Help Make America Talk Again: Celeste Headlee at TEDxSeattle (Transcript)

So I am not here to sugarcoat anything for you. I’ve been a journalist for nearly 20 years, and quite frankly I can tell you there’s no way to downplay the serious situation that we’re in as a nation. 26.4% of voters chose Clinton, 26.2% chose Trump, 42% decided not to vote at all. There are protests in cities all over the country. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has never been this high since 9/11. Nazi graffiti has shown up on buildings. A group of kids in Michigan chanted “Build the wall” while their Latino classmates wept. It’s a really serious situation.

On the other hand, I am not here to help you wallow in despair. I am not here to support either candidate. I’m not going to complain about the Electoral College. I’m not going to tell Clinton supporters to get behind their new president. Because all of this goes way beyond politics. I would really like to show us the way to hope, and I’d like to show us the way forward, but to do that we have to understand how we got here. If you’re feeling pretty good about your own choices, maybe deploring the behavior of other people, you’re maybe blaming all of this on the other side, whatever side that is, you might have missed the point.

We hate each other because we don’t know each other. We don’t see each other as worthy of respect. We view people who disagree with us not as human beings, but as enemies. And we have separated ourselves into tribes, and now we are warring tribes. 75% of white Americans have no non-white friends. 65% of African Americans have an all-black social network. Our schools are as segregated now as they were during the days of Jim Crow. Half of us say that most of our friends share our political views. And 1 in 5 would be unhappy if someone from the other political party married into our family.

Social media allows us to customize our society. We can tailor what we read and what we hear according to what we want to hear. We can ignore evidence that refutes our beliefs, and we unfriend people, both online and in real life. If you were surprised by the results of November 8th, that’s a reflection of the extent to which you’ve isolated yourself from people who think differently and look differently.

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, said something very important when he was speaking to his employee support groups earlier this year. He said, quote: “Our communities are being destroyed by racial tensions, and we’re too polite to talk about it.” I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant asks nothing of you but to be quiet and to make no waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments. Do not be tolerant of each other. Work hard, move into uncomfortable territory, and understand each other.

One of the most telling things that I’ve heard since this election came from a friend of mine, who said: “You know what? I’d love to talk to somebody from the other side, but I don’t know anybody who voted for someone else.” Tolerance asks only that you put up with somebody else’s existence. Stephenson is asking for understanding, and that requires interaction. Of all the statistics and studies that I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot, the one that scares me the most: empathy has declined by 40% in recent years. That comes out of research from the University of Michigan. We are in the midst of what one psychologist called “a narcissism epidemic”.

Empathy is really different from sympathy. Sympathy is when you say to someone: “I feel for you”. Empathy is when you say to them: “I feel with you”. Empathy is the basis of our moral code. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It’s the golden rule. And it appears in dozens of religions and spiritual practices from all over the world. In Islam, it is: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”. In Hinduism, it is: “This is the sum of duty. Do not do to someone else what would cause pain if done to you”. In the tradition of the Pima, a Native American people: “Do not wrong or hurt your neighbor because it is not he who you wrong, it is yourself.”

Scientists have found a number of ways for us to increase empathy. You can read a novel. You can play in a band. You can sing in a choir. You can volunteer your time to help other people. But you know what one of the most effective ways to boost your empathy is? It’s to talk to strangers. Well, listen to strangers. Learn about what their lives are like. How they get over life’s obstacles. What they love and what they fear. We can talk to people who fundamentally disagree with us, and we can do it without arguing. I’m a mixed-race woman. I’ve had good conversations with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They educated me. The guys I talked to were not racists, but they were trying to reclaim a racist symbol, and they enlightened me, I’m better for that conversation.

When you go into exchanges like that you have to ask yourself: What am I afraid of? But you also have to ask: What are they afraid of? I’m not telling you to subject yourself to abuse and harassment, of course not, but hearing an opposing opinion is not inherently abusive. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s really the only way that we grow and evolve. To paraphrase Larry King: You will learn nothing from what you say today, you can only learn by listening to other people. I don’t think it was the economy, or the Russians, or WikiLeaks, or the media, or Hillary, or Donald, that led us to this point. The divisions were planted and started a very long time ago, and now we are deeply entrenched. There are protests in the streets. A man was beaten because he voted for Trump. A group of schoolkids linked arms and tried to prevent their minority classmates from reaching their classrooms. Are you ready to talk yet?

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