About the book
Increasing numbers of citizens on the left and right have been persuaded that those who disagree with them are not deserving of a legitimate audience. Many conservatives, for example, are more interested in what Rush Limbaugh says about liberals than what their own progressive neighbors say about themselves. Many liberals likewise learn about the right by reading the Huffington Post rather than by getting to know actual conservatives. And not coincidentally, millions of Americans are afraid, distrustful, or angry with millions of other Americans whom they’ve never even met.
What happens, however, when people on different sides of the red/blue divide actually meet and spend the time to get to know each other, views and all? Available scholarship suggests that such experiences tend to prompt less fear, more confidence, and greater trust between individuals. The authors of this book wanted to test this theory for themselves. One of them, Jacob Hess, is a socially conservative psychologist whose religious faith informs and guides his politics. The other, Phil Neisser, is a liberal political theorist and an atheist who believes in natural law. Upon meeting each other by chance at a conference, they realized how far apart they were on the issues and how committed they both were to dialogue. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they decided to talk to each other at length, and in depth. For the experiment they chose the topics of morality, power, gender roles, sexuality, race, big government, big business, and big media, and they began throwing ideas back and forth. They pressed each other – and they listened to each other – for almost two years, with highlights of those conversations recorded in this book.
Why bother with conversations that end with many disagreements intact? One reason is that the participants almost always discover surprising kernels of truth in the viewpoints they oppose. Another reason is that those discoveries in turn often lead to new collaborations across existing political boundaries. Participants, moreover, often gain new strength of conviction and enhanced clarity about the differences that genuinely divide them. Most importantly, conversation across political boundaries leads to an experience of the other person – no matter how wrong they are – as a fellow human being rather than as a ‘crazy’ person.
Many people are, however, unfamiliar with the benefits that flow from dialogue, and some go so far as to view talking to the “enemy” as dangerous or wrong. From worries about relativism and excessive compromise to the condoning of immorality and fears of deceitful manipulation, concerns abound. Neisser and Hess’s response to such worries is simple: come and see for yourself. Are Phil’s leftist beliefs really a threat to freedom and the American Way? Are Jacob’s religious commitments truly endangering the space or well-being of diverse America? Readers can try finding their own answers to these questions by ‘sitting in’ on the Hess and Neisser’s conversation. They might also find some confidence to try out similar conversations with friends, neighbors, and family members from the ‘other side.’