively losing a direct connection to the worst versions of some of this division and the scale of political violence, like taken to the maximum and to the extreme. So we have a temporal gap to try to close, but also, and to your point, spatial, when you can bring people who've been through it, who know the worst of this, and also the healing that's possible on the other side, bring them home here to your territory. What does that look like, Tim? How are they receiving?
Tim Phillips 55:13
So in June, we took this most recent report and I brought Roelf Meyer, who was the key negotiator in the talks to end apartheid. So this is a man who grew up as a white Africana, who thought that apartheid was not only good for whites, but for Blacks, early in his career. Shocking. But that was the mental model of the world he had. He then went through a process of recognizing, this system is corrupt and I need to do what I can to end it. So he became the chief negotiator in the talk stand apartheid. And he said, "I came to realize over a period of years, not only the corruption of apartheid, but what was in the mindset of my community to even set this system up."
So we went to Washington and met with some of the key congressional leaders on the Democratic side because we tried to get some Republican, but they, not at that time, interested. And we met with key congressional leaders, and they were old enough to know the role that Rolf played, but talking about identity threats, social status threat in this country, it had a huge impact on the members of Congress in the meeting. And the question was, well, where do we go from here? And Rolf and I were talking afterwards and country after country, and even Monica McWilliams who founded the Women's Coalition in Northern Ireland said, "We all got to the point and said, 'There needs to be a better way."" And that's when these leaders in other countries, and we are often involved, but not the only ones, would go to these other countries and come back and say, "Wow, if they can do it, we can do it." Because this is a shared human challenge of how do you could sit across the table from your enemy? Can you forgive? And we need it here.
Baratunde Thurston 56:46
So I want to shift us into bringing in some of the questions that people submitted. Mark texted, "Are you trying to seek middle ground with those who may view the world differently than you, or is your goal only really reached when they have 100% bought into your political viewpoints?"
Tim Phillips 57:01
We can't expect, nor do we need, to convince everybody of somebody's point of view. What you need to do, and it's country after country, most people are not political. A Democrat, Republican, a progressive, a MAGA supporter. They think about, "What am I going to do today for my family, my work, and all these things that are in front of me?" And yet they care about politics, many of them, not all. And that's where the vast majority are. And they just want the system to work. So we don't have to win everybody over. We just have to win enough people over to say, "We live in a diverse country. We live in a multiracial nation, which is not fully a multiracial democracy. And the only way we're going to address these shared problems is finding what we have as shared problems today to address." Because our research shows that Americans have far more in common than they imagine. And how do we build off that without people feeling that they have to give up their core identities or interest?
Baratunde Thurston 57:57
Thank you. We're going to continue this conversation. We have some live questioners queued up. Damon Williams, you're up first and go ahead and state your question.
Damon Williams 58:06
I'm Damon Williams from Memphis, Tennessee, and you've kind of touched on it already, but what I was really wondering, what it looks like is just different world perspectives. And I've seen it and I've had in my own experience where two people will look at the same thing and literally see two different things. So how do you have some kind of reconciliation with someone who's experiencing a completely different reality?
Tim Phillips 58:32
One of the simplest and best interventions I've learned from my colleagues in science is context, is that our brains evolved to be predictive. We're constantly trying to predict our social and physical environment. And if we don't know or have experienced the lived experience of others, we can access it through context. Oh, I know what that feels like in my community. I know what that feels like in my experience.
So how do you contextualize something? I'll give you a concrete example, and it may not completely connect to your point, but I think it's related. So there was a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Boston that was a replica of the one in DC, that was built about a decade after his assassination. And he was standing on a pedestal with two freed slaves looking up to him unshackled. And even at the revealing of this in Washington, Frederick Douglass said, "This is inappropriate. It's dehumanizing." So two years ago, the city of Boston decided to take it down. And a friend of mine I went to college with who's Irish American, called me up and he's sort of center conservative, said, "Is Abraham Lincoln now being canceled?" And what I said to him is, "Bob, imagine if there was a statue of Queen Victoria or Oliver Cromwell in Boston." Before I could finish, he said, "Take that statue down."
It connected to his lived experience because there are these narratives in the Irish American immigrant community of the famine and what Queen Victoria did, and what Oliver Cromwell had done earlier, the notion of a statue representing those two is so abhorrent that he all of a sudden contextualized, well, I guess I can understand now what that would mean for someone who's African American. And from a research point of view, a simple intervention like that, and they followed up, can last a lifetime.
Baratunde Thurston 1:00:24
That's fascinating. Oh, I want to follow up on everything, but we have so many more in the queue. I want to keep passing the mic. Allison Mosqueda, please go ahead and state your question. Thanks.
Allison Mosqueda 1:00:33
Hi, I'm Allison Mosqueda. I am here in Denver, Colorado, and I work in public health across the entire state of Colorado in lots of different communities that all have very unique, their own cultures, their own belief systems, lots of political differences. And I work in a program where we all have the similar goal, but we have a lot of different ideas about how to get there. And I really find that one way to do that is similar to what I think you have been saying is, find those foundations of what we all agree upon as the basis of the conversation and build from there. And it's taken me, as a young professional, a long time to learn these skills. I was never taught these things, so I was just really thinking about my two young children and concerned for them. How do we teach young kids and young people to prepare them to be in a world where these kinds of conversations are going to be really critically important and have this healthy level of conflict when what they see role modeled around us right now is not that?
Tim Phillips 1:01:33
What many of the South Africans, for example, would tell people in other countries, is, "Process before substance." In a deeply divided setting, to go to the issues that divide people as a recipe for disaster because then people don't listen. And it's not just from a political or an explicit, it's much a psychological mindset. I don't know you, I don't trust you. Why should I trust you? And the process piece, to me the common ground that we need to lay, whether it's in the family or school, or in other settings, and we've been trying this by the way, with some of these different groups over the last few years, is laying out these processes. Let's talk about how our brain navigates the world. Let's talk about common experiences we have and what it feels like to be marginalized, humiliated. What is it to feel human fragility? What is it to feel privileged? Do you feel privileged? And so we take out the sort of precursor, white fragility, white privilege because I think of in the context of Northern Ireland, if the Catholics say to the Protestants, "What we need to do is talk first about your union as a Protestant fragility or privilege," those conversations would've gone nowhere because you've already had this deep identity based conflict, where those identity markers play a much more salient, important role than core political and economic interest.
I mean, it's very clear if that book that came out several years ago, What's the Matter with Kansas?, is people will always, they say it in organizations, culture trumps process. Well, culture and identity will trump everything because that's deeply sort of ingrained in our evolution, is how we navigate the world is on these identity markers. And so if we could think about organizing conversations in a more neutral human-centered term as opposed to a Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, Catholic, Protestant, what is it that we all share?
Baratunde Thurston 1:03:26
I want children's videos of the things that you've already launched into the world. And I'll just flag this now. I think there will be tension between speaking truth and being effective in your linguistic approach to preserve an open door. And so if we're just going to talk vaguely about privilege and not say white privilege or supremacy and not say white supremacy, what's the trade-off in terms of completeness versus openness that the other would even have to enter in that conversation?
Tim Phillips 1:03:59
Baratunde, I agree with you totally about privilege. The thought is, how do you have a conversation about the nature of privilege and then say, "So in this context, could you feel privileged by the color of your skin," as opposed to not even going there. It's to be able to have people think about, "All right, I've already centered the conversation of privilege in my brain and I'm already engendering in my mind. Oh, I know I don't feel privileged, but could you feel privileged here?" And then you're creating a cognitive pathway for people to engage something. You're walking them up to it rather than shaming them.
Baratunde Thurston 1:04:33
Yeah, you're walking them up to it. As opposed to the way I learned how to swim where they just threw me in the deep end and said, "You know how to swim." I'm like, "I guess I do now if I want to live." Thanks teach.
All right, Mary Pearl, coming online. And go ahead and state your question and thought.
Mary Pearl 1:04:50
Hello, my name is Mary Pearl. I'm dog sitting at my brother's house on Cape Cod. And I'm hearing that Tim thinks we have to start where we are today, to have these conversations, but I just have to ask, don't we have to have a reckoning with our history of systemic racism and violence and indigenous slaughter? It seems to me there's a deep psychological, strong connection between white supremacy and hatred of indigenous people from our past that just infuse our presence. So how can we get to a new place of respect and understanding if we can't acknowledge the history?
Tim Phillips 1:05:30
Yeah, I mean that is such a key question here, and it's a key question in pretty much every country I worked in in the past, and they're also often very divided and difficult, and never completely resolved. My personal view is that it's very difficult to talk about reconciling a people until you reconcile a history. And the question is, how do you do that in such a way that it advances real change? And I think you have to break it down is, one is to acknowledge what has happened and what are the ways in which you can do it actually is meaningful to the communities that need that history acknowledged, and what is the repair today for their descendants and the legacy of four centuries of blatant dehumanization to people of color in this country, I mean Native Americans in particular, and African Americans? So those are absolutely essential. The question then becomes how do you move those forward in a country that's deeply not just divided politically, but is with the recognition of what happened to a Native Americans and African Americans who were brought here, is all these other immigrant communities, Asians, Latinos, Muslims, and others, Irish American, Italian American, when they came over, were really dehumanized and they have these narratives in their families. And so what I've been doing for the last couple of years is reaching out to the people who led these truth commissions in many countries around the world and say, what can we bring to this moment in the United States? How do we stage this? How do we do it in such a way that it can really be a process of healing and transformation?
Baratunde Thurston 1:07:13
Yeah. I have a little trick I learned on this one, Mary, and I think the history can be a real third rail and to Tim's earlier point, context matters. And so how you walk people up to it, and because I end up talking to a lot of white people, I'm the white people whisperer in terms of the race conversation sometimes, I tell a personal story of my own emotional challenge with accepting the painful history. My own family history with the heroic figure, my mother, who a lot of people know of, and I'm like, yes, but also there were these other things about her and they created challenges for me. And there's a longer version of it. But essentially I hook them in with the mom was fallible story and tell my journey of healing on the other side of that and how I actually have a deeper knowledge of my mother through this acknowledgement and thus a deeper love, and that's what I want for us and the country.
And so it's entering through a point not of lecture and shame positioning, but rather confession really first, here's my experience. Here's how hard it hurt. Here's what I found on the other side. I want you to have that same transformation, that same journey, that same taste of freedom. And for the people who've had direct access to, that's a much more welcome pathway into a real hard conversation than, "Your daddy owned slaves. You are a white supremacist." It just doesn't quite do the same thing.
Tim Phillips 1:08:45
Can I add one quick thing, Baratunde? And that is the challenge we have in this country is that the truth commissions that emerged, the truth and reconciliation commissions from Argentina and Chile and then picked up by South Africa were mostly state run dictatorships. And then they had a lot of people supporting it, but they were institutionalized, legally set up state dictatorships. What we're seeing from Northern Ireland to the United States is mostly there're elements of the state and history in states who still today do things that are horrific, but it's a lot of civilian, non-civilian, if you know what I'm saying.
So nobody has quite figured out what is the process in a deeply divided community that is hyper-polarized to come to terms with this. And people would go to the model in South Africa and the South Africans went to Argentina and Chile, and the benefit of that is Africanos and white people could say, "Ah, it was the system." Or in Argentina, Chile, it was the military dictatorship. Here-
Baratunde Thurston 1:09:55
Tim Phillips 1:09:55
Baratunde Thurston 1:09:55
Tim Phillips 1:09:57
It's us. And that's what I struggle with because of the identity-based nature of our divisions, it makes it so much more difficult. So I agree it needs to be done, but let's figure out a way to do it with the tools we have to make it meaningful and transformative.
Baratunde Thurston 1:10:11
Andrea, we are about to call on you. I don't know if it's Andrea or Andrea, you'll let us know. Go ahead and state the question that you have.
Andrea Bowers 1:10:19
I'm Andrea, I'm from Washington State. And I was just wondering, when you're in a conversation with somebody where the conversation is becoming not useful anymore, what kind of linguistic tactics do you have to get the conversation going in a positive direction?
Tim Phillips 1:10:47
I've struggled with this and it was more difficult because it's my own people I know and so forth. But here's what I've tested and learned more anecdotally. When somebody said to me recently that the 2020 election was stolen, that Joe Biden is illegitimate and that Donald Trump is the best president we've ever had. Rather than getting angry and outraged and get into the issues, I said, "Well, I can maybe understand why you feel that way." And what it did was I could see there was like a change in this person's countenance. What he was expecting was me to come back in aggressive way. I said, "I can understand why you feel that way." What I didn't say was, "I agree with you. You're wrong. Don't you realize what he stand for? Don't you realize what happened?"
And what it forced him to do was a bit of cognitive dissidence to rethink. So, Huh, what does this mean?" And I could see it going on, and I had the benefit of speaking to some brilliant social psychologists ahead of time saying I want to try this and they said it creates cognitive dissidents because people come in with an expectation that you're going to act and speak in a certain way. And then I didn't want to then at that point because I knew I would see this person continue on the conversation I wanted him to sit with I understand you.
Baratunde Thurston 1:12:02
I mean, it's almost like if you're keeping them engaged they're not storming the Capitol. And so if that's the energy you have, and again, Tim said this already, that's not everybody's job, but if you find yourself in that situation and you want to try it I think it can be worth a shot. Most of us are not in a position to change someone's mind if we don't have a relationship with them. And so preserving the link is also preserving the opportunity to move people across that link, and to be moved to some degree. But if we just have a counter energy and a severing of relationship, then we're severing one of the pillars of How to Citizen, which is who invest in relationships, and we're losing an opportunity to potentially persuade or change or shift that may come later. We got one more live question. Debra Sheka.
Debra S. 1:12:54
My name is Debra and I am in Reno, Nevada. So my question is this. I've been thinking about how polarized and divided our country is, and it troubles me deeply. And so what can I do? I call a service center and I talk to a customer service agent and I try to be extra nice. I deal with people in the grocery store and try to be extra nice. And that's the only thing I've been able to come up with. And it's kind of a nice thing to do, but it feels like it's not enough.
Baratunde Thurston 1:13:21
What else can we do or is being extra nice to everyone we encounter, is that meet our standards as well, is that going to get points for that?
Tim Phillips 1:13:30
I think we have to pick and choose on an individual level those relationships that we want to invest in. It could be a family member, it could be a coworker, or could be somebody that you know have profound disagreement but they will be in your life in some way and you want a decent relationship.
On a broader scale what I've seen and recommend is, be engaged citizens. Step out of your silos. Look for those moments where you can actually do something that crosses divides. I mean, if there's one lesson that all these leaders from profound divides in other countries who have been through the shit, to put it bluntly, say, is you got to find ways to live together and cooperate because the alternative is really bad.
The other thing is norms play an outsize role in shaping behavior. The research showed in behavioral science that actually focusing on hearts and minds has very little impact on behavior as much as norms do. In fact, people's hearts and minds will follow to shape to their new norm. And think of those leaders in institutions that we want to elevate, whether it be a Republican, a Democrat, an independent or cultural figures who have the capacity to shape new norms. When I think of John McCain in 2008, when that woman came up and said, "Candidate Barack Obama was not an American." What did John McCain do? He took the microphone and said, "No, I'm sorry miss, that's incorrect. That's wrong." That has a big influence. We need to be finding people, particularly on the Republican side, who are willing to step up and do the right thing. And I think that can shape an environment that can begin to bring the temperature down. Because one thing we see, and again, I've seen this in other countries, people don't like to live their lives with this much toxicity in the environment. And there are some who benefit from it and some who find it very entertaining and energizing, but the vast majority, not the most.
Baratunde Thurston 1:15:30
But not the most, but not most of us. And I think that's that's a good common ground to reestablish. And we can all agree even if we don't share the factual reality, we share that emotional exhaustion reality, and that is a possible bridge as well.
Guns, Tim, we got to talk about guns. I think the context for increasing language around dehumanization and anti-democratic norms and openness to political violence, it hits differently in the US because we have so many guns per capita here. And so the fears of violence are justified in ways that they might not be in other places with just a lot of newspapers talking a lot of smack. Do you have any research, experience, focus on the special relationship that we have with guns in the US and the unique challenges that creates for reversing this spiraling, escalating threat?
Tim Phillips 1:16:23
And it's horrendous to see the amount of guns and the gun culture we have in this country. I mentioned earlier that things that we hold to be sacred to us are process in the different part of the brain than other utilitarian calculations. So I wrote a piece after Sandy Hook, six months, eight months after Sandy Hook, looking at sacred values and gun control and recognized that after seeing a failure of gun legislation after Sandy Hook, it actually got worse. What are we missing? Is there a different way to frame the protection of children and a different way to frame a conversation with those gun owners who really think it's like a sacred value? And I'll be happy to share that and you can link it. But that got a lot of interest and-
Baratunde Thurston 1:17:06
What's the answer?
Tim Phillips 1:17:10
I don't know the answer, my friend. It's deeply embedded. I said to somebody we never demobilize as a nation from the American Revolution, and that notion of militias and the right to bear arms has never been reformed and changed.
Baratunde Thurston 1:17:31
We ask all of our guests, how do you define citizen if you interpret it, as we do, as a verb? What does it mean to citizen to you, Tim?
Tim Phillips 1:17:41
To engage. To know what's happening around you. To show the concern about your family, your community, your colleagues, and the country you live in. Because there are a lot of well-educated people that I know, and when I ask them about the state of affairs, they're clueless. And it's not because they're stupid, they don't know. And I think it's a requirement to understand the world you live in, particularly at this moment in time.
Baratunde Thurston 1:18:10
Tim Phillips, thank you for helping us see the possibilities of a world beyond conflict and spending this time with us.
Tim Phillips 1:18:18
Thank you. Thank you everybody.
Baratunde Thurston 1:18:23
It's hard to feel fully satisfied after a conversation like this. The kind of intractable disagreement, dehumanization, distrust, and disinformation we're up against is just overwhelming. And a problem this complex doesn't have a simple solution. Tim and Beyond Conflict have contributed to a constellation of approaches and insights that we can interpret and try to use in our own communities. And they've also reminded us that comforting or not, the United States is not the first country to live through intense division and we're definitely not the first to believe that moving beyond it is impossible.
I remain most heartened by Beyond Conflict's research, which shows that we're not as far apart as we think we are. Basically, what I think Republicans think of me is far worse than what they actually think of me and vice versa. That's important. But as far as the tactics that we use to reconnect to each other, I think Tim and Beyond Conflict, they get us part of the way there. So this is the first of two episodes we have addressing this division at the heart of our democratic culture. I'm thinking of adrienne maree brown right now and this thing she said about conflict, we don't actually need to try always to get beyond conflict. Instead, we need to try to engage in generative conflict. So that the disagreements we have, and we're going to always have them, don't destroy the prospect of an us, and the prospect of this beautiful experiment we're in together.
Time for some actions. First one, internally reflect. Think about a recent time where you strongly disagreed with someone about a political or ideological issue, whether it was online or in person. Notice where you felt that in your body. Did you feel pressure across your forehead? Tension in your jaw? Tightness in your stomach or chest? These are survival responses. Your brain and body are telling each other that you are in danger. The next time you're in a situation like this, try the 90 Second Rule created by Harvard researcher, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. She found that it takes 90 seconds for an emotion to pass. So before jumping back into a debate that's getting your blood boiling, take 90 seconds to step out of the room or away from your phone, breathe, pace around, hold plank position, whatever it takes to give you that time to move out of this understandable fight, flight, freeze response into an ability to better understand yourself and others. The more we practice this, the more we'll be able to recognize and reduce our own fear and threat responses toward people we disagree with.
Next up, become more informed. We've got stuff for you to watch, read, and listen to. We're tickling all the senses. Check out America's Divided Mind, Beyond Conflict's short video that shows Americans aren't as far apart as we think. And if you want to take a deep dive into their research, we've linked some of Beyond Conflicts reports on the psychology that drives us apart and on renewing democracy. But if reading or watching aren't your thing, Tim recommends listening to an interview with South African leaders on how America can move beyond toxic polarization. You'll find all of these resources linked in our show notes.
Finally, let's publicly participate. Bridging the political tension in our country and in our communities won't resolve itself on its own. And if you've got the bandwidth, take time to move conversations offline and invest in building real relationships with people across the aisle in your community. And you don't need to do it alone either. Check out organizations creating opportunities for Americans to come together and navigate our divides at the local level. Groups like One America Movement, Civic Genius. Make America Dinner again or Living Room Conversations. Find links to all these groups in the show notes. If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the hashtag #howtocitizen. Also tag our Instagram @howtocitizen. I am always online and I really do see your messages, so send them. You can also visit our website howtocitizen.com, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more.
Finally, see this episode show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect.
How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer, and John Myers is our executive editor. Our mix engineer is Justin Berger. Special thanks to Dust Light Productions who arranged my first interview with Tim. Original music by Andrew Eapen with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. And our audience engagement fellows are Jasmine Lewis and Gabby Rodriguez. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina
Next time on How to Citizen, Tim gave us insight into how deep-seated the discord and hatred of our political division has grown. But a lot of us are at a loss when it comes to figuring out our role in deescalating it. And while sitting down and trying to talk things out will work for some of us in order to rebuild relationships with those we deeply disagree with, we've got to get creative.
Priya Parker 1:24:36
And she said people are so deeply in their camps and there's so much distrust that I think we need to remember why we enjoyed each other in the first place. And so she threw a parking lot party and she convinced her board to rent a dunk tank, and the core of the parking lot party was dunk the deacon.
Baratunde Thurston 1:24:59
Yes. And we can all come together around that.
Priya Parker 1:25:02
Yeah exactly. It was like, throw that ball.
Baratunde Thurston 1:25:04
Author and facilitator Priya Parker, on the Art of Gathering and the inventive ways we can practice being in community across differences.
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