In the two years since Donald Trump took office, while children were torn from their parents and the border burned, I’ve heard a lot of pleas for "civil discourse" in the U.S. I’ve heard a call for more respectable politics, for a softened conversation that acknowledges truth on all sides.
The trouble with "civil discourse" is that we say it as though it were some easy formula. Like an x and a y add up to smooth solutions, to compromise, stability, and policies that satisfy both red and blue. We pretend that it’s something sterile you can whiteboard, and not the stomach-churning business of confronting where your humanity ends according to someone else’s worldview.
"Civil discourse," done most deeply, isn’t an academic exercise; it’s the holding-together of two electromagnetically repellant truths. And done too quickly, it can feel like the flattening of one identity to accommodate another’s, like so many cardboard boxes being shoved onto a too-small shelf.
Growing up in New York with grandparents and relatives across Israel, I saw in my own family the complexities of values-driven dialogue - of what I then just thought of as normal dinner table conversation.
When I was 11, I told my grandfather in Jerusalem that I’d begun to be interested in Israeli politics. My dad had driven me to a conference in Washington that Fall, I’d explained, one with panels on peace and the two-state solution.
"It’s called J-Street," I offered, oblivious to the tensions at the table.
My grandfather jabbed a knife into his plate of chicken. "J-Street is for self-hating Jews," he pronounced.
I didn’t know the phrase, but the edge in his tone and my mom’s broken face told me what I needed to know.
Later that evening, in our rented Jerusalem apartment, my parents explained to me how you can love someone and disagree with everything they stand for. Even at the time, I wondered how that could work in a family like ours.
The DNA of the environment in which my parents brought us up is, and was always, coded radically left. Our work is political, our friendships political, our living room walls political, and even our bedtime lullabies were anti-war songs.
When partisan beliefs are inextricable from your entire way of being, what does it mean to reach across the aisle? Something didn’t add up. It was my first indication that the work of "talking politics" across ideological divides is not a neat equation. It’s messy, painful, and oftentimes the solution isn’t quite what you’d hoped.
Throughout my teenage years when my family visited Israel for the summer, I continued to question what it would mean to engage the ideologies of our relatives there.
My grandfather was militantly conservative, adamantly against the notion of compromise for a two-state solution. My mother, from her teenage years in the Bronx, had always diverged from the conservative views of her family - and she was the only one who’d stayed behind in the U.S. when the rest made aliyah.
My mother’s sister is a settler in Hebron. She, her husband, and their ten kids live in H2, the inner-city zone under direct Israeli military jurisdiction. Some carry guns in case of clashes with Palestinian neighbors.
My parents, meanwhile, have spent decades working to challenge the occupation, my dad as a journalist and my mom working in left-wing organizations.
In this context, what does it mean to have "civil discourse"? To decide whose life makes more sense? Whose very way of being is a threat?
In Middle East seminars, I’ve heard the settlers referred to as "hateful." I’ve heard curse words thrown on them in progressive spaces - and I think of my Hebron settler cousins who taught me Hebrew niggunim, organized relay races and kickball games for me and my brother, and slept three to a twin bed to make space for neighbors in need of a place to stay.
I know, too, that the decisions they’ve made preclude the prospect of peace. I hold in my head their complicity and their humanity. It’s impossibly complex, and that’s before we’ve even broached tough topics of conversation.
To minimize the work of "civil discourse" is to misunderstand the role that politics can and should play in our lives today. Politics isn’t some additive layer superimposed on our careers and communities, activated every four years at the polls. Our politics are inextricable from our lives and families. For some, politics may be a casual thought to toss out in cocktail conversation. But for others it’s the right to live safely, go to the doctor, marry a loved one, hold onto your child. It’s the right to exist, thrive, love.
The growing interest in "civil discourse" since the 2016 election often takes the form of think tank white papers. But for many, the work of "civil discourse" exists far from the margins of scholarly writings and solemn op-eds - it’s the hardest work in the world. Its burden is distributed in uneven terms. It’s the LGBT person engaging with someone who denies their right to marry or serve in the army. It’s the black American debating a peer who will never experience the traumatic weight of police brutality. It’s the Muslim defending her right to enter this country.
Engaging people whose ideologies are radically different from your own isn’t just helpful - it’s essential. It’s what will allow us to rebuild from the wreckage of our current political moment. The 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump - many of them not in spite of, but actually energized by his racist and bigoted rhetoric - demonstrate the need for a dialogue that allows people to connect empathically with those of vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.
Fortunately, in the two years since the election we’ve seen a range of initiatives committed to fostering cross-aisle conversation: the People’s Supper, Spaceship Media, and the Aspen Institute’s initiative for common ground are just three such examples in the U.S. In Israel, where this work has been ongoing for decades, groups like Gesher and the Parents’ Circle are showing how to cultivate understanding and connection amidst political conflict.
But if we’re serious about a commitment to this difficult work, we must confront what it truly entails. "Civil discourse" isn’t a stale, textbook term - it’s the work of exposure, pain, vulnerability. If done right, it won’t be easy, but it just might allow us to move forward. It might allow us to hold on to what’s human and what’s shared across our divides.
Emma Goldberg writes on political and cultural affairs. She has been published in the New York Times, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Twitter: @emmabgo
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