It seems like arguing — screaming, shouting or at the very least, extreme eye-rolling — is right up there with eating breakfast these days. Wake up, brush your teeth, glance at the latest news and explode!
Jeanne Johnson was sick of it.
Johnson is a mom of two in Ridgewood, N.J., and a local activist. A few years back, she got the city to make its crosswalks more visible to encourage kids to walk — and cars to stop. Last week she wanted to encourage people to stop something else: The demonization of everyone who voted for someone other than the someone you voted for. So to a local social hall she invited Guy Benson, a conservative author; Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist; and Kennedy, the mordantly hilarious libertarian who has a show on Fox Business. In fact, all three are on Fox all the time, often sparring, but also always happy to see each other.
That’s what Johnson wanted her fellow citizens to witness with their own eyes: You can disagree with someone’s politics, even vehemently, and not despise them as humans.
As crazy as that sounds.
Kennedy moderated the chat by asking the kind of questions that can stop an insult such as “You crazy so-and-so” in mid-air. For instance, she wondered, was there ever a time when either of her guests realized the other side was not evil incarnate?
Roginsky recalled a time back in college when she and her fellow feminists took a bus to a Rhode Island abortion clinic, where nuns and priests were protesting outside. As Roginsky and her retinue shouted, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries!” she looked at the clergy, fervently praying, and suddenly it hit her: These folks weren’t there to be judgmental jerks. They had come because they truly believe that a fetus is a life that must be saved. For them, blocking the clinic was no different from grabbing the gun from some nut holding a hostage. To this day, Roginsky remains adamantly pro-choice. But instead of seeing pro-life supporters as bad people, she sees them as people.
For his part, Benson flashed back on 2009, when Obama was sworn into office on a wave of Democratic euphoria. Conservatives were beside themselves: Here was a president who would pass every piece of liberal legislation this side of Sweden. The Republicans were on the outs, perhaps never to rise again.
So Benson said — smirk-free — he truly empathizes with what Democrats are feeling now. He obviously doesn’t share their dismay (although he didn’t sound very happy about Trump). But he gave a knowing nod to the people who, well, that’s just the thing. The room was filled with ardent Democrats and Republicans, and probably some Libertarians besides just Kennedy. And you couldn’t tell who was who.
For Johnson, that was the point.
“Those [feuding] people ended up having to sit at the same tables together,” she said. She’d deliberately chosen round tables, so everyone would be looking at everyone else, and purple table cloths. Not red. Not blue. Purple. The cookies for the event were iced in purple frosting, “Together.” Cookies are always an ice breaker.
And so was this event. Up on stage, Roginsky and Benson were discussing free speech. They’d just gotten word about the unrest — riots? — at the University of California Berkeley, where masked agitators had caused $100,000 in damage as they protested a speech to be given by the right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos. Roginsky was appalled. She is hardly a fan of Yiannopoulos, but free speech wins, she said. “Always.”
For his part, Benson was ready with some good advice for the Democrats. “If everything is an outrage, nothing is.” In other words, if the left rejects absolutely everyone and everything Trump proposes, their message will get tuned out. Pick your battles, he advised, to get more traction.
How did the two opposites manage to stay friends through this election and post-election season? The same way they handle the Twitter taunts that come their way. The trick is to “listen generously,” said Benson. Don’t assume the person who didn’t vote your way chose the other candidate out of bigotry, stupidity, or calumny. Assume they had their varied reasons, just like you had yours. Give folks the benefit of the doubt.
By the end of the night, said Johnson, she thought she saw that happening. “I know how contentious things were, or are, in our community — horrible. Just like we’re seeing on the national stage.” But afterward the event, the audience hung around for almost an hour, talking, laughing, and eating those cookies. “Let’s do this again!” they said.
That’s an idea no one could argue with.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reaso