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

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

Celeste Headlee

Celeste Headlee – 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?

Are you ready to have someone say that they support mass deportation without calling them a fascist? Are you ready to let someone explain why they think building the wall was crazy without calling them a libtard? We see videos of kids screaming insults at each other and we think: Where did they learn that? From us. We can’t talk about politics without insulting each other. And we explain our disagreement by saying the other side is ignorant, or stupid, or elitist, or in denial. Take a look at these two tweets. [Regardless of the outcome, we are clearly a deeply divided and broken country.] They were sent less than four hours apart. [So much work ahead to mend, heal and restore the U in USA.] I’ll give you a moment to read that. [We are under total Republican rule. Textbook fascism. (omitted) you, white America. (omitted) you, you racist, mysoginist pieces of (omitted). G’night.] The situation could not be more critical for our country, and the stakes could not be higher.

We’re going to have to find our way back to civility, and we’re going to have to learn how to talk to each other. I want to give you some tangible tools so you can get this process started. So here are four tips that just might help you talk to someone who disagrees with you politically.

First, don’t try to educate anybody and do not try to change anybody’s mind. Because, you know what? You probably cannot change anybody’s mind. It’s really hard. In fact, it’s so hard we almost never change our own minds. That’s scientifically true. Most of us suffer from something called “the backfire effect”. Basically, what that means is if we believe something and someone presents evidence to us that refutes our belief, it makes us believe stronger.

When we believe it, and then we see facts that say that’s not true, it backfires. So don’t bother. Don’t go into a conversation trying to educate or teach someone. Go in there to learn. Remember the words of Carl Sagan who, in his “Baloney Detection Kit” said: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

Tip number two: Don’t prejudge. There’s a concept in psychology that’s called “the halo and horns effect”. Basically, if we have a favorable opinion of something, we are already ready to accept and approve of everything that person says or does. And then the opposite. If somebody walks in wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt, or a “Make America great again” hat, we are primed to either accept or disapprove of everything they say. But people are not political platforms. People are not talking points. They may spout catchphrases, but if you talk to them long enough, usually you can get beyond that. [“We look very different.”] People are complicated, and they’re nuanced. [“But we are both dogs. Shall we play?” “OK.”] And those complications are what make people so damn interesting. You may disagree on nuclear policy, but totally agree on healthcare. You may disagree on just about everything, but both agree that dogs are better than people.

People are not the politicians that they vote for. Number three: Show some respect. At all times. You may think they don’t know what it’s like to be you. You don’t know what it’s like to be them. Life is hard, and it’s hard for everybody. Maybe you don’t approve of the solutions they’ve come up with, maybe you think you would’ve done it a different way, but they think they’re doing the best that they can. So show them the respect you demand for yourself. Show them the respect you want for your parents, for your kids, or your best friend.

Number four: Stick it out. Don’t walk off in a huff, don’t throw your hands up and say, “This isn’t worth it”, “This is pointless”. I can tell you right now, it’s not fun. It is not fun to hear someone tell you that everything you believe is wrong. But take a breath, wait before you respond, and hang in there. We can talk to people that disagree with us. And you know what? We must. I know you’re going to hear things that you don’t want to hear, but grit your teeth and ask some questions. “Why do you think that?” “What makes you so passionate about that?” “What’s your source?” I think this election has exposed some underlying forces in our nation that we’ve been in denial about for a very long time. And I hope we can grapple with that, instead of discounting the evidence we don’t like and embracing everything that proves us right.

Facebook tailors your newsfeed so it can fit into your biases. Stop getting your news from Facebook. Check out The Center for Public Integrity. Check out the Center for Investigative Reporting. Check out ProPublica. Subscribe to The American Conservative. There’s good reporting in there. And before you post anything, anywhere, check it on or PolitiFact. Take some responsibility for the information on which you base your opinions. I really hope that we can finally begin to have the tough conversations that we’ve avoided for a very long time, so that we can move forward as one nation, understanding we really are all in this together.

History teaches us that when we hurt one group, eventually we all suffer. But you know what else history teaches us? Elections don’t settle arguments. They don’t prove anybody right and they don’t prove anybody wrong. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, because I’ll tell you what, you know what one thing is that most of us agree on? Washington D.C. is not going to solve our problems. No matter who won, half of the country was going to be angry and upset. We said terrible things about each other, and the election was not going to make any of that go away.

The divisions that led us to November 8th were still there the next morning, and we’re going to have to stop isolating ourselves and start learning how to talk to one another. 2016 is a really critical moment in our history. I think, I truly believe, it could be the catalyst for change, but we have to be careful about the kind of change that we get. If we continue to barricade ourselves behind walls, gathering our like-minded tribe around us and lobbing rocks at everybody else, the change with be toward further divisions, increased anger, and a breakdown of our social systems. But if we can find empathy, if we can find understanding, the change could be toward a positive turning point. November 9th, 2016 could be the beginning of a new era.

So get out there, be uncomfortable, let yourself be shaken. I know that a lot of people are looking for hope, and I promise you you can find hope in other human beings. People are not stereotypes. People are better than you think, and they’ll surprise you. You can find inspiration and optimism in other people, but first, you have to see them as people, and you have to hear them out. Thanks.

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