Complicating the Narrative on Bridging and Division: A New Series from CEP and PACE

Kristen Cambell

I’ve been in and around the “bridging and civility” space for several years. For better or worse, these terms haven’t always been clearly defined and can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. As such, they have become somewhat of a colloquial catch all for “how we process disagreement and difference in our increasingly diverse (and often divided) society.” As calls for unity have mounted in recent weeks, an interesting “debate” is emerging about if we should unify at all — and if so, with whom, how, and to what ends.

A pervasive narrative lately is that the United States is toxically divided as a society, with some even positing that we are as divided as any time since the Civil War. Research shows that 35-45 percent of people would be unhappy if their child married someone of a different political party (an increase from 4 percent in 1960), and about 42 percent of people feel members of the other party are “downright evil.”

Ironically, just how divided we are is in itself a question with a fair amount of disagreement. Some would say that the division is fomented by those who stand to gain from it, and that our perceptions about each other’s beliefs are more extreme than those beliefs actually are. How divided we are — and what to do about it — often forces conversations about solutions into unhelpful and over-simplified binary choices between “find kumbaya” or “leave ‘those people’ out.” This binary existed prior to January 6 but has been put in an even sharper and higher-stakes light since then.

Unity, tolerance, forbearance, and inclusion are necessary conditions in a civil society — especially one as large, diverse, and rapidly changing as ours. A cohesive social fabric is a core element of what constitutes strong democracy, and civility and bridging can help manifest those conditions.

Yet, I think it’s fair to say there’s always been a level of skepticism and cynicism about “bridging work.” Given a common tendency to group everything from “listening to people with different opinions” to “countering hate” under the same umbrella of “building bridges,” it’s not particularly surprising that there would be questions, or even pushback, to it as a realistic strategy.

For example, it’s common to hear questions like: what can bridging work solve, really? Who is calling for it and are they operating in good faith? Is it a subversive way to make people believe their values are “wrong” or to create a “mushy middle?” Is it an excuse to sweep injustice under the rug for the sake of politeness and decorum? Does it normalize or legitimize bad behavior or dangerous beliefs?

While questions like these are worth honest consideration, they also raise a larger question: what’s the alternative? Some level of disagreement is healthy — even necessary — in a diverse and pluralistic society, and principled debates are the lifeblood of democracy. But it feels like most of the “debates” we are having of late are not the perennial ones about things like tax policy or even the role of government. Rather, they are over questions of who belongs; whose lives, experiences, and votes matter; and what America is and should be.

Is it healthy, desirable, or even moral to have division over these questions? If not, can we imagine an alternative way of being that doesn’t paper over differences or overlook the need for justice and truth? There is risk to bridging and risk to not bridging — who decides what risks are appropriate to take? And whose work is it to do?

In an essay series written by Decker Ngongang and published in late 2019, PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) explored the complexity of civility as a concept and as a practice. Now, in collaboration with CEP, we think it’s time (to borrow a phrase from our friends at Solutions Journalism Network) to “complicate the narrative” on bridging.

Over the course of the next several weeks on the CEP blog, we’ll host interviews with a handful of leaders about their views on bridging — about what it can do, what it can’t, and what we need to do to move forward together. We’ll hear from:

  • Wendy Feliz, Founding Director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council
  • Andrew Hanauer, CEO of the One America Movement
  • Claudia Cummings, President and CEO of the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance
  • David Eisner, CEO of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution
  • Eric K. Ward, Executive Director, Western States Center

The series will culminate with a virtual conversation on April 29 about philanthropy’s role and opportunity in bridging work, the second event in CEP’s 20th Anniversary Virtual Learning Sessions. Our hope is that the views shared in this blog series will provide a community-informed perspective for funders to react to and build upon when they consider why and how philanthropy can strengthen our civic and social fabric in this moment — and in the days and years to come.

Civility, literally defined, means “befitting a citizen.” It is a virtue that is necessary because it makes disagreement possible in a diverse and tolerant society. But civility can tend to privilege dominant perspectives, and it is often oversimplified to mean niceness, politeness, and decorum at the potential expense of justice and liberty.

Holding both those things as true, can we imagine embracing “behavior befitting a citizen” as an animating condition of how we show up with others in the world? Perhaps doing so would empower us all to demonstrate leadership and behavior that both reflects the integrity of our (small c) citizenship and honors the dignity of others.

This is the first post in a six-part series that aims to “complicate the narrative” on bridging difference in America right now. We are interested in diversifying perspectives and democratizing this conversation. If you would like to share your thoughts on the questions we’re posing to respondents in this series, please do so here

Kristen Cambell is executive director of PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement). Follow her on Twitter at @kcambell and PACE at @PACEfunders.

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