Talk to Me … Please?

Diverse groups speak out on our breakdown in civil discourse and explore ways to get us communicating again.

BY March 8, 2018
Illustration by John S. Dykes

Tom McCann is sipping a coffee and reflecting on the strife he’s encountered of late, including a 20-year friendship on pause over a political dispute. He’s considering where 2018 falls in the spectrum of American unrest when he’s struck by this thought:

“Trump is today’s Vietnam.” 

McCann, a retired lawyer who lives in Naples, elaborates: “You couldn’t go to a dinner party and be on one side or another and say, ‘I haven’t made my mind up.’ People wouldn’t accept that.”

And so, it seems, with President Trump.

“You can’t be neutral on (him),” McCann continues. He’s referring not to the man alone, but the whole spectrum of things he represents, an “aura,” he calls it, that’s washing over the nation. It’s dividing us so deeply that we’re struggling even to have conversations anymore. We’re hunkering down with people who align with us, and when we have occasion to politically engage, we’re either drowning out or shutting down.

Gulfshore Life wanted to probe, in a deeper way, the issues that might be driving us apart—race, religion, the economy, immigration, media, guns, political ideology and the like—and then explore how we might overcome them. Our objectives were strictly local—to influence our region’s dialogue in whatever small way we could, through the stories, experiences and ideas of our neighbors.

We engaged Cindy Banyai, Ph.D., a Fort Myers-based researcher and community development expert, to help us assess and interpret the ideas put forth. Together, we met with about 30 Southwest Floridians from varying political, geographic, gender, age, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Through structured group conversations and one-on-one interviews, our inquiry yielded a rich, complex and nuanced look at what ails us, as well as ideas on how we can move forward.

Our findings were anything but cut-and-dried, and in some cases surprised us.

We assembled five focus groups, the members of which shared commonalities such as political ideology or civic or workplace affiliation. Later, we would ask a few of them to join a mixed group to delve more deeply into the issues.

To begin, we showed participants photos depicting people, events and issues dominating the news. It was an indirect way to find out what’s provoking the greatest strife. Participants stuck color-coded dots on the photos they reacted to most viscerally, either positively or negatively. Several images, including the Charlottesville rally, the Black Lives Matter movement, gun rights and social media, moved people to respond. But nothing came close to the reaction elicited by the photo of Donald Trump, followed closely by that of Hillary Clinton.

We’d somewhat anticipated a more even division of stickers among hot-button issues, but when we saw the president’s photo awash in dots we had to conclude this: We’re stuck in Election 2016, and our biggest wedge issue, as McCann alluded to, is our emotional response to the president. Whether directly or indirectly, talk of Trump framed the debate.

With that said, here are some of the most important things we discovered.

“It’s not just about Republican and Democrat. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in so many ways, on so many issues. … It’s those labels that divide us. If we took those labels away, it’s surprising how many people would come together and just talk as human beings.”
—Juana Brown, Immokalee 

It’s a Saturday morning in Naples, and nine men are seated around a conference table. They’re big thinkers, culled from the Naples Men’s Discussion Group, and they’ve been picking apart Trump and Hillary and the Black Lives Matter movement. Themes surface: disenfranchisement, fragmentation, the right’s resistance to growing liberalism, the left’s recoiling against Trump’s character.  

Ric Phillips, a participant who proves to be adroit at finding big-picture through-lines, interjects: “Don’t you think we’re walking around the periphery of all of this? It seems to me the real issue is tribalism.”

There are murmurs of agreement. The word had been voiced multiple times already that morning, a sense of division by politics and by race, gender, religion and national origin.

The causes, they speculate are many: fear and uncertainty; historic tensions newly intensified; social media; mainstream news presented through partisan lenses; the president’s words—or lack of words.

This group wasn’t alone in its assessment. Isolation by identity emerged time and again during our conversations. Participants may have attributed the phenomenon to different causes—Trump did it! The media did it! Hillary and the liberals did it!—but they agreed that people have rejected the concept of multi-tribalism and they’ve forgotten the universal one, our Americanism.

That, more than anything else, may be the root from which related problems sprout. It’s certainly at the heart of the issue that our participants raised repeatedly: race.

“I think there is an opportunity for better understanding, but there has to be some clearer definitions of a couple of things. Racism and prejudice are not the same. … Racism is institutional; prejudice is individual. I don’t care if you’re prejudiced. Your behavior can be modified. Racism, however, institutionalized racism, is a much deeper problem, and that’s the real issue.”
—William Brown, Fort Myers

“I’ll tell you a story.” Magic Benton leans forward in his chair. He’s with the YMCA now, but he’s recalling a previous job at a Christian school. The commute took him through a less-than-desirable part of town. “Every other day when I would go to work, I would get pulled over. … I was a schoolteacher, but my car looked nice, so there was always an assumption. I’d ask the cops, ‘Why are you pulling me over?’ They could never tell me.”

Another story, from his days as a University of Miami football star: “Every time we got fan mail, I would get three or four hate letters. ‘N’… this, ‘N’… that. It’s for no reason. It’s just because I’m black and I’m playing college football and I scored some touchdowns and they feel the need to tell me: You’re still the ‘N’…

“Until America embraces that these things do happen, that these things are going on, it’s never going to get settled,” Benton says.  

We don’t know how to talk about race—or about other contentious topics for that matter. Did Trump liberate our speech from the constraints of “political correctness”? Or has he instead drawn supremacists out of the shadows and chased immigrants into them?

“Well, I do appreciate the honesty,” Benton says with a grin, meaning he knows where people stand because they’re less often masking their prejudices.

With a more serious tone, though, Benton offers something akin to the “boy who cried wolf” parable: You’ve got to call out racism—real racism—when you see it. But you can’t slap a “racist” label on every action, every statement that rubs you the wrong way. When that happens, the rhetoric gets ugly and nothing gets resolved. “If somebody makes a comment, it’s blasted all over the news and everybody gets angry. … They’re spinning it as racist,” he says. “We take what we want out of it, and we attach it to a story just to push an agenda.”

In a different conversation on another day, Beatriz Drago of Immokalee, who holds dual citizenships, admits she’s been favoring her Mexican passport over her American one. She acknowledges that she identifies as Mexican-American, unlike her younger brother, who says simply, “I’m American” when people ask the “What are you?” question that nonwhites invariably face.

“I feel like we’re a pot full of cultures, and we just don’t care to understand each other,” says Drago, a teacher at the Immokalee Community School. “We need to learn about each other. It’s like me. I was born in Mexico, but I came to America when I was 3 and I’m a U.S. citizen, but when I go to another country, I say I’m Mexican. Am I really embracing (America)? I go to Mexico for a visit, but after a while, I want to go home. To me, this is home. But why don’t I embrace being American?”

Such self-reflection is important for bridging divides; nevertheless, it’s not hard to see how external forces may have influenced her self-identity. Drago and her friend, Zulaika Quintero, the school’s principal, recount a post-election incident in which a driver pulled up alongside Quintero’s car and shouted through his open window: Just so you know, the left lane is not for cruising. I can tell you’re foreigners. Go back to your own country.

Quintero had been through a similar incident not long before: A belligerent young couple rattled her so badly that she had to pull over. She’s learned to ignore rather than engage, and to resist judging a whole by a bigoted few. But she thinks about her teenage niece, who’d witnessed the second incident, and she wonders whether such run-ins could sully the girl’s views of an entire race. “That’s how division starts,” Quintero says.

“Just because I say I’m a Republican does not mean I have to mark every box on the Republican checklist. Nor if you are a Democrat should you have to. And I don’t know why we’ve gotten to the point where we feel like that.”
—Beth Hendry , Fort Myers

To a number of participants, that indeed is how it feels—boxed in, forced to pick sides, chastised if they compromise, taunted if their viewpoints shift, branded “weak” if they concede, even marginally, to the other side.

Ken DeWalt of Alva is a businessman-turned-minister, a lifelong Republican, the kind of person whose vote the GOP might take for granted. Such is the problem with assumptions; when DeWalt’s preferred GOP contenders dropped out, he swallowed his aversion to Clinton and cast his vote for her, hoping a Republican Congress would provide balance. To DeWalt, Trump’s moral failings were too great an issue to overlook. He’s been challenged for departing from the “group,” even though he doesn’t believe that all Christians or all conservatives or all of any other group must think alike.

“I’ve had several Christians come to me and say, ‘Why?’ Why would I be opposed to Trump?”

His wife, Ramona (a Democrat), has heard even more pointed questions: “We’ve had conservative friends say, ‘How can you be a Christian and not believe what Mr. Trump is saying? He’s got people like Franklin Graham behind him.’” She shakes her head. The couple points to an opinion piece from a Christian website that articulates their frustrations—that too many of their faith are adhering to the platform of the party over the word of the gospel.

They try to coax people away from blind partisanship by encouraging them to think independently, weigh facts and, yes, consult scripture for guidance on the kinds of qualities we should exhibit.

For Tom McCann, the rigidity of opinion threatens a friendship. A longtime golfing buddy, who lives out of state, takes such great offense to the Black Lives Matter movement that McCann can barely hold a conversation with him anymore.

“He’s virulent about his support of police, and he feels he can’t be in support of police and of black people,” McCann says. He calls his friend a “moral guy,” who’d never expressed racist tendencies. “But I think it’s infecting him in other ways about race relations, too. … Once you do adopt Blue Lives Matter, let’s say, all of a sudden racial and other issues regarding black people cause you to look askance.”

A zero-sum game, McCann calls it. “Those of us who began supporting the concept of Black Lives Matter, to our amazement, there was a backlash against us, people saying we believe blue lives don’t matter. Well, nobody ever said that. That’s ridiculous. That’s not what we’re saying. … There isn’t just a pot and whatever I get, you don’t get.”

“Even as I may or may not agree with some of the policies (and some I absolutely agree with), when you excuse character flaws the way I see them, the problem is you normalize them. What’s happening in this country is some of the worse possible traits I can imagine are becoming acceptable.”
—Ric Phillips, Naples

We acknowledge there are plenty of Southwest Floridians who support Trump (he captured 77 percent of the vote in Lee and 61 percent in Collier), and we acknowledge the legitimacy of the policy matters conservatives favor—security, regulatory reform and job creation.

But we can’t ignore our overall finding: Even among some right-leaning participants, the president elicited a tremendous negativity. It wasn’t necessarily over his ideology and policies, although those topics did come up; rather, they were balking at his leadership.

“I feel for someone to make such a large statement about a certain ethnicity or a certain group of people—you start feeling like he’s talking to you and you start putting yourself down,” Quintero says during our final, mixed group session.

“Would you have felt that way about Pence if Pence had won?” asks Allison Lund, a Fort Myers woman propelled into politics after the 2016 election. “I wouldn’t have. I clearly disagree with (Pence) about everything fundamentally, but I don’t have that feeling toward him.”

Quintero chuckles. Probably not, she says, and elaborates: “It’s the way (Trump) has spoken and continues to speak about individuals in our country.”

Fragmented leadership at the top is fracturing the rest of us down below.

Hillary isn’t off the hook (liar, self-absorbed, waffling are among the sentiments some participants expressed). Neither is Congress, judging by the nearly universal negative reaction our participants had to a photo of lawmakers.

But it appears Washington’s relentless partisanship is setting a tone for how the rest of us deal with each other. If our leaders won’t yield, why should anyone else? 

“The people who have presumed to put themselves in positions of leadership are not willing to be leaders,” says Ann Pierce of Fort Myers. “They are not thought leaders in a way our society needs right now.”

Or put it this way, as several of our participants did: Whatever happened to centrism? What happened to the art of compromise in order to achieve a common good?

“It takes people taking a moment to be thoughtful, slow down, be open-minded, consider the other side, have patience to do that. But I think the problem is in this fast-paced world today, we just don’t do that. You have to work to be able to do that.”
—Carl Fazio, Fort Myers

Our conversations revealed the issues that these Southwest Floridians feel are driving us apart. The more critical question: How can we, in our small corner of the world, create a better sense of “together”?

According to our participants, we must:

  • Acknowledge that racism, bigotry and prejudice exist.
  • Understand each other’s stories and situations.
  • Listen. Talk.
  • Seek exemplary leadership—show it yourself, and insist on it at the ballot box.
  • Find common ground.
  • Embrace compromise.
  • Show kindness.
  • Connect with other people.

We explored the idea of talking first, of trying to find common ground.

Even in focus groups that included a range of political leanings, the sentiments expressed weren’t all that disparate in tone or direction. So one Wednesday night at the WGCU studios, we brought together representatives from each of the five initial groups. This good-natured group of strangers would test—if in a limited way—whether people from an array of “tribes” could find some commonality.

Though we hit on several topics, the group steered the conversation into a debate over the role of government.

Here are snippets of conversation:

“The government has gotten so involved in everybody’s lives that it’s no longer possible to go through your life without having the government involved—even in your personal health care decisions.”

“I’m a product of the ’60s, and without government intervention, myself and my siblings and those folks I grew up with would not have had the opportunities that we had. It’s that clear. The civil rights movement and government intervention around changing civil rights laws in this country really gave me and my family and other people the opportunities that we would not have otherwise.”

“I’m a supporter of reducing regulation. I’m a supporter of reducing taxation, so I’m supportive of what he’s doing and the effect it’s having.”

“I really start to worry about how much gets rolled back in the name of progress, and that as we roll back in the name of progress we lose ground.”

“It’s not enough to say the (government’s primary role) is to protect the rights of the people because the subtleties are so much greater.”

This is tough stuff.

This conversation—as well as the ones that preceded it—exposed other obstacles to shared dialogue:

Some people are more ready to engage than others. “I think we can’t back away from the discourse. (If we) retreat, then I don’t think things will get better. We have to have the open dialogue, whether we agree or disagree,” William Brown says. But others, frankly, are tired of politics infiltrating everything from dinner conversation to Hollywood award ceremonies and would like less talk. “That’s what frustrates me about all the actors and actresses that somehow think their opinion matters to the rest of America,” says Nancy Starr, who met with us in Fort Myers. “Everyone has their own opinions of what is best for them. Most people understand that and keep their opinions to themselves to keep the peace and respect others.”

We’re awash in information, but we don’t know what to do with it. Real news or fake news? Fact or opinion? Clearly authenticated or merely rumored? And how do you know? “When you can’t agree on the basic facts, it’s like talking about two different subjects, and where do you go from there?” Lund says. “If you believe that everything on the news is a lie, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately it’s a nonstarter: If there are no facts, then there is no conversation.”

Mistrust and preconceptions run on both sides. We asked the anti-Trump crowd, for example, what they believed about Trump supporters. Their top responses: that racism, xenophobia and self-interest motivated their votes. That’s a bad starting point for dialogue.

On some issues, there may be inherent conflict between seeking common ground and conceding one’s principles. “If the idea to solve the problems we have with health care is to get more government involvement, I’m not interested with the people I vote for getting together with the Democrats in order to get government more involved,” Lee notes.

Does that mean dialogue isn’t worth trying?

Absolutely not. Because as the mixed group’s session evolved, we heard comments like this:

“I think it’s not an ideological thing that separates us. It’s a corruption of people in power, and corruption isn’t unique to one ideology or another.”

“Would you be in favor of term limits for national office?”

“I would have no problem with that at all. … I’d take it one step further and get them out of office altogether because what happens is you get a revolving door.”

“And it defeats what the founders really envisioned. They imagined people coming off the farms, taking a term or two, and then going back to work their fields.”

Other points of agreement: the importance of the vote and the recognition that we must address the racial divide.

“When Alexis de Tocqueville first came (to the United States) in the early 1800s, he marveled at how this country formed community associations. It’s what made the communities work. … Even though we don’t always agree on the best way to solve a problem, we agree that there is a problem. And when we are part of organizations that are trying to fix the problem, we automatically are involved with other people who we don’t agree with.”
—Jim Lee, Fort Myers

Yes, our participants wanted dialogue and to look for common ground, but in the end, a different solution rose to the top—one that ultimately may offer more immediate changes and perhaps more meaningful ones: Get involved in your community. 

“You know, I hadn’t thought of it in that way,” Beth Hendry of Fort Myers says. She’s always been active, in the schools when her daughters were young and now with the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties, where she co-chairs the 2017-18 campaign. 

She reflects on assumptions she’d held about families in poverty versus the first-hand information she recently acquired about holiday gift drive recipients. “It may have given me a different perspective. Anybody can be needy. The majority of these families are not what you would consider poor families—they are people who have run across hardships. They had jobs, and they lost jobs. They are people who all of a sudden couldn’t give to their families this year.”

Hendry doesn’t consider herself much of a political person—“just a woman going to work every day and raising my kids”—but nevertheless acknowledges that conservatism may have influenced her thinking. “I think I maybe had the visual that needy folks were more liberal. But that’s not necessarily true. So, yes, being involved does help me to be more open and listen to other people’s ideas.”

There were lots of other examples. At the Immokalee Community School, staff members lean right, left and center, but they’ve bonded with each other and with their community by living out the school’s mission. “It really does change your perspective when you’re involved and you can see what’s out there in your community,” says Amy Facundo, the school’s reading coach. “It goes beyond your extended family—they become part of who you are. … It’s not ‘me and my home and we’re safe and everyone else is on their own.’ Your heart will expand to neighbors you didn’t even know you had.”

Ken DeWalt, the retired pastor, expanded his views by training in progressive, moderate and conservative seminaries: “The head of one seminary told me, ‘Ken, it’s been wonderful to see you become less judgmental.’ I thanked her for it. I had been blindly judgmental about issues.”

In Lee County, the election results spurred Lund and her friends into action. A few of them had attended the post-inauguration women’s march. “All these marches are lovely for getting people riled up, but what’s your end game here? What is it we can control and influence?”

They formed “SWFL Indivisible,” a group dedicated to nonpartisan voter education, registration, empowerment, and to addressing the leadership gap by encouraging passionate, intelligent and fair-minded residents to run for office.

“Influencing the 2018 election, influencing who goes into politics at a local and state level—those are the things we can touch,” Lund says. She doesn’t think the community is as polarized as the media portrays, believes that everyday Americans favor compromise and thinks a more engaged electorate could temper the partisanship. “I think the centrist attitude would pan out if everyone had a voice,” she says.

Cindy Banyai focuses much of her research on community development. And when she considered broad societal trends she has studied, the themes emerging from our conversations made sense. “I really think the polarization at the national level has happened because we’re so disconnected from one another. We’ve been drifting, physically drifting from one another in our communities. We’re driving our cars to and from work, alone. We walk into our single-family homes in suburbia. … I think that has led us to be susceptible to the caricature. We don’t know ‘those’ people. We can’t tell whether or not (something is) true because we don’t interact with anyone like that—because we don’t have to.

[The findings are] a call to action to get to know our neighbors—to interact with each other, even in small ways,” she says. “We don’t have to delve into issues all the time. We just have to say ‘hi’ and talk to one another, and know each other is a person, not just a caricature, a fabrication, an oversimplification of a stereotype that has been crafted for political purposes to catapult national leadership. People and communities are important, and if we refocus there, the polarization at the national level will seem less important.”  

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