How Can We Bridge Our Divides?

Is it better to be a stay-at-home parent or to try and balance career and family?
That’s a hard question. Not just in the colloquial sense, but in the technical sense we use here at Ask Big Questions: This is a question that matters to many, many people (I hesitate to say everyone, since that’s not necessarily true), and the more you think you know about the question, the more likely you are to participate in a conversation about it.
In this political season, we witness some traditional divides over the answer to the question. These align, more or less, with the political tribes most of us identify with: If we’re in the liberal tribe, we support the right of parents to choose whatever path they want for themselves, and advocate for generous family leave policies, child-care tax benefits, and other measures. If we’re in the conservative tribe, we point to the importance of parent-child bonds, our desire to raise our children with the values that are most important to us, and perhaps more traditional notions of gender roles.
And if we have a debate about this question, it isn’t likely to get us very far. That’s because this question reflects some deeply-held moral beliefs: For liberals, the bedrock importance of freedom of agency; for conservatives, the foundational belief in loyalty to family and the authority of traditional family structures (and, in a different way, liberty: the freedom to raise one’s kids as one sees fit). A debate about a question about work and family touches on deep narratives about how we see ourselves and how we think the world should be—that is, it goes straight to our moral foundations.
Jonathan Haidt is probably the most famous developer of Moral Foundations theory. And as he argues persuasively in his recent classic, The Righteous Mind (2011), the narratives at the root of our moral foundations are primary, and our reasoning is secondary. That is, we most often reason in order to prove the thing we already believe and identify with. “Human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive, and basing their responses on those reactions,” he writes. “Within the first second of seeing, hearing, or meeting another person, the elephant [= our emotional intuition] has already begun to lean toward or away, and that lean influences what you think and do next. Intuitions come first.” (69)
That means that debates about these kinds of questions don’t generally convince of anything. Rather, they serve to score points and reinforce us in our own tribal affiliation.
So how do we come to change our minds? And, just as importantly, how do we learn to empathize with each other? First, Haidt notes that the presence of other people is crucial: “For most of us, it's not every day or even every month that we change our mind about a moral issue without any prompting from anyone else.” (56) Second, you have to create an environment where people can actually be open to each other. Here’s how Haidt describes it:
“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly [emphasis added], you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.” (105)
This is what we do at Ask Big Questions: We bring people together and help them create a common bond. We do that through three primary means: 1) Framing our questions as Big Questions, rather than Hard Questions; 2) sharing personal stories; and 3) interpretive discussion around a shared object.
Here’s an example: Last week I traveled to a college in eastern Iowa to facilitate a small-group conversation for several university administrators. The conversation ultimately centered on this question of work and family. And, being Iowa, there was actually some pretty healthy diversity in the room on the question. One young father who works at a small Bible college talked about how important it was to him that his wife stays home with their children. “I don’t want someone else raising my kids,” he said. “The fact that my wife is spending this time with our children is really important to me.” Also in the room were two senior administrators, both mothers, who had made other choices with their lives. One explained, “When I had my first child, I was in graduate school, and I found that I was a better parent by pursuing my career. I’m not like my sister, who has the temperament to be home with her kids. And I have a calling to teach and work in higher ed.”
The disagreements were noted, and they were aired, within an atmosphere of respect and listening. We weren’t debating family leave policy there and then. We were building trust and understanding. And chances are that if that group gets together again to work on policy, what they create will be better, and the process of creating it will be healthier than it would have been without a conversation like this.
But there were a few keys that enabled us to get there. Among them, this moment of disagreement came 45 minutes into the conversation. It came out after some small-group reflections that followed an interpretive discussion on a commencement speech-turned-cartoon strip by Bill Waterston. And that followed initial story-sharing about what the word “legacy” brought to mind. And all of that was framed by the Big Question, What will your legacy be?, a question that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer.
This is how Big Questions conversations can help us have more productive discussions about policy differences: by creating, as Haidt advises, environments in which people have a common bond—a bond of narratives—and move out of their ideological camps, Big Questions conversations shift the ground and redraw the boundaries. They help us take different perspectives, listen, and understand each other and ourselves.
If this summer has shown us anything, it’s that we need many more conversations like these.