Books Driving Change: Peter Coleman and The Way Out

So a movement is something that I’m calling for, is something that I’m envisioning the value of, but we’re a long way from there. We have a lot of good work being done in communities. And helping people recognize that and find them is a start, because these are very hard change processes to go through alone.  — Peter Coleman, Columbia University and founder of the Difficult Conversations Lab

 

 

Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Matthew Bishop with Books Driving Change. And today I’m talking with Peter Coleman of Columbia University, one of the co-founders of the Difficult Conversations Lab, which explores what do we do about toxic conversations, a subject that hopefully won’t refer to the conversation we’re having together now — which will hopefully be a very positive conversation. But, obviously, we are at a time of increasing polarization in the world. And a lot of conversations seem to end up being more counterproductive than productive. 

 

Peter has written a book called The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, which is something that anyone listening to this podcast will want to know the answer to. So Peter, can I just start by asking you in one sentence, given the audience that this podcast has of people engaged in trying to bring about positive change — why should they read the book?

 

Peter Coleman (PC): Well, thank you, Matthew, for having me. So the reason I wrote the book is that I feel that there is significant misunderstanding of the nature of the problem of what I call “toxic polarization”, which is unlike typical forms of polarization — it’s more extreme, it’s more entrenched, it’s more long term. And so what I offer in the book, and I think is relevant to your listening audience, is a different theory of change. Typically, how we think about addressing things like political polarization is that we go after key pieces of the problem. But we don’t understand how the problem works as a whole, as a system, as a series of forces that kind of align and feed each other in complicated ways. 

 

And this book offers an alternative theory of change, it contrasts our typical kind of scientific approach of looking for the essence of a problem, and says this problem of toxic polarization has many essences. And more importantly, these essences align and feed each other in complex ways that really make it, as a cultural phenomenon, highly resistant to change. And so it’s important that we understand how problems like these, wicked problems, actually do change, and what to do about them based on science. And so that’s why I wrote this book — to offer this alternative theory of change.

 

MB: And it is an optimistic book, fundamentally, which is interesting because you start talking about how everyone’s feeling so miserable now, and this is actually a reason for optimism. Why do you make that point?

 

PC: Well, because one of the things we’ve learned from the study of deeply divided societies that actually do come out of this time and pivot into a more constructive direction, is that there are a couple of basic conditions that often are associated with that kind of change. One is that there is a sufficient level of misery within the political middle — what in ripeness theory they call a “mutually hurting stalemate”, where you are sort of exhausted and fed up and really don’t want to continue to engage in the same way, and you want to do something different. And certainly in America, but in many places in the U.K. and around the world, there is a growing, exhausted, middle majority that’s fed up with the political vitriol that we see, the dysfunction that we see, and really seeking an alternative. So in that way, the ground is ripe for a movement that offers people a vision for how to change. But in addition to being miserable, they need to have some clear sense of what to do. What is the alternative? What are the steps? And that’s why I wrote this book.

 

How do we create some kind of trusted process or system where people can rediscover the empathy that we have for one another, and rediscover some sense of unity and connectedness?

 

MB: I’m very struck by how you are coming at this — as someone who, as you talked about in the beginning of the book, grew up in a very difficult situation. You weren’t in a well-to-do family, your father was being pursued by violent men, I think you say for gambling issues, you ended up getting your Ph.D. after a long and difficult process and welfare support, and all sorts of things in a single-parent home. And you know many people. You identify as much with Trump supporters in some ways as you do with his critics. About halfway through the book, you say, “Dear reader, I hope half of you are Trump supporters and half of you aren’t”, or words to that effect. This is such an unusual voice at the moment, given the politics that we’re seeing in America, and as you also say, around the world. How do you feel we can get beyond this pro-Trump/anti-Trump mindset and get to some of these underlying systemic changes that we need?

 

PC: My journey to some degree is unique, because I was born in a place and at a time with folks that were disenfranchised, and I was as a young person I kind of worked my way out of that. And now I live this Columbia University professor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan [life], which is a very progressive arena. So I’ve experienced both worlds, and have empathy for both worlds. And ultimately, I think that’s the question — is how do we create some kind of trusted process or system where people can rediscover the empathy that we have for one another, and rediscover some sense of unity and connectedness? 

 

And again, what I propose, or what I argue, is that this is hard. We are, in some ways, in a mass addiction. I see toxic polarization as a bio/psycho/social/structural process like addiction. It’s something that’s within us, it’s, in some ways, [something] we’ve embodied in our neurological structures — how we see the world, what we react to emotionally. So there’s a kind of basic internal component of this, but then there are psychological components. And it’s embedded in our relationships — who we speak with, who we don’t speak with. It’s embedded in the media that we do and do not consume, in the internet spaces that we do and do not travel to, and even physically where we go in our life. So there are many levels and layers to this trap that we’re in. And it’s not going to be something easy to escape from. It’s not just that we decide, Okay, I’ve had enough of this, I’m moving on. We definitely need to have that. But we really need to recognize that this is going to be hard work. And some of the folks that have read the book have suggested, Wow, this is hard work. And the answer is yes. 

 

John Paul Lederach, a colleague of mine who does a lot of peace building around the world, once in Northern Ireland said to a Northern Irish audience, “It’s probably going to take you as long to get out of this conflict as it did to get into it.” And he said, he almost got thrown out of the room. Because people don’t want to hear that, they want to hear that there are simple solutions. What I lay out is a sequence of processes, strategies, steps, that can move us in a much more positive direction. But they’re not simple answers to this complex problem that we’re embedded in.

 

MB: One of my takeaways from the book is, and you also refer to it in various points in the book, this notion of “complicate things” as a way to to help. Because there is a tendency to think quite simplistically about this. Those of us that are saying, “Let’s try and heal the divide, or let’s try and put a Trump voter in a room with a progressive and the hope that they’ll figure things out.” And it’s all quite naive. Where do people tend to go wrong when they try to take that approach?

 

 

 

 

PC: So that approach is based on something called “contact theory”, which Gordon Allport developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, to break down racism in this country. And it is the basic idea that if you have groups of people that have no contact with each other, no connection to each other, that sometimes just bringing them together and having them realize that each one is a human with kids and interests, and they like music, and they like to dance, and they start to rehumanize members of the other group. And that can have a transformative effect. And that’s a very powerful theory and model that’s often used in intergroup disputes. But when you have groups of people that are deeply passionate, deeply ideological, and living in parallel opposing media echo systems, then just saying, Go off and have a cup of coffee in the same room and chat with one another, can easily backfire. And in fact, if you push some of the people that encourage such interventions these days, they’ll tell you those stories of these well-intentioned, well-designed interventions that blow up and that backfire. 

 

And in fact, there is Pew Research suggesting that when people get together across political divisions these days, the vast majority of us leave those conversations more frustrated, more alienated from the other side. So it doesn’t help, typically, under these conditions, to just bring people together. And so what I argue is that we need to know what the science tells us. Contact theory has been studied over 500 times for decades. And what we know is that there are certain conditions where that works. And there’s certain conditions where it doesn’t work. And when you’re dealing with true believers, it doesn’t work, it’s insufficient.

 

MB: And you illustrate this at the start of the book with this discussion, or description, of an effort around the anti-abortion/pro-choice debate in Boston, where a number of leaders on both sides were brought together, and they met together over over a period of time, and it seemed to make a difference. Can you just explain what was the magic sauce in that approach?

 

PC: I think tenacity, courage, and perseverance. So there was an incident that happened. Boston in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a very divided place. It’s highly Catholic, 36% Catholic population. And the abortion debate was very hostile and intense in that community and becoming increasingly so. And then in 1994, there was a horrific shooting that took place in a couple of women’s clinics — women were shot dead, harmed, injured, and it was a rupture. And it really kind of destabilized the status quo. 

 

And so the Archdiocese and the Governor and the Mayor were all calling for sort of talks. And how do you change a culture of vitriol and hate through talks? It seems to be an almost impossible thing to do. So there was a group called the Public Conversations Project. And I tell this story in the beginning of the book, because I think it’s a great parable for our time. We too, in the pro-Trump/anti-Trump world or pro-Brexit/anti-Brexit world, we are true believers in some ways.

 

MB: The abortion issue is coming back up on the agenda in America in a big way, in that true believer way, is it not?

 

We typically think that in a problem like polarization we can go in and fix… What this science suggests is No, when you have deeply embedded cultural patterns, it takes a different kind of shock to destabilize it enough.

 

PC: Absolutely yes, it’s being triggered in multiple states simultaneously. So, it is a parable of our time. But what happened was, this group called the Public Conversations Project had been doing dialogue processes with pro-life/pro-choice groups, bringing them together before the shooting. And so they had a network there. And what they did is they reached out to three prominent pro-life leaders and three prominent pro-choice leaders, and they said to them, “Would you consider just coming together for a couple of weeks, and have some conversations in order to prevent further violence and kind of bring the temperature down?” And all of these women were afraid of the other side, literally. The pro-life women met in a Friendly’s restaurant and prayed to God that they would be forgiven for sitting down with these evil murderers. And the other side was very afraid of their reputation and their physical safety, especially in the wake of this violence. But they agreed to come together, they talked for about a month, and albeit difficult, it went well enough that they decided to go to the one year anniversary of the shooting. And the conversations continued. And they actually had in-secret dialogues, clandestine dialogues, between these six people and the facilitators that their families and communities did not know anything about for five and a half years. And then in January of 2001, they came out publicly in the Boston Globe, they co-published an article called Talking With the Enemy — which I’d recommend that your readers or your listeners read. And they talk about this experience and how it changed them and their relationships and their understanding of the issues. 

 

And ironically, and I think, importantly, they all to a person became further apart on the issue of abortion. Their attitudes on the issues became even more crystallized, so that they still fundamentally differed on the issue. But their relationships and care and respect for one another, and care for their community, and the rhetoric they used in their activism, all changed fundamentally. And that interaction with those six women and two facilitators had first and second and third order effects in the Boston community in how activism around these issues were taken up and what the rhetoric was. And ultimately, they think even sort of affected the movement more broadly in terms of bringing down the temperature of hate and vilification of the other side.

 

MB: That goes to one of your points about, Let’s get away from the actual point of dispute in these situations and think more about the context, the broader context, that things are operating in, and find common ground in the context, which you can build on. 

 

PC: They were able to recognize that they all cared for women — young, pregnant, teen pregnancy. That they had common interests about violence and keeping violence at bay in the community and protecting one another from that. They could actually write grants together. And ironically, this was 25 years ago, and today, they’re still friends. It’s still a group of people that celebrate births and deaths and come together when they need support. So they grew very fond of one another. And they fundamentally differed on this issue. And that is the essence here. It is when policy becomes personal and becomes ideological. [For example when we] take things like “Let’s build the wall” or “Not build a wall” as the slogans for immigration, we lose a sense of the immense complexity of immigration policies and over simplify the issue that positions them. And then we’re nowhere, that’s when we get stuck.

 

MB: So what would you draw as lessons from that for today and how the abortion debate might play out less harmfully, then some people feel it will do now, in America?

 

PC: What I do in the book is try to use the evidence-based science that has been done by our group and by other groups, and pull out five basic principles of what helps to basically navigate the way out of these toxic times. And I use this case as a parable, because I think it illustrates all of the principles in many ways. And, so that’s why I use it as a story to begin. And then what the book moves into is what are the areas of research that have shed some light on this? One of the things that happened in Boston, that led to [the conversations], was this shock of the shooting, this destabilization. And you could say that, certainly in the U.S., the political vitriol and the January 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol was such a destabilizing moment. In addition [we have] the racial injustice that’s happening, and COVID shutdowns, and the Delta variant, and the exhaustion from all of that, so this nation is a nation that’s destabilized. I imagine you’re seeing similar things in the U.K. these days, with the consequences of Brexit, and COVID. 

 

But that kind of instability, as I suggested earlier, is good, if we take advantage of it as an opportunity to reset, and to really start to question some of the basic assumptions on which we make our decisions. What kind of future do we want to have? How do we move forward? Do we take advantage of this time as a time of reflection? 

 

So again, to go back to addiction metaphor — what we find with addicts is that A) they need to bottom out, and then B) they need to have the kind of support that allows them to start to do a searing inventory of their life and their choices and how they want to move forward in their life. So similarly, I think that’s what this time, this kind of extraordinary time, provides us. But it does require that we all do that work. But what I argue is that’s hard to do. 

 

In fact, I just wrote an editorial that I submitted to Politico last night, which is calling for a national movement, like AA in America, that takes advantage of the fact that this is an extraordinary time, but people need help. They need help in knowing what to do. They need support, knowing how to do it. And in the U.S., there’s a website called the Bridging Divides Initiative, which is out of Princeton University, a woman named Nealin Parker has developed it; and it has an interactive map of the U.S. you can go to it, click on it, and it tells you where the bridge building groups in your community are physically located. And so what she’s identified is that there are at least 7,000 or more of these bridge building groups across the nation that are doing this work of bringing red and blues together in a safe space that’s facilitated, that’s careful and secure, to encourage people to get to know one another and to work through these issues. But what the challenge is for us as a movement is that most of these groups work independently. Some of them are connected to other groups, but largely, these are independent movements that spring up in communities. And so there is no sense of a movement. There are “1000 Points of Light” as George H.W. Bush used to like to say, which are community-based groups, or sector-based groups, working in journalism, or government, or education, that are trying to bring people together. 

 

MB: Do you think we need a movement?

 

PC: I think we need a movement. I think we need a movement, because otherwise the challenge with this, the availability of these places, it’s most people don’t know about them. And there’s a good reason that they don’t know about them, because the sensitive nature of the work that bridge builders do across political divides in heated times can be a magnet or attractor for negative attention, violence, or protest. And so people generally like to keep low key. But what happens then is that Americans, or Brits, or others, are unaware of these things. And there’s also no kind of standardization, there’s no sense of what is the best practice that we should be following, what is the evidence base. And there’s no capacity for this community of 7,000 plus organizations to come together politically, and really go after some of the structures that are driving this in the business models of the major tech platforms, or the entertainment-isation of news media. These are part of the industrial outrage organizations that are driving so much of this vitriol. So a movement is something that I’m calling for, is something that I’m envisioning the value of, but we’re a long way from there. We have a lot of good work being done in communities. And helping people recognize that and find them is a start, because these are very hard change processes to go through alone.

 

MB: You talk in the book about how something called the “bombshell effect” can be very important in terms of breaking out of a status quo and creating the possibility of change. And you actually refer to the Trump election as being potentially one of those bombshell effects. And I would imagine that you see COVID in similar lights, although those obviously mostly happened post you writing the book. And I just wonder, in both of those cases, what do you see already happening that makes you feel optimistic that those two particular bombshells might cause significant progress out of some of the toxicity that we’re seeing?

 

This state of polarization is toxic for us, in terms of our own mental health, in terms of our physical health, in terms of relations in our families, or divisions in families, communities, it’s a highly toxic time. 

 

PC: Well, because there’s some evidence that there is actually work that’s being done to address this. So the bombshell effect comes from something called “punctuated equilibrium theory”, it’s a theory and a model that came out of biology originally as a sort of challenge to some degree to evolutionary theory. And it argued that oftentimes there is some kind of major shock that takes place that allows communities to change – what we have mentioned on a few occasions already. 

 

Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz have studied the conditions where international relations are heated for decades, contentious, where you have active war or cold war, and then the change of those relationships are usually preceded by these shocks, these bombshells. It might be a coup attempt, it might be the end of the Soviet Union, 9/11. These kinds of major political shocks can really destabilize. But the effects take time. And these shocks don’t guarantee change. They just create the conditions where changes are possible. 

 

And so this is all part of this alternative theory of change that I mentioned at the onset — which is that we typically think that in a problem like polarization we can go in, and if you [for example] fix gerrymandering, or if you get rid of Trump, or if there is the kind of single sovereign thing that we need to do, and that will affect change. And what this science suggests is No, when you have deeply embedded cultural patterns, it takes a different kind of shock to destabilize it enough. And then people need to take advantage of that time, in order to make these shifts. 

 

The other insight from this research that I point to is what we call the “butterfly effect”. And what that suggests is that after an upheaval, our next choices, the things we do to begin to connect across the divide — how we do that, what our intentions are — these first next steps are very critical, because they’ll set us off on another trajectory. 

 

And ironically, I provided some guidance and advice to the Biden transition team, as they were coming in, they had reached out and asked for me to write some briefs on the science. And Joe Biden was talking about healing the soul of the nation and uniting the nation in his campaign. And I said, that’s all well and good, but it’s premature. Because you don’t go into war zones and talk about reconciliation, or you get shot.

 

[We need to recognize] that this state of polarization is toxic for us, in terms of our own mental health, in terms of our physical health, in terms of relations in our families, or divisions in families, communities, it’s a highly toxic time. And recognizing that that is a common enemy, we can kind of come together in service of that. 

 

But you asked for some evidence of how the shocks are working. And let me just give you one example. There is a group in Congress called the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress. And it’s a mechanism that our Congress has when things are broken to at least put together a temporary committee to work on it. So about a year ago, they were put to the task of trying to work on depolarizing Congress. And it is a bipartisan committee. There’s Republican and Democratic co-chairs — they split the budget, they have consensus decision making. And their objective is to look critically at the structures of Congress, how Congress does its work, and make recommendations for how to bring the temperature down and reintroduce more decency into the legislative process. They offered Nancy Pelosi 98 recommendations at their one year mark. And then most of the Congress wrote policy and said, Extend this group, we need this. And so they will have a mandate now to work for another two years, trying to take a hard critical look at the incentive structure of Congress and what needs to change and shift in order to affect the vitriol that is there in the belly of the beast. 

 

Let me give you one specific example: Freshmen Congress people that come to D.C. on their first day, typically show up and are put on separate buses — a red bus and a blue bus — and they drive off in different directions and they start the war council, they start the strategy about how to defeat the other side. And that’s the first thing they do on the first day. And so their first recommendation was don’t do that. Bring them together in service as citizens of this country, as servants of this country, and have them meet each other and build some kind of rapport and shared vision before you move into political camps. And so that’s what they’re systematically trying to do. And that has come from January 6th, and come from the vitriol that we see in Congress, and the dysfunction of Congress. And so when there are these kinds of extreme shocks, there can be reactions like this that can ultimately over time have positive effects.

 

MB: Because I suppose on the surface you look at Congress at the moment, and it seems to be more fiercely partisan than it’s ever been. It’s interesting that there is enough recognition within the Congress that they need to do something about that, that this committee has been given extra lifespan on it.

 

PC: Absolutely. And they recognize that most of what we see of Congress is the things that happen in front of the camera. So one of the recommendations is that they create more spaces for congress people to get together that are away from the cameras so that they can speak candidly and openly and have some kind of contact, and build some kind of rapport. And they’re not constantly positioning for their public audiences. So yes, we all get a sense that it’s as bad as ever. It’s not good. But the good news is that there is a cohort of them that recognizes that and are actively working to try to change the structures in order to change the climate.

 

MB: So throughout the book, you draw on evidence from your Difficult Conversations Lab, and I just love the name of the lab – besides anything else, it just really gets immediately to the point. But I wonder if you would back the clock to when that lab was founded, and what’s been the biggest positive surprise, and what’s been the biggest negative surprise for you over the years?

 

PC: So we built this lab — we got funding about 15 years ago from a foundation. A group of us [got funding] from the James S. MacDonald Foundation, who tend to fund people that have kind of wild ideas but aren’t ready for NSF funding. So sort of crazy but possible ideas. And we put this team together of complexity scientists and anthropologists and psychologists and this eclectic group of mathematicians. We had an astrophysicist, a modeler, and we were tasked with trying to think about long term stuck conflicts, things that go on for 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 years. And political polarization in the U.S. currently has about a 60 year trajectory of increasing vitriol. And so this is one of these more intractable kinds of problems. So we came together to study this, to make sense of it, to try to bring lenses in from complexity, science, physics, and biology that help us think about when do communities or family systems get stuck. And what are the conditions under which they change? 

 

And so we were studying this and we wrote a bunch of papers and mostly theoretical pieces. But we needed data. We needed to be able to collect data in real time to see if our half baked notions were valid. So one of the things we did is we built these Difficult Conversation Labs, one at Columbia, in my space, and then a former student, who’s a colleague now, Katharina Kugler, built one in Munich, Germany, as well. She was very central to the development of this. And it really was just a space, that is what we call a “capture lab”, which allows us to bring people in who differ on a moral issue or have different political views, and then study the conditions under which conversations over divisive issues, go well or go poorly. And I have to repeat that, because what this Difficult Conversations Lab is, it’s a laboratory, it’s a place where we study the phenomenon. And so we’ve tried different kinds of interventions, to see what helps the conversations, shepherds them into more constructive directions, versus where are the places where people just shut down and get frustrated and angry and it devolves into a shouting match. That’s what we study. 

 

And the challenge I found is I’ve had journalists approach me and say, Oh, okay, well, I want to bring a team of people there that are having a dispute, and we want you to solve it. And I’ll say No, we’re a research lab, we study conditions where things go better or worse. I can tell you what our evidence suggests. And you can apply that in your situation. But that’s not what we offer. You know, people come into our lab and don’t solve the abortion debate. They don’t solve the Trump debate, but they can have conversations that they’re willing to continue, and they feel like they’ve learned, and they feel sufficiently positive about themselves and their understanding and the other party that they’ll continue the conversation. Much like the women in Boston did around the divorce abortion debate. 

 

Many of us in Western society are trained for debate…Debate is a very particular form of communication. It’s basically a game that you’re trying to win… Dialogue is fundamentally the opposite. Dialogue is a process of learning and discovery, where we communicate with each other in a way that [means] I may learn things about my positions.

 

So what we try to do is study specifically those conditions and the main take home that we’ve identified is really the difference I guess, between what I would call dialogue and debate in how people communicate in this country, and in the U.K. as well and elsewhere. So many of us in Western society are trained for debate. I was trained in high school as a debater; we see it in our Congress, we see it in political campaigns, we see it on television. It’s how we assume people talk about politics. And debate is a very particular form of communication. It’s basically a game that you’re trying to win. In a debate, I have a position, I’m trying to sell it to you, I’m listening to you in order to identify flaws in your assumptions that I can weaponize in order to show you that I’m right and win the game. And that’s a very specific form of cognitive process, it’s a much more closed and focused process. Dialogue is fundamentally the opposite. Dialogue is a process of learning and discovery, where we communicate with each other in a way that [means] I may learn things about my positions — why I hold them, where they came from — that I wasn’t even really conscious of. I’ll learn things about the nuance or complexity of the issues that we’re talking about, and learn things about you and where you’ve come from and what your take is. So it’s a fundamentally different process of learning and discovery that is much more nuanced, and much more complex in people’s understanding of the issues, and the other, and of their emotional experiences, and ultimately, how they treat each other. 

 

And so that’s the main distinction that we found is that when we set people up for a debate — so for example, we’ll take an issue like pro-life/pro-choice and we’ll present people with both sides of an issue — and then they begin. And what happens when you present people with that kind of information in that manner, is that they pay a lot of attention to the facts that support their position, and they ignore the other side. This is something called “selective perception”. And then they come into these conversations armed for war, and battle, and they go into debate and it escalates and they get stuck. And ultimately, they want out. Alternatively, if you take the same information — the pro-life/pro-choice set of facts — and say, Abortion is a highly complicated set of linked issues — there are moral issues or religious issues, there are family issues, physical health issues, physiological issues, it’s a complex constellation of things — here’s that information, have a conversation about it, and try to reach some kind of consensus in your understanding. And if you frame a conversation like that — which many dialogue groups will do, they’ll say, No, they’re not two sides to this, there are five sides to this — those types of conversations tend to be more nuanced, and less certain, and less vitriolic. And people move into very different kinds of experiences of themselves, the other, and the issues. Which can be very transformative, and encourage them to at least continue the conversation. 

 

And that’s the primary learning that we’ve walked away with — that these conversations don’t have to go poorly. But typically, for example, in our media, what we do is we present two sides, right? There’s a pro-Trump side and the anti-Trump side, and we pit them against each other and have them go. And it is the business model of much of the media because people are drawn to conflict, and they like provocation. And so they enjoy it. It’s like a reality show. But they learn about their own side, they don’t learn about the other side. And the understanding that they walk away with is over simplified.

 

MB: Is there an alternative media model to that? That could be about dialogue?

 

PC: Yeah, there is. So a colleague of mine, Amanda Ripley, wrote an important piece for a group called Solutions Journalism, which is an organization that supports journalism. And she did a study of conflict resolution and mediation processes; she came and participated in our lab. And she wrote a piece called “Complicating the Narrative”. And it really is a challenge to journalists that they reflect critically on basically the business model behind how they do their reporting, and how they in fact contribute to polarization, and how they might actually begin to mitigate it by using different strategies. So, she lays out a series of steps for journalists to consider. Solutions Journalism then went with that piece and ran with it and now have a program where they train journalists to think differently about how they do their work in a way that introduces sufficient nuance and complexity in the context and is still compelling. So they recognize that there is a need to have an audience that will engage. But they also recognize the either intended or unintended consequences of oversimplification of these complex issues. So there is a movement in journalism to mitigate that, to affect that, to change that. But it is going against a huge business model that is all about provocation in order to gain attention.

 

MB: Well, this has been a very rich conversation. And, we’re almost out of time, so I wanted to end by asking you a question as we think about our audience of people who feel they want to get involved in being change leaders in today’s world, they maybe want to be those bridging leaders. Obviously, your book has got lots and lots of ideas and tips and laws and rules and all sorts of things in it. But is there one overall overriding piece of advice you would have for someone who wants to get involved in that form of public service?

 

PC: Sure. Well first of all, I would strongly recommend that they read the book. And that they reach out and engage with me — I’m more than happy to have continued conversations about it. But one of the wondrous benefits of these hard times is that there are more and more groups and organizations — there’s a group called Starts With Us, there’s a group called FixUS, there are many different constellations of either thought leaders or change leaders — who are taking this time seriously trying to understand what to do and how to do it, and trying to learn the science. So there are many groups and organizations to engage with. Again, one place to go, if you’re in the U.S., is the Bridging Divides Initiative and you can see where the local community-based places are. But there’s the Bridge Alliance as well, which is a constellation of significant organizations like Search for Common Ground, that have made a pivot to the U.S. and are now focusing locally in the U.S., or Generations for Peace, which is a youth-based organization that is also now pivoted to the U.S. and is shifting focus from international peacebuilding to domestic peace building in the U.S. So there is a lot of energy and movement in the nonprofit world to work in constructive ways, in different sectors, and at the community level. So there is a lot of opportunity to do that. But I would begin by taking a look at the book and getting back to me with your questions and challenges, and insights.

 

MB: And the book is The Way Out. Peter Coleman, thank you very much for writing it, and thank you for talking with me today with Books Driving Change. Thank you very much.

 

PC: Matthew, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

 

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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity. 

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