A dozen or so people, diverse in age, ethnicity, and political leanings, are participating in a year-long experiment in civil discourse. Each month, we bring you a conversation with members of the group. We’re observing how the tone and quality of the conversation changes over the course of the year, and whether the time participants spend together can forge real connections across political boundaries.
So far, we've aired six episodes of Beneath the Surface in which our members examine political issues through the lens of their personal experiences. But the experiment isn’t just about the on-air discussion. We also hold a social event each month, in which BTS-ers come together in a more casual setting to eat, talk, and get to know one another. This month, we’re letting you in on one of these meetings.
This is a little less polished than standard episodes of Beneath the Surface. You might hear the crinkling of sandwich papers or the sound of silverware. But maybe that’s appropriate. Because what we’re discussing today is the messiness of honesty.
Around the table, we have Connette, Lee, Cedric, Kathryn, Joe, Jim, Carl, and Bruce. First, the group digs into an issue that came up in our May episode on abortion rights advocacy versus abortion rights opposition. It troubled some in the group that one participant opted out of that conversation. Carl starts us off with a question.
Rachel: So—you’re frowning, Carl.
Carl: This has been a mystery. Because the things that I hear people say, or the things that I sense from people in having open conversation are very puzzling to me, because I don't understand why people are intimidated or bothered in some fashion about just having conversations with each other.
Rachel: Okay! Well let's open that up right now, because that is one of the observations that I've been making about this group. And Lee, you—I think there are two elements of that here that we need to address, Carl. Let's start with Lee's question. Last month when Connette was not here, you had a question about that.
Lee: I did. Was it something we said? Or—what was my question?
Rachel: Your question was, “Really, Connette isn't here? Did we do something as a group that would make her feel as if she wouldn't be supported in expressing her truth about this topic?”
Lee: Well then I said it much better than I remembered it.
Connette: Why did I opt out? I think Lydia answered it on air. It’s that any way you feel, somebody’s going to be against that. And it wasn't this group at all that I wasn't willing to share with. It was actually those 10,000 people.
In that May episode, Lydia said she felt being a woman with any opinion on abortion is something of a minefield, because the issue is so personal.
Lydia: “Yeah. I think it’s—you know, for men I think it’s much more theoretical. I mean, women have to suffer the consequences of pregnancy. Men do not. The burden of motherhood and childcare falls much, much more heavily on women. So it’s really—I think it’s much, much more personal for women.”
Connette has another concern, too.
Connette: I'm still working. And I don't want someone to judge my ability to handle what I'm doing with them based on, I feel this way or that way about abortion. I feel it's a very sensitive personal issue, and I don't think there's one answer—one right answer—other than, someone said we need to find ways to avoid it ever being something to talk about. That there shouldn't even be any abortions, any reasons. There always will be. And I do believe in a female's right to choose what is going on in her own body. I do not believe in abortion being a casual way of birth control, but I understand that there are people who had been in horrible situations. And no way would I have thought that person should have carried a baby full term. But it’s hard to talk about with a room full of men who can’t empathize. So because it was such a personal topic and because people are very polarized, I opted out of that session.
Rachel: Carl, does that make sense to you? Does that partially answer your question? Connette's talking about all of the people who are not in this room--the people we can’t see, but who are listeners—and possibly judging you. I mean, are there—has anyone else here said something on the air that you felt, “Oof, I might've really stepped in it. I probably shouldn't have shared that with all the listeners.” You know, something that maybe you would feel safe sharing with—
Lee: I call that a Tuesday.
Two months ago, Lydia said her womanhood made her feel especially exposed in the conversation about abortion. Connette’s just said she’s wary of voicing personal opinions where they might impact her professional life. Cedric, though, is pretty used to being uncomfortable.
Cedric: For me, I kind of walk in every situation already knowing I'm going to probably say something. I already know my upbringing is going to be a lot different, especially in the rooms and the spaces that I entertain now. And so I just already kind of walk in the room ready, with that armor on, ready to take that battle as it comes. You know, I just like to speak and live off of my true experiences. And at end of the day, I'm open to dialogue like Carl said. And I don't see something wrong with that. But then again, I think that comes from, as black people when we walk into rooms, nine out of ten times it’s going to be—like, we’re very comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that white people aren't very uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, because they're used to being very comfortable. I think that's one of the frictions of like, racial reconciliation. That I think sometimes black people confine themselves to make the white person feel comfortable, when really the white person is supposed to adjust their uncomfortability to be more comfortable that you are different, but you're still a human being at the end of the day. And you know, and looking past that very small difference and seeing the layers of similarities that's behind that. And so, I know that that's difficult, though, for a lot of people, which is why I know that I'm usually the only person of my kind in a space—whether if it's black, whether if it's young and black, or young black and male. So, um, that's just something for me.
Rachel: And you're also, you're very conscious of a layer of the communication dynamic that maybe isn't conscious for some of the people that you're communicating with.
Cedric: Right. Yep.
Cedric’s identity as a man of color shapes his experience at the table—he tells us he’s comfortable being uncomfortable. Other participants don’t feel impacted by discomfort.
Kathryn: Anytime we have an opinion on anything, we're going to have people on the other side. But I think in this room there's a level of respect for one another and the opinions that we have that doesn't always exist out in the general public. I mean, I just heard something on the news about somebody spitting in somebody's face, you know, because they weren't of the same ilk or whatever. And I can remember, years ago I worked with a woman, and her husband was Paul Robeson Jr. Paul Robeson was the black singer—
Kathryn: “Old Man River.” That's what everybody remembers him for. And she was a white woman married to a black man in the fifties. And she explained to me how she got spit in the face by black people. Because she was invading their space as a white woman. And of course, it was a very well-known family. Paul Robeson at that time was also on the blacklist for communism. There was a whole series of issues, and I gave her a lot of credit for that time. But it doesn't matter who you are. Somebody is going to be in opposition to where you are and what you believe in. And it’s the respect that we have for one another that makes the difference. And in this room, I think there's a great deal of respect for one another. I don't feel uncomfortable saying anything here.
Rachel: But you and Joe, Kathy, are involved in real estate. And it's important to you to grow that business, I imagine. So do you do that calculus either consciously or subconsciously when you're on the air?
Kathryn: I don't think so, because I think in all cases we are who we are, you know? And there are going to be some clients that we just don't get along with for whatever reason. And you can't be worried about everything. We are who we are. If we have a real estate client and they want to know who we are, all you have to do as Google these days and find anything that you can about most people.
Rachel: So people would be able to find that the two of you are heavily involved in Brunswick County's Republican Party.
Kathryn: Yeah. If they have a problem dealing with that, we're probably going to have a problem dealing with a lot of other nonpolitical issues in this process too.
Our members seem to be growing closer with each other as the months go on. Yet there are risk factors beneath the surface of any conversation. And differing life experiences shape the kinds of risk our participants feel. Kathryn expresses complete comfort sharing her feelings with the group, whether or not her political leanings lose her some customers. But Connette worries that her opinions could be viewed as professional biases. Cedric and Carl note the discomfort of being black men in rooms full of white people. After a short break, more exploration of what it means to open your heart in a very public way. I’m Rachel Lewis Hilburn for Beneath the Surface.
You’re listening to a special edition of CoastLine: Beneath the Surface. Up to now in our year-long civil discourse experiment, we’ve brought you the formal on-air discussions, unedited, with members of our group. Today’s conversation took place over sandwiches at our monthly social.
Rachel: Does anybody have an idea about how—I don't know if you can even make it a safer space when we're on the air, but—to take this group to an even deeper level of openness and honesty on the air?
Jim: You know, you've said periodically during the introductions to this thing that we're trying to get to why we have the views we have. I don’t think we’ve done that. I think we've touched it, but we haven't really got into that. And I think that's what we're trying to do. I mean, that's what I would like us to do. And how you arrive at your political position, your social position, how you feel about all the issues we talk about—whether it's the environment, or whether it's abortion, or whether it's gay rights, or whether it's race relations. People have experiences as children, as teenagers, how they were brought up, that affects them. And then when they become adults, sometimes they're able to shirk off those things and develop new ones. That process of changing—I mean, I think some generations want to be the opposite of their parents. My wife’s parents were hippies, and she is the farthest thing from a hippie you could get. My parents were not hippies, and I try to be a hippie every day I can.
Rachel: And so you also marry your parents.
Jim: And you also marry your parents, and you also become your parents. My wife was just talking about—reminded me about this Oscar Wilde quote, which is, “Women always end up like their mothers, and that is their tragedy, but men never do, and that is theirs.” No, that's Oscar Wilde. You know, and he said a lot of quippy things, but…
Rachel: So on that note, Jim, you, you raise a really interesting point about not really getting to—and maybe that's what I'm trying to get at also. The abortion conversation. We got one email from someone, who identified herself, which I always appreciate. She was very angry at how the discussion went for a lot of reasons. But I think the basic problem for her is that she was expecting a robust debate about the abortion legislation that's in the public arena right now. She was expecting to hear policy points and why this is true or that's not true. In other words, she was after the very thing that we're not doing -- the thing that CoastLine does with policy makers but isn't going to do with this group, because this is about you getting to know other folks and not debating policy with them. We can do that anytime. It's much harder to say, here's part of my life experience and this is what brought me to this point in time and space that I'm sharing with you. And I want to see people--oof. That wasn't a very journalistically removed thing to say, but it's the truth, so I'm going to say it. I want to see people whose paths might not normally cross get to a point where they really value spending time with other people, with other world experiences and other points of view. Other age groups, other political affiliations. Carl?
Carl: This is seriously a very interesting conversation to me. Because, as he said, as a black man, I'm used to being in environments where I'm of a small number. And I used to, years ago, be careful what I said, because of the repercussions of what I would say. And it's interesting now to hear white people sitting in a room having the opportunity to experience what I've felt already. For me to walk in this room now is easy, because I've been in the army, I've been in education. All that stuff is easy for me now. But for you all to sit in here and have trouble verbalizing what's in your heart to each other, when there were times that we couldn't verbalize to you all what was in our hearts at all, is very interesting to see. It's a very unique experience for me to watch you all have trouble talking about issues like abortion and all the other stuff we talked about. It's interesting to hear, because I don't understand why it's such a hard conversation to have because of where I've come from. Because I've had to have really hard conversations in the middle of people where I knew somebody was going to have something to say about what I said. And I didn't care. I wore sergeant stripes whether I was a counselor in front of a school—whatever it is that I had to say, I said it. As a black man that wasn't always good, but I did it. And I learned to continue to do it. So to see you all have this experience is very interesting.
Bruce: I think that, first of all, we have layers of defense that we peel off some of them. And we don't always go very deep. Speaking for myself. So you have a defense mechanism, you have armor, you have layers. You peel down, you peel the onion only so far that you're comfortable with. But I think it has to do with the dealing with vulnerabilities. And Carl, you have learned to deal with vulnerability. And therefore you're more comfortable with peeling the onion further, because you're vulnerable to start with. But many of us, in part because of our upbringing, the era in which we were raised—I'm one of the oldest people here, so it's a different era. I had old parents. So we're conditioned much differently by our environment, by our families, by the culture we were brought up in. And so dealing and managing with your vulnerabilities is really the issue, I think.
The concept of vulnerability resonates with the group. Lee draws connections to his experience as an actor.
Lee: That is the key to acting, being vulnerable. You either can do that or you can’t, and when you're onstage, if you can't do that, audiences don't care about you. And if audiences don’t care about you, you won't be doing it very long. It is messy. One of the things about this process is that it's messy. Dorothy jokes, my wife, that I come home every time after doing this and say to her, “I don't know. I think I may need to apologize to somebody. I'm not sure what I said.” The thing is, you have to put yourself out. You have to be willing to take a chance. And that's what you talk about with courage. And I don't even think of it as courage. I just, you know, I don't have sense to stop talking. I was very close to my grandparents as well, and they were definitely from another age and it was an age of not sharing emotion. The whole idea of sharing emotion with anyone else was anathema. I don't think my grandmother and my grandfather ever talked—they talked about what they were going to have for dinner, or what the money problems were, or this and that. It was the function of life. It wasn't about sharing their feelings. They just assumed the feelings were there and went on with it. “Dear God, let's not look there.” It’s a different world now, where we do share emotionally—up to a point. Whether the fear is that there's a physical danger to doing that, or the fear is that there is an emotional rejection if we do that. Or the fear is that, um, I don't know what other fears...
Bruce: Well, another fear is weakness.
Lee: Of appearing weak!
Bruce: Yes. Because many of us, particularly males, are conditioned that if you display too much, express too much, speak too much from your heart, maybe it shows weakness. Culturally we're getting over that though.
Lee: I hope so!
Bruce: Culturally we’re getting over that, because now people have found a way that when they express a great deal of their emotions, that can be turned into strength also. Like this guy.
As obvious as it may seem now, expressing emotion didn’t start as high on our experimental agenda – but it’s become an integral part. The moments when people show vulnerability, are, hands down, some of the most resonant – not just for our group, but also for listeners.
Lee: I got a piece of feedback from a friend, a fellow artist, who was listening to the abortion episode and said that the honesty in the room—she had to pull off the road and stop. She got very emotional listening to it. In a very positive way. But that she was very touched by what happened in the room with people.
Rachel: You shared a very personal story.
Lee: But she thought that it was, that that is what radio should be doing. And I thought I'd pass that along. And I had not sent that to you, because I knew I'd see you.
Rachel: Okay. So what she's talking about—and I'm making an assumption here that she's talking about the story you told and the story that Carl told?
Lee: Right. Both of those.
Rachel: Yes. And both of those moments were personal stories that people were just telling. Joe.
Joe: Along with that. These guys risked themselves in that process.
Joe expresses respect for those who have revealed intensely personal experiences on air. But Carl remains critical of the idea that a sense of risk may hold some participants back.
Carl: Y'all have to get me to this place where I feel like I'm risking something. I haven't gotten there. I don't feel like I'm risking anything. People who know me, know me. If they see my picture, they still going to know. That's Carl, that's Carl Newton. I'm trying really hard to understand this risk thing that y'all keep talking about. Because if there's such a thing as civil discourse, then we should all be able to talk to each other without feeling threatened. I don't ever feel risked at all when I say something, I don't feel any risk at all. I'm just answering your questions and saying... And listen, I'm a singer. People know me. I'm very well known. I know a lot of people but I have no concern about it, because I am who I am, and I will always be true and honest to who I am. And if they love me, they love me and if they don't, they don't, but they'll know who I am. I have not gotten to this thing about--and it's the same thing about politics. People say, “Well, I don't want nobody to know I'm a Republican, or I don't want them to—” Why? I don't understand why. Why is it that we are so venomous with each other about that kind of stuff? Why can't we just be human beings and say, “Hey, do you like white napkins?” “No, I don't like white, I like brown napkins.” “Okay, fine, let's go. You get your brown napkins, I get my white ones, and we keep on trucking.” But we turn it into a debate. "Oh, well you've got to like white napkins." No you don’t.
Lee: "You can't like white napkins because they bleach them!" Yeah, no, yeah, yeah.
Rachel: We make it mean something about you that's not either ethical or honorable. I think that's where the vitriol comes in. Instead of just saying, Jim arrived in this time and space because of these experiences in his life. And so let's learn about Jim's point in time and space now and how he got there. Kathy.
Kathryn: I'm dying to share a story that happened this week. It kind of relates to this whole thing, because it's how I perhaps have changed personally through this experience. I've been a nurse for fifty-five years and I've had thousands of clients. Right now I do assessments for long-term care insurance, which means I work with a lot of older people. And Joe was laughing at me when I came home yesterday because I was longer than I usually am. I spend about an hour and a half. I had to see a black woman in very, very rural South Carolina. I mean, I really had to travel to it—back road, at least a mile to get to her home. And when I got there, she had a caregiver with her who was also black, another gentleman who was a neighbor who keeps an eye on her. And I sat down—now, I've never been intimidated. That doesn't faze me. I've been in nursing too long. I could care less. I've been to people's homes. But I said, you know, just thinking about the whole thing, would they feel awkward with me coming in as a white woman into their black enclave? That's really what it was. I had one of the best afternoons I have ever had with a client. We just sat there and talked and this woman was a wealth of information. She had taught for thirty years. One of the questions is their education, and she had Masters plus thirty. And what happened was, in talking we had so much in common. She had a mother who encouraged education in her children as a way of life. And so did I. And I have a PhD because I kept going back and things like that. Well, I came home and Joe said to me, you must have had a really good afternoon. I was bouncing around having a greatest time. And I really enjoyed--I said, "I would love to be able to get to know this woman even better." And I think it was because I was more open to listening a little bit. Today, the exact opposite. I had an eight-seven-year-old woman who was from England, who survived World War Two in England. And I really started listening, probably more than I have because of this group. I want to hear your story. I want to hear the personal pieces. And I think when we can do that, we become better people ourselves. There's so much that you can feel good about. So I had two great days with two totally different clients, and learned, and felt so good. And I felt so welcomed into both of those homes. There was never a question of whether or not I would’ve been welcomed into it. The black lady was from the south, rural south, I'm from the northeast—there was a world of differences between us, but there was still a world of commonality that we could share. And I felt that this group had some influence on me and the way I was perceiving it. Not that I was doing anything different, but I was perceiving things a little bit differently. So I've been dying to share that.
Rachel: Thank you, Kathy. Cedric.
Cedric: As we're giving feedback, I have two different directions of the feedback I want to give. I will segway off of hers. I definitely think this is something that makes us all better as individuals as we continue to make our steps and walks in life. I know I use it personally as a platform, as a sharpening tool for the conversations that I know I'm going to continue to have, as I think that these conversations are going to be more and more on a public platform. And I'll probably be in a lot of the seats and in front of those positions to be having that conversation. And I'm thankful to be able to do so. I think that being open and being able to get that direct feedback does nothing but sharpen your iron, I guess you can pretty much say.
Rachel: Do you mean increase your ability to be vulnerable?
Cedric: Or increase your ability to have dialogue that is towards progression, even if it's obstacles in the way, if that makes any sense. I think this also goes back to what you were saying as far as not being able to see what a risk factor is. For us, we know that conversation can go on for a very long time before anything happens. Right? Okay.
Rachel: What do you mean, Cedric?
Cedric: What do I mean by that? Well, slavery was abolished in 1865, and we're just now talking about reparations in 2019. Right? So conversation can go on for a long time without actual action. And so that's why I think that may be a space for why we don't see a risk there. And I think that me and Carl maybe also be in a space where we're at--conversation is just conversation. Until, you know, action, there's no threat or no risk type of thing. And so I think that's where the conversation is great to have.
You’re listening to CoastLine: Beneath the Surface. When we come back, more on risk and identity. And you’ll meet the three Jims! I’m Rachel Louis Hilburn for CoastLine.
You’re listening to CoastLine: Beneath the Surface. Today we’re talking about what it means to be honest, and therefore vulnerable, on the air. Here we tackle a particularly tricky piece of the puzzle.
Bruce: Finding our own identity is what's at the core of this. Now, you might think you know who you are. But really describing your identity is a moving target. It really is, because you're constantly being influenced by other people, other events, health, everything else. Coming back to the word risk that you used. Carl says, "Well, I'm not seeing any risk yet. I'll say anything I want. There are no risks here." I don't think the word is risk in the sense that there'll be a punishment or a penalty out there if you say the wrong thing, that's not what we're talking about in risk. We're talking about the reconciliation of what you're saying publicly with who you think you are. That's the conflict. It's not some other authority out there that's going to shake their finger.
Carl: But is that real? Is that really what it is?
Bruce: Well, for me it is.
Carl: See, for you it might be that. For somebody else, it might be the perception that somebody behind this microphone—
Bruce: —is going to come and smack you.
Jim: This reminds me of something I heard one time about, there's three Jim Downeys. There's a Jim Downey that I'm projecting to you right now. This is who I want you to think I am. And then there’s the Jim Downey who I really am, that I think I know—maybe I don't know, maybe I'm always learning about. And then there's the Jim Downey that you perceive based on what I'm projecting, which may be totally different than what I'm projecting, because I may be projecting this image of somebody who's—whatever. And you may be observing it as like, this guy's a...
Kathryn: There’s a fourth one. It's what nobody knows, you or the other people.
Jim: Is there a name for that?
Joe: It's the Johari Window.
Carl: Everything he just said is the exact reason that I don't like the idea of interviewing somebody.
Earlier, the group brainstormed ways to connect more deeply. One idea: interview each group member individually, and then share those interviews with the group. But is it useful to craft an image of ourselves in isolation? Carl worries it may not be.
Carl: Because they can protect their own self. There's nothing forcing them out of a box. There's nothing—because I can say whatever I want. I can project myself any way I want.
Rachel: You're saying you wouldn't necessarily get an honest picture of a person. Well, unless you ask a question—
Carl: Conversations we’ve had, though, have caused people to step out. These conversations have caused people to step out and then we have a chance to discuss.
Rachel: Can you think of a specific—
Carl: I can give you one. I mean, I hate that it's like this, but—if we talked about white entitlement. That would cause people to step into a zone of discomfort. And my definition of white entitlement is this: the fact that you’re white does not mean that you've never had hard times in your life, that you haven't struggled, that you haven’t had to work hard or work overtime or be twenty-four hours on the clock. It doesn't mean that. It means that because you are white is not the reason you suffered. That's what white entitlement to me means. But if I just threw that out there like that, somebody else would say, “Well, I'm white and I think different.” And that would force people to come out, to say. But if I just set up a scenario, then I can play with that any way I want.
Rachel: So that's provocative. But you were also kind of describing white privilege or entitlement when you talked about how you, as a black man, you've had to spend your life walking into situations that raised a certain level of discomfort, and you've learned how to embrace that discomfort so it sounds like it’s pretty much disappeared. You’re very comfortable now. And so Carl is talking about finding a way to provoke some—friction, for a purpose. As a way of kind of maybe sanding away some of the polite protections that exist naturally. And I'm wondering also if this group is developing enough of its own identity that in the face of that, the group could kind of symbolically join hands with each other, knowing that if you said something on the air that was going to get some blowback or some backlash, you've got this group here to protect you in a way.
Jim: As long as you don't have to sing Kumbaya.
Joe: Three quick things. Number one: the more secure we are in our own identity as to who we are, the more comfortable we are in different settings. Number two: I found that people used to be come to me in a therapeutic situation, pay me a lot of money, and then lie to me in terms of what they saw the problem. And it wasn't until--again, through the process--questions, feeling comfortable, learning how to risk themselves, the trust factor, that we began getting to the issues. And thirdly, I think everyone sitting around this table, regardless of where we're coming from as it relates to our political, our economic, even our racial situation, are comfortable within ourselves to go to Cedric and say, you know, what's it all about? To go in and establish a relationship with somebody who is different. I mean, if I got into a conversation with politics, you know, he'd lose the rest of his hair.
Rachel: As he points to Lee...
Joe: But the point is, he knows who he is, I know who I am. And we can develop a mutual respect beyond that. And I think that's a process that we all have to learn. This has aided us in that process. And that’s because we're willing to learn.
Kathryn: To open ourselves up.
Joe: That's part of who we are.
Kathryn: And in learning we have to share too.
Lee: See, I don't believe people really like to learn. Everybody said that to me so much when I was growing up. "Oh, the joy of learning!" And I don't think there's--I think there's joy in having learned, but the process of learning requires understanding that something is lacking in yourself. And understanding that about yourself is a painful process. You have to go through pain in order to learn, in order to grow. There are people I know who like to inflict pain on themselves, like to have pain inflicted on them, but they're few and far between in those that I know. Most of us tend to avoid that infliction of pain, and learning is a painful—necessarily—painful process. And so I find the joy in having learned, not the joy in the process.
Kathryn: And I find joy in the process.
Lee: I respect that. I respect that. Thank goodness someone does. It ain't me, babe.
Carl: Define for me, though, what you mean by learning.
Lee: Not a rote fact. I'll give you the biggest one for me as an adult. Conversation. For me it used to be that when you started to talk, as soon as an idea popped into my head, I was coming out with it. And what I had to learn to do was listen through what someone else had to say, take it in, and then hold that thought in my tiny little head and come back in conversation. To converse. To give everybody a chance to do that. And it was hard for me, but it was at twenty-five a thing I decided I needed to do. And it, um, it was painful.
Carl: The fact that you exist every day. When you walk through this door, or walk out this door and walk out onto the street, it's a learning experience. It's always, no matter what you're doing. It could be, you looked at this plate and all of a sudden you saw something that you've never seen before. It's always a learning experience. The pain of learning a particular issue that you never dealt with—now that can be painful.
Cedric: Because you already think you know it all.
The group seems to agree that learning is not only memorizing facts. Carl claims that simply living in the world is a constant learning experience. For Lee, self-critique is central to the process.
Lee: Learning a new technique in woodcraft, because I am a woodworker as well as an actor—to admit a flaw in my craft, and then try to seek to change that and improve it, it’s a difficulty. And it kind of for me is hard. And that's a learning process. But I'm always glad to have done it after. The same is true of me as an actor. Because there are still holes in my technique, and I work to improve them. But to admit to myself that there are holes in my technique is hard for me. Because you have never met anyone with as big an ego about his abilities as when you met me. And she's worked with me in theater. She will tell you that my ego is not small when it comes to theater!
Joe: You could’ve fooled me. I never realized that.
Lee: Yeah. I'm a man of modesty and humility.
Joe: Listen, I'm 79 years old, the hell with it all, I am who I am. And I love you. I'll see you guys.
Six months into our experiment in civil discourse, it’s tempting to examine the alchemy of the process. We hope to go beneath the surface, to peel back political labels and find the emotions and the stories underneath. The humans. But how can we make a space for such honesty?
Friction is one way to explain what prompts our most honest moments. It’s a word we’ve used multiple times around the table today. Cedric used it to describe race relations. And Carl suggested a “zone of discomfort,” or friction, in conversation could lead to greater honesty.
Friction occurs when members of the group are willing to disagree. It bypasses layers of politeness and it lets genuine beliefs come into conversation. Though the group often tackles issues that divide opinion, it’s always easier to seek consensus than to explore those differences. To be open risks judgement, but it also invites openness in response. And moments when the group met disagreement head-on have led to unexpected breakthroughs.
In February, Khalisa shared a story about growing up as a child of color in predominately white schools.
Khalisa: I was isolated. My teacher used to say that she didn’t think I was really writing my papers. And I’ve experienced that through high school and college.
Rachel: So was your family’s perception that this teacher accused you of not doing the work because you were a child of color?
Khalisa: Oh, for sure. Of course! There’s no other reason to fail a child that got a hundred percent on something and you fail them.
Darrell disagreed with Khalisa’s interpretation of her incident.
Darrell: What Khalisa was talking about was discrimination against her as an individual. I don’t know as necessarily I would attribute it to race, but she definitely stood out and was different.
This moment sparked some conflict, which we further explored in our April episode. Khalisa shares her concerns about the exchange.
Khalisa: I guess I felt like I was sharing a story about how I went to an all-white private school, and that experience being in that environment where I was the only was a traumatic experience. But when you said that, it almost made me feel like what happened to me wasn’t significant enough to be brought up in a conversation about education and race and diversity. And that’s the part that really hurt.
In response, Darrell opens up about his perspective on race, which is shaped by his background and his working-class roots.
Darrell: Most of the discrimination that I have witnessed has been economic discrimination.
Rachel: And your grandfather—
Darrell: Yeah, my grandfather was tossed out and put in a pig pen when he was three years old because he had broken his back. And he was rescued by some neighbors and raised by other people. I mean, you talk about poor socioeconomic levels, in Appalachia that’s where it was. So it’s very hard to think along racial terms when your experience has been along socioeconomic terms.
Khalisa: That makes a lot of sense, actually. And right before we went on air, Darrell and I actually had a really great conversation about his Strawberry Fields project. And so that was the thing that made me cock my head to the side, because I know that he does work with disenfranchised communities, and building this community center, and helping these folks, many folks that look like me. But thank you for sharing that with me. Because that helps me understand a little more where you’re coming from, because I was confused, I think.
Darrell and Khalisa reach a deeper understanding of each other—not by shying away from the friction between their perspectives, but by exploring their differences openly. And while we’re not aiming to change anyone’s beliefs here, we are finding that sharing stories connects members of the group. When confronted with the humanity of people whose views we oppose, we may discover new value in listening.
This can happen in community centers or on Capitol Hill. It can happen when a dozen people sit around a table eating sandwiches. Of course, exposing yourself to the judgements of others can be risky. But our participants keep coming to the table, and so do our listeners. Halfway into our civil discourse experiment, the conversation continues.