Here’s how divided we are: It isn’t just a question of alternative facts. It feels like we don’t even have questions we share anymore.
Listen to two women quoted in an article by Sabrina Tavernese in the New York Times this week.
Here’s Maureen Sauer, a middle-aged white collar professional from Illinois, who attended the Women’s March in Washington, describing her view of Trump supporters: “It’s just so hard to understand them,” she said. “I guess they just wanted change? I don’t get it.”
And on the other side was Diana Ploss, a Trump voter from Massachusetts: “I just don’t feel like my rights are going to be violated,” she said. “Yet all these women don’t feel safe? If I had had time, I would have asked them, ‘What are you fighting for?’”
We are talking past each other. Or, more accurately, we’re not talking at all.
If we are to have any kind of shared future, we have to begin with actual conversations about questions we share, across our political and cultural differences. Those questions are Big Questions, and those conversations are Big Questions conversations.
That has been our work at Ask Big Questions since our founding. And it’s why we’ve recently launched the Campus Conversation Challenge—to spark thousands of new conversations at colleges and universities across the country about questions we all share as human beings.
But in this moment, I think it’s particularly important to say something else. While there are many Big Questions, in my experience there’s one that others seem to flow toward: For whom are we responsible?
What we’re living through right now is, at root, driven by our answer to this question. Do we see ourselves as responsible primarily for those with whom we share ties of family, community, religion, language, nationality? Does our responsibility extend out to all human beings, regardless of their relationship with us? And how do we prioritize between the two?
This conversation is one we have helped tens of thousands of people to have over the last six years. Frequently, we center the conversation on the poem “Okay” by Lowell Jaeger, which tells the story of a family driving home from vacation. When the kids spot a man holding his injured dog, they wind up giving the man and dog a ride. The man turns out to be drunk, and as it’s Sunday in the small town, there’s no open veterinarian. The family winds up leaving the man at a pay phone, and the reader is unclear about the fate of the man and the dog.
I have used this poem to facilitate scores of reflective community conversations about responsibility on campuses and in communities across the country. No two conversations are the same, but all of them involve some similar questions: How do we negotiate our responsibilities to protect ourselves and those we love, with our sense of responsibility to human beings (and animals) who are suffering? When are we willing to take risks for the sake of our values and ideals, and how do we feel about ourselves when we don’t? How do we manage the tension we all experience between our drives to advocate for ourselves, on the one hand, and make sacrifices for other human beings, on the other?
Or, as Hillel the Elder put it 2,000 years ago: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am for myself, what am I? And, since we must make these decisions in real time: If not now, when?
I know there are people who have genuinely evil intentions, and we have to be on guard against them. But I believe that most people have good intentions. Yes, we have different vocabularies, different pastimes, different tastes. We prioritize our moral values in different ways. But that doesn’t mean we are aliens to one another.
No matter who you voted for, I believe you want to be good. You want to be compassionate. You want safe communities that are also welcoming. So do I. And, like me, you probably experience occasionally—maybe even frequently—a feeling of tension between competing values. That’s because you and I are both human beings. We both share the question, For whom are we responsible?, along with many other Big Questions.
Our Conversation Challenge is happening on college campuses around the country. But now is a time for all of us—whether we’re in college or not, whether we’re college-educated or not; no matter our race or gender or sexual orientation; no matter our religious tradition, our nationality, our ethnicity; no matter our tastes or interests; no matter our politics—to find other people and have a conversation about a question we share.
We feel on the verge of a catastrophic break. We don’t have to go over that precipice. The most basic key to living together is right in front of us, and all of us can do it: Share a question. Listen. Now more than ever.