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April 9, 2024

Want Proven Advice for Bridgebuilding? Be Humble and Curious

Author and journalist Mónica Guzmán joins Eboo Patel to discuss strategies for bridging sociopolitical divides through cultivating curiosity and humility.

In This Episode...

In the face of rising national polarization amid a turbulent election season, Eboo Patel and Mónica Guzmán discuss the role of curiosity, humility, and civil dialogue in a democratic society. They also discuss Guzmán’s book I Never Thought of it That Way, emphasizing the responsibility we all share to embrace diverse perspectives with an inquisitive spirit. Reflecting on privilege and exclusivity in elite institutions, they explore the challenges of insularity and the assumptions that come with it.

About Mónica Guzmán

Mónica Guzmán is a bridgebuilder, journalist, and author who lives for great conversations sparked by curious questions. She was a 2019 fellow at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Mónica is the inaugural McGurn Fellow at the University of Florida. She works with researchers at the UF College of Journalism and Communications and beyond to better understand ways to employ techniques described in her book to boost understanding. 

She’s also a Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, host of the new podcast “A Braver Way,” and author of The New York Times recommended read I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. 

A Mexican immigrant, Latina, and dual US/Mexico citizen, she lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids and is the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents. 

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Want Proven Advice for Bridgebuilding? Be Humble and Curious

Transcript

Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 

[music] 

[00:00:12] Eboo: Mónica Guzmán is a bridge builder, journalist, and author who lives for great conversations sparked by curious questions. She’s Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, host of the podcast A Braver Way, and author of the New York Times-recommended read, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. A Mexican immigrant, Latina, and dual US-Mexico citizen, she lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids, and is the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents. I loved her book and was inspired about her idea of being able to disagree about politics without losing heart or breaking family bonds. I wanted to continue the conversation here. Mónica Guzmán, I am so happy to be with you. How are you feeling today? 

[00:01:05] Mónica Guzmán: I’m feeling really good and really looking forward to, yes, this time to chat. 

[00:01:09] Eboo: Excellent. I love I Never Thought of It That Way. I love the book. It is the perfect time for this book. It was perfect when you wrote it, and it’s perfect now because we are in an election season, and we seem to be as divided as ever as a country. Your book, I Never Thought of It That Way, is basically a primer on bridging divides by leading with the spirit of inquiry. Let me ask you this first big question. Give us some advice. What frame of mind should we be in as we hurdle towards this November election? Trump-Biden. 

[00:01:44] Mónica: Frame of mind. I love that you put it that way because it’s an invitation to think about it in terms of our own posture toward not just what’s going on around us, but what that causes inside of us. We know that people are afraid and tense and anxious. We know that the issues are high stakes. We know that some people live with the consequences of these debates more than others. We know, we know, we know all of that. 

What frame of mind to take going into this election season? I would say there’s a couple of things: a curious and open mind and a humility. Curiosity and humility make a really cool pairing, and they seem so counterintuitive for the moment for so many people. What we are tempted to accept is that we already know everything we need to know about these debates and what they’re really about, we already know everything we need to know about our own positions on things, and we already know everything we need to know about those people and why they’re making those awful decisions, the us versus them divide. 

It’s that fixedness that has really broken a lot of the dialogue and malleability and discovery that allows things like persuasion to happen in a democratic republic, that allows ideas to flow and add and subtract and change minds. An election season is a time of exercising one of the most formal forms of civic power, the vote. This is the time, if there has been a time in the last four years, to elevate our ability to inform each other about what is really going on inside ourselves, the concerns that inform our perspectives, and try to understand the concerns that inform other people’s perspectives so we can see past a lot of the projections that are in our mind, a lot of the certainty that’s in there telling us what it’s all about. We’re so divided, we’re blinded. Priority number one is see the debates, and the people around you all go away. 

[00:04:10] Eboo: Curiosity, humility. Do not imagine monsters where there might not be monsters, where there are actually just people. There’s a line you used over and over again in the book. Remind me of this line. Something along the lines of whatever is small in reality will play a bigger role in your imagination. What’s the exact line? 

[00:04:27] Mónica: It’s whoever is underrepresented in your life will be overrepresented in your imagination. That’s always true to an extent, but the consequences of that have never been higher than right now. There’s so much evidence showing that we are misperceiving people who are different from us. If there’s a lot of fear and anxiety, that just amplifies the level to which we feel we already know what we need to know. We lock ourselves in this place of like, I’m relying on what I imagine you to be, I imagine you to be a monster. 

[00:05:02] Eboo: Right. I think to myself how useful that is in my personal life. I remember being shocked at the statistic that more than 60% of Americans do not have a four-year college degree. Of the 500 or 1,000 people I interact with in my life on a regular basis, there may be less than five people that I know that don’t have a four-year college degree. Factor into that, that of America’s 2,600 colleges, probably 10%, maybe 20% are selective. In my life, probably 95% of the people I interact with went to a selective university. All of a sudden, I’m realizing my world is the top 10% of the upper 35% of America’s socioeconomic ladder. To live in a diverse democracy means to be curious and humble about people you don’t know so much about. 

[00:05:57] Mónica: Exactly. It takes humility even to understand that what you see is not all there is. That’s what you’ve done just in that one illustration. I’m in a similar boat, where I saw that same statistic about college degrees, and I thought my whole world is folks who have a pretty uniform experience on this one thing. Then the curiosity comes in, and it can turn into self-inquiry. What am I missing- 

[00:06:23] Eboo: Totally. 

[00:06:23] Mónica: -about the economic reality that influences Americans because I am not interacting with people in a different part of that spectrum as much as I am with people in the same place that I am? That kind of humility and curiosity paired up, that’s what’s going to serve us really, really well if we can exercise it. 

[00:06:44] Eboo: That’s the frame of mind. Wouldn’t one want to learn more about the world? Curiosity is such a wonderful trait because it’s enlightened self-interest. You learn more when you’re curious. I always tell my kids, I’m telling them because I’m really telling myself, I say mode of inquiry, not mode of judgment. You can imagine how that lands on the ears of two teenage boys. Why wouldn’t you go into the world looking to learn more rather than judge more? 

[00:07:11] Mónica: We know the reasons. Our gut can come up with reasons because it stinks to be wrong. I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want to be excluded. I don’t want to put at risk my sense of belonging. We all know where the resistance comes from. We can be honest about that. 

[00:07:31] Eboo: One of the things that you write about is the harms of blind judgment. I think to myself, boy, is it such a joy to judge people. 

[00:07:42] Mónica: It is. 

[00:07:42] Eboo: The feeling of self-righteousness, the dopamine hit. I literally listen to my sons do it in the living room all the time, judging people about what they’re wearing and about their Instagram picture. I’m listening to the joy in their voices, and I’m like, oh my gosh, I am a teenage boy an awful lot. In my mind, I’m judging people. Here’s the thing, in your book, you don’t do it. You don’t judge other people. Why are you letting yourself not experience all the joy of judgment? There’s so much joy out there in judging people in a more serious way. Tell us about the discipline about not judging. Is there a discipline involved? 

[00:08:25] Mónica: Is there a discipline involved? I hesitate to answer. My gut says yes. I think the reason I hesitate to answer is because once you say that something is a discipline, people hear that they can’t do it unless they focus on it really, really hard, and it’s probably impossible. I’m really, I’m fascinated by your question. I’ve never heard it put quite that way. Why didn’t I experience the joy of judging in this book that I wrote? I hope you’ll indulge me in reflecting out loud because I’ve never thought about this question this way. 

[00:08:57] Eboo: Please. That’s the best part about podcasts. 

[00:08:59] Mónica: Yes, that’s what they’re for. I was really afraid that I would write this book from this deep desire inside me to help, and that by virtue of having judgments in there against people who are not like me that I did not see, I would undermine my own goal. I was terrified that I would do that. Because I’ve been in media my whole career, it’s become clear to me through my experience that oftentimes the most alienating and awful judgments are the subtle ones. 

For example, in my book, I took, and I’ll just say this bluntly, great pains to balance my examples so that if I assumed that my reader– I invited my reader to imagine something from the blue perspective. I had to also invite my reader to imagine something from the red perspective. I didn’t let myself think, oh, my readers are probably blue because this is me, and by blue I mean liberal; meaning this is me and who I am and how I see the world, and I think most of it is right, and so that way I’m just going to stand in that perspective and just assume that my readers are there, or I’m not even going to notice that I’m carving a difference as the status quo. 

I kept thinking to myself, my parents, who are conservative, would they be able to read this book? Is there any page that would make them think ugh, that would make them feel slighted? I was working really hard to make sure that that didn’t happen. Now, I can’t say that I succeeded. I don’t know. I’m not the judge of that. It felt really important. If I want to reach people across the political divide, I can’t judge them. I can’t. 

[00:11:00] Eboo: Look, I think you just offered a very useful discipline or mental exercise, which is take somebody you care about who holds a different perspective and imagine their eyes reading what you’ve written or hearing what you’ve said, and how would they feel? I imagine you don’t– you are very sensitive to other people condescending to your parents, so why would you want to do that? 

[00:11:21] Mónica: Exactly. [laughs] Look, I’ve had so many conversations, not just with them, before the book it was largely with them and a handful of others, but now in the work that I’ve done, so many folks who come at the world from some universe of what we label the more conservative frame that I see subtle judgments everywhere now. They are everywhere. We wonder why we’re not able to talk to each other. We don’t even see that the waters we’re swimming in, a lot of us, are waters that we have created to be intimately familiar to us, but that we have not created with people who are different from us in mind. 

We don’t even notice. We don’t even notice that the whole universe that we’ve built in some of these spaces is not only alien, but cringy to folks who are different. This is one of the costs of a society that has grown this siloed and divided as it starts to become blind to its own judgments. We think we’re being super open. We don’t even realize, we don’t even see everywhere the judgments hide. 

[00:12:35] Eboo: Let me just tell you a quick story that illustrates that. Some years back, I am reading aloud some Atlantic article. I’m reading it at the table, and I read the section aloud where 70% of people in a county that has a Whole Foods vote for Democrats, 70% of people in a county that has a Cracker Barrel vote for Republicans. It struck me that those two institutions are almost never in the same county. I’m reading this aloud. I say to my wife and my kids, I’m like, “Well, that’s interesting. What do you make of that?” One of my kids says, what’s Cracker Barrel? You think to yourself, the restaurant that serves as a symbol for an entire swath of the country, my kids have never even heard of. I’ve never even heard of what you think is important. 

[00:13:24] Mónica: Oh, wow. That sort of struck me, the way you put it. I’ve never even heard of what you think is important. That’s how disconnected we are. 

[00:13:33] Eboo: By the way, that makes me feel more self-righteous. 

[00:13:36] Mónica: Oh, say more. 

[00:13:37] Eboo: What I mean by that is the way I describe some of the fancy places where you and I go and speak, like the Aspen Institute, it’s basically, we get excited because we know that the people who go there know that they’re important. Therefore, the people that they’re around must be important too. 

[00:13:56] Mónica: It’s prestige by association. 

[00:13:58] Eboo: That’s right. Basically, it’s like, I know I’m important, so if you are in proximity to me, you’re probably important too. That is basically the value game that we are playing. 

[00:14:11] Mónica: Yes, absolutely. 

[00:14:12] Eboo: We’re actually super aware of it. We are super aware of it. I don’t want to kid myself about what I am actually doing. 

[00:14:23] Mónica: How would you describe what you are actually doing? 

[00:14:25] Eboo: I mean, it is when you brag about going to a selective university, you are saying, “I am proud of going to a place that rejected 95% of its applicants.” 

[00:14:35] Mónica: The exclusivity. Because it’s exclusive, I feel really elevated. I feel really good. I feel good. 

[00:14:44] Eboo: I am basically saying, “I am proud that 99% of you couldn’t get it.” 

[00:14:48] Mónica: Right. It’s exclusivity combined with proximity to power. Because there’s signals that it’s exclusion, but those who get in, look at the data, look at what they’re able to do. It’s circles of importance meeting circles of importance meeting circles of importance and– 

[00:15:11] Eboo: We lather each other up. I spent a lot of my time at elite universities, and I think they’re very important institutions. I don’t want to be dismissive of them. If I was the president of an elite university, the way that I would begin my convocation address to incoming first year students is, you’re amongst the most privileged people in human history. I’m not scolding you. I’m just telling you an objective fact. 

[00:15:38] Mónica: Yes. Don’t forget it. 

[00:15:39] Eboo: Yes, and what does that mean? I would rather embrace my privilege than pretend I don’t have it. I would rather embrace it and ask the question, what is the responsibility that corresponds with this? A huge part of that is curiosity and humility. That’s the very least you can do if you run in the circles we run in. Be curious and humble. 

[00:16:04] Mónica: I completely agree because it’s at those– for many reasons, but primarily because it’s at those levels of high influence and power. First, where people see certainty as a strength, and power becomes synonymous with a confidence that may not have any room for curiosity. Even the data shows us that that doesn’t even hold up. Not really, not in practice, not when you test it. 

Also when folks who are leaders or seen as leaders or influencers in any way, when they model in curiosity, because let’s be honest, the negative state of this is a thing, when they model in curiosity, every space that they influence, it can trickle down. It can adopt that tone. It can feel like I can’t say anything, blah, blah, blah. We have to give each other cover. We have to give people practices, conventions, precedents that they can point to and take shelter under. Because that person that we all respect here has done that, I can do that, I know I can do that, and I should be safe. 

[00:17:23] Eboo: I think that that’s a huge part of what your book does. I don’t want to use– I feel like giving cover is an inadequate description of the power of this book. It is shining the light at an alternative path, and frankly, a path that we have all– Be curious and humble, this is not rocket science. This is familiar, walk a mile on somebody else’s shoes type of stuff that for some reason in the last 6, 8, 10 years, there has been a self-righteousness associated with incuriosity. I think the tide is turning. Actually, one of the ways I know it’s turning is the number of institutions that have chosen your book as a common book read. I’m hearing about it everywhere. 

[00:18:07] Mónica: It’s amazing. [laughs] 

[00:18:10] Eboo: One of the places is Vanderbilt University. I hope it becomes a standard text at that university and at other universities, from universities that admit people who don’t take the ACT to universities where you basically have a perfect ACT score to get admitted. I hope that universities think of pluralism and curiosity and humility and civil dialogue and learning is at the heart of an education, not inculcation into an ideology and the application of that ideology as far as possible. 

What should we expect those students to be able to do for our democracy on the other side of reading your book? Let me give you an analogy. If you graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical School, and I hire you, I expect you to be able to fly a plane. You graduate from flight school, you should be able to be a pilot. If you graduate from a school of civil dialogue where Mónica Guzmán is the person you are reading, what should you be able to do in our polarized environment? What can we expect of you that’s the equivalent of flying a plane? 

[00:19:14] Mónica: You can hear and be heard. 

[00:19:16] Eboo: I love it. 

[00:19:17] Mónica: You can hear and be heard. By that, I mean you can hear it all and you can speak in a way that the power of your story and experience can be present and absorbed and shared. That takes a certain confrontation with certainty and our assumptions about certainty and leadership and all these things. It takes a confrontation with fear. It takes an inner awareness of the role you play in these things. 

It takes getting past the common refrain that the world is broken, and it’s their fault, and therefore their responsibility. Hear and be heard. We cannot have an effective democratic republic if enough people don’t know how to do that. Going back to something you were saying earlier about this being a skill, and we got to learn it, and there’s so much to learn. I think one of the things that bugs me ultimately when people talk about how hard this is, is again, it makes it sound like, oh my gosh, you’ve got to get degrees in it, you’ve got to study, and there’s textbooks. Boy, it’s a high-level thing. 

I think it’s actually more true to say that it’s not about teaching something. It’s about remembering something. It’s not about learning something. It’s about what you unlearn, because like you said, this is not actually rocket science. There are people selling books about it, true, but it’s not rocket science. What it is, is– I don’t know. This is a hard thing to articulate, but I hope you’re following me a little bit on this thread that I’m trying to get to. 

[00:21:02] Eboo: Absolutely, yes. 

[00:21:04] Mónica: The stuff this is about, we have been talking about and feeling and intuiting and building rituals around for thousands of years. There are religious traditions, spiritual traditions, there are psychological and philosophical traditions that have intuited how people work for many, many, many years. Right now, because we live in a somewhat more technocratic age, and because it’s the height of education and academia, we want to nail everything down with science, which is awesome. We’re doing that. 

There’s like incredible research going on intellectual humility. I literally earlier today told someone about a study that I heard about from intellectual humility and its finding. The response from this person was, “Yes, but isn’t that obvious?” I was like, “Yes, it is.” The finding was that we now know from research that awe, the emotion of awe, once you feel it, and of wonder, makes you more intellectually humble, that once you feel that emotion, you’re more intellectually humble. This person was like, yes, but duh. 

[00:22:09] Eboo: Honestly, this is kindergarten level stuff, like share, think of how somebody else feels. Some of this is. What I mean is like, it is what many parents teach many kids and every kindergarten teacher teaches, which is how do you think the other person feels? The other person is not exactly like you. By the way, that’s diversity. More to come with Mónica Guzmán after the break. As you were saying, there’s all these traditions around this. When I was at Oxford, speaking of elite universities, I used to go to a Quaker meeting on Sundays occasionally. 

A Quaker meeting is you are silent for an hour unless you feel moved by God to speak. If you want to be the guy who stands up every five minutes, you are saying an awful lot about how much God talks to you. It’s basically this is a discipline of silence, unless you feel like cosmic lightning is striking you. That is a ritual of sit with your thoughts in a group of other people. 

[00:23:20] Mónica: That’s right. It’s funny you bring up the Quaker meeting. I’m at a nonprofit called Braver Angels, which is all about the political divide, as you know. A woman named Laura is over in Braver Angels, Europe. We have chapters of Braver Angels in Europe, and she is a Quaker. She sent me in the mail a little pamphlet about Quaker practices, but for secular audiences. It was made from inside the Quaker institution basically, such as there is one, there kind of isn’t one. I read that short pamphlet with my jaw open. 

Just wait a minute, you mean because I didn’t know that there is a religious tradition going back a long time in America that figured a lot of this stuff out about listening and about giving people space and about all of that and how important it is and how it bonds community and how it brings out real concerns. What Quakers will do when there is dissent is fascinating. Again, it’s like, going back to how many of us have college degrees, there’s this sense of everything there really is to know is in these institutions that have been granted this enormous credibility for really nailing down knowledge about the knowledge that we need to– Man, look at some other places because there’s a deep wisdom that’s been there. 

[00:24:44] Eboo: Totally. Actually, that should make us happy. When you think to yourself, actually, I’m not discovering something. I am a part of a tradition of hearing and being heard. When I was younger, I really wanted to be the person who discovered things. As I got older, I was like, I want to be part of an ongoing community of people, a community across generations that is trying to move the world a millionth of an inch, as Gary Snyder might say. That’s what gives me comfort. I don’t want to be the lone ranger. I want to be part of a community of people. 

Speaking of that, your book is in a community of books. Some of the books I’m talking about are behind you. Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict, Ben Sasse’s Them. I’m going to be doing a podcast with David Brooks pretty soon on his new book, How to Know Someone. What do you make of the fact that there’s this whole spate of books that have come out in the last 10 years or so? Peter Coleman’s The Way Out. There’s probably 12, 15, 20 such books, maybe more, Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me, that are basically about the dangers of what you call SOS, the dangers of sorting, othering, and siloing from your book, the importance of conversations that build connections, the underpinnings of which are curiosity and humility. What do you make of this new chapter in an age-old literature of this kind of work? 

[00:26:08] Mónica: You know what I think it is? Like we were saying, there’s nothing new under the sun in some ways. There’s a lot of traditions that have been talking about some of these ideas in different ways. What I think is true about society is that much like you can’t see one love story, and then that’s it. I don’t want to see any more love stories. I get it. Hollywood keeps giving us the same basic story in different shapes and forms over and over and over again. 

The basic wise ideas of what it means to be human have to be reinterpreted for every era, for every era’s specific needs and specific concerns and specific anxieties. We all get into our own heads. A lot of us get into our own heads together. We have formed communities in this era. Boy, communication has accelerated that process because of technology, et cetera. Highly recommend this book, How Minds Change by David McRaney. I just interviewed him for my podcast yesterday. 

The reason I bring him up is because his book is also getting selected for a lot of college reading programs. We got together and chatted about it. He used a phrase that I thought was spot on as a response to your question, which is that we want to return to the fundamentals. We need a return to the fundamentals. I think that the last 20 years or so, we have spun up and up and up, and we have gotten so far away from each other that it has also felt like we’ve been pulled away from the fundamentals, the fundamentals of disagreeing, which is necessary. 

From when you’re a little kid, you start practicing it when you’re very young. The fundamentals of thinking, how do we think well? What does that even mean? The fundamentals of relationship because clearly it’s really important. we see things like the loneliness epidemic. We see things like huge consciousness about mental health. We are so concerned about young people right now because we see some really disturbing statistics. We are really concerned about our institutions. 

Have they lost their way? Is the trust they have lost, is that because it’s been unearned, or is there something else going on? We’re asking really deep, painful questions, even about the stability of our very societies. Those kinds of questions make us freak out, which we’ve been doing. I think also, at some point after a freak-out, what do you do? When you’re calmer, you go, let’s start at the beginning. 

[00:28:36] Eboo: I love that. That honestly sounds like life in a family. You have a freak-out, and you’re like, okay. First thing you do is that you apologize. 

[00:28:45] Mónica: Yes. Some repair is probably in order. 

[00:28:47] Eboo: Then you’re like, how did we get here? I love that. Mónica, let me ask you a question. Why is the symbol of our era the raised fist, and not the open hand? 

[00:28:58] Mónica: Whoa. 

[00:29:00] Eboo: Let me connect this to something historical. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the prominent social philosopher of pluralism who writes the ethicist column in the New York Times magazine every week, he’s got this op-ed in the New York Times from a few years ago, tells the story of this grumpy British parliamentarian, this guy in the British parliament, in the 1950s, married, straight, got a couple of kids, just decides it’s wrong for Britain to have laws that criminalize gay relationships, gay intimacy. 

He moves a bill through parliament that gets passed. Appiah is like, how come nobody’s ever heard of this guy? Clearly very effective. How come everybody’s heard of Stonewall, but nobody’s heard of the guy who passes the bill in the parliament in Britain years before? What is it in human beings that is attracted to the raised fist and not the extended palm? Why do we want social change by revolution and not by agreement and negotiation? 

[00:30:02] Mónica: Because we give a lot more value to the fighter than the communicator. I think that’s my first answer. We give more value to that character in our fiction, and by we, I mean America. Maybe I guess the deeper question would be, well, is that an American thing, or is that a human thing? Maybe that’s just in our biology. We root for the hero who’s fighting his or her way or their way to some victory. Without a setback, it’s boring. It’s just not that sexy. It’s not that interesting. 

We don’t experience the full range of emotions. There is something about story. When we experience the full range of emotions, James Cameron, the director of Titanic and the Avatar movies, once said that movies are really about testing the pipes, that we love movies because we want to test our emotions. We’re okay with movies making us horribly sad and scared and all of that because we know we’re going to get the resolution at the end, at least most of the time. 

We’re going to then, because we were so sad, in Dune, which I just saw Dune Two, we were so sad that– Well, I shouldn’t spoil the story. Something horrible happens to the hero. We then, because we were that sad, we get that happy to see the conclusion. That look at what they were able to do, look how destined for greatness, look at all the risk they took, look at all the victories that they won, look at what they were able to do for their community. 

It’s like there’s just this high octane. With the communicator, well, gee, I don’t feel the full range of human emotions the way that story is typically told. I think we just spread those stories, and some of them get us going, and some of them don’t. Maybe that’s it. 

[00:31:53] Eboo: I think that this is, for those of us who communicate for a living, you and me, our job is to tell, as my friend Simon Greer says, the hero is the bridge builder. I’m not going to ask your age, but I’ll tell you mine. I’m 48. I come of age in the ’90s. You know who the hero is in the ’90s? Mandela. You know what was heroic about him? What was heroic about him was Mandela with the outstretched hand to White people in the time of apartheid. 

The movie that’s made is Invictus, where Mandela embraces the sport that’s associated with the White Afrikaners in South Africa, and that’s rugby. He changes the symbol from this is a White Afrikaner sport to this is a South African sport. That is the symbol for the Rainbow Nation. Mandela learns the names of his jailers’ kids. He learns their language. Right now, we’re living in a Frantz Fanon moment. The you become human and free by the violence through which you destroy your enemy. 

[00:32:53] Mónica: That’s it. I will say that what this is making me realize is we embrace a fiction. I just watched Lord of the Rings, all three movies, with my kids, which was really fun. 

[00:33:04] Eboo: Yes, it’s awesome. 

[00:33:04] Mónica: It was a lot of hours. I was reminded of how The Lord of the Rings fantasy is as much to do with the fantasy of moral clarity, that there’s clear good guys and clear bad guys. It’s as much to do with that as with the fact that there are orcs and wizards and magic or whatever. We are embracing the fantasy because it is one that the fight for good and evil is the way to make good in the world. 

That’s not even really that true. If you go through– You know this better than I do. Maybe I’m speaking out of turn. You go through so many of the social movements. Even though a lot of the stories that get the attention are the ones that really select down to the revolutionary aspects, if that change was sustainable, it was probably much more than that, probably much deeper than that. You’re only looking a little tip of the iceberg over here that got a lot of attention. 

[00:34:02] Eboo: The funny thing is, you think to yourself, why do you want that? Robespierre doesn’t become Mandela. Robespierre becomes the Ayatollah. You don’t want a scorched earth approach to social change because what do you think the new social order is going to look like? If you smash your way to social change, arsonists don’t build new cities. Architects build new cities. One of the lines in my book we need to build is you defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do. Shake your fist at the food desert all you want, but my friends in the southwest side of Chicago at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, do you know what they did? They built a grocery store. Now it’s not a food desert anymore literally. 

[00:34:49] Mónica: That’s how you solve the actual problem. 

[00:34:51] Eboo: Exactly. 

[00:34:52] Mónica: When it comes to your emotional, that maybe some of the dopamine, maybe some of the sense of belonging that you want with people who righteously agree with you, it goes back to what you said earlier. It feels really good to judge people. Why does it feel really good to judge people? Oftentimes it’s because it’s what cements your belonging. 

[00:35:08] Eboo: This is a belonging thing, not a rationality. 

[00:35:09] Mónica: You’re judging them, which makes the us more defined and makes you feel more secure in the us. If you can judge the them and people around you go, yes. You’re like, yes, we know who we are because we know who we’re not. 

[00:35:24] Eboo: That’s right. This is like, there’s a term for this, affective polarization, which basically is fancy graduate school language for I don’t really know who I am, but I know I hate you. 

[00:35:35] Mónica: Exactly. 

[00:35:35] Eboo: Here’s the problem. There’s many problems. One of the problems is we are not only hating the far away neighbor, we are hating the near to us neighbor. School boards are falling apart. City councils are falling apart. Libraries are falling apart. High school theaters are falling apart. Literally, every day you read another story. Library in Lake Luzerne, New York is permanently closed because there was a knockdown drag out fight over drag queen story hour, and it was so traumatic. The librarians not only quit, but had to be hospitalized, and nobody reapplied for their jobs. The library is closed. 

[00:36:13] Mónica: Here’s the thing. 

[00:36:14] Eboo: Front page of New York Times. 

[00:36:15] Mónica: Yes, it’s okay. That thing about whoever is underrepresented in your life will be overrepresented in your imagination, super salient to this point. I think that the people who showed up to that, I suspect, and I don’t know, that the people who showed up to that fight about a drag queen story hour already came knowing, thinking they knew what they were going to find when the people on the other side opened their mouths, so that no matter what the people on the other side would have said, we don’t even really listen because we’ve been seeing the national headlines. 

We know that this is a big thing over there, and we have absorbed the most shocking stories. We’ve absorbed the people on the other side who have behaved the worst. We’re afraid of them, and we see them in our neighbor instantly. Because if you are on the same side as that thing that I saw on MSNBC, on Fox News, and whatever, then I think I know you, and I think I know what I’m going to get, which means everybody comes in super tense, temperature really high, and they’re looking just for a little bit of evidence to affirm that that judgment is correct. 

They’re going to find it because they’ve already decided that the real evidence is not found by listening openly to the individuals who have come together in the community. No, no, no. The evidence is in their language. The evidence is in their posture. The evidence is in, did you see the look that that person had? I bet it’s a look of malevolence. They see it in those things, rather than coming in and asking and sitting and listening and making sure that the people on the other side feel relaxed and calm enough and are not guarded. 

Everybody comes in guarded. Guardedness and fearfulness is the source of a lot of behaviors that can read like malevolence. It’s like, we don’t even– we’re just not fucking listening. It’s broken before we’ve even come in. Before we even enter the room, it’s broken in our minds. It’s mostly about what’s going on in our minds, not what’s going on in the headlines. 

[00:38:30] Eboo: I want to enter rooms looking for reasons to like people. I’m looking for a reason to like the people I disagree with. It’s funny, we all give ourselves points in our mind. Oh, I did a really good job at that. I want to create a category in my mind. Did I make a positive connection with someone with whom I disagree with today? Did I make a positive connection with somebody from a different world today? Did I find something to talk to them about? I think you do a really good job of this in your book. 

You’re basically like, conversation is about making connection. Can you have a conversation in a way that makes a positive connection with someone? Try it out. It’s a skill. It’s a thing. In the book you play this game, the I never thought of it that way game. I want you to give me one of yours, and I’m going to give you one of mine as we close. What’s one of your most recent I never thought of it that way moments, and I’ll tell you one of mine, and we’ll close with that. 

[00:39:29] Mónica: I really like this. Okay, you go first, because I have to think of one. 

[00:39:33] Eboo: During the rollout of the vaccine, I was a big proponent of people getting the vaccine. I was very forgiving to African-Americans who were leery about the vaccine because of Tuskegee, all of these medical experiments done in African-Americans that were about how the medical establishment misrepresented itself to Black communities over history, which has created this historical memory and probably current good reasons also about why you should be wary of what. medical authorities are telling you. 

Then I watch Dope Sick on Hulu, which is about how pharmaceutical companies peddled OxyContin in places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. As I’m watching this, a big part of the story is about how the FDA put approval labels on OxyContin. I’m thinking to myself, oh my God, if I’m like a coal miner on West Virginia, and I’m like, well, the government thinks it’s okay, and I get addicted to something, why would I ever trust the government about medicine again? It turns out that it’s really bad for you. 

It occurred to me like, honestly, Mónica, not a single person in my heavily graduate school educated world has ever said anything to me about that. Nobody has ever said, well, the government slapped approval labels on OxyContin, which killed lots of working class White folks. Maybe those folks who lean evangelical Christian have a justifiable reason to be leery of a government supported intervention like the vaccine. Nobody ever said that to me. 

[00:41:11] Mónica: Yes. Sometimes when something has landed with you, you laugh at the shock of it. I was hearing from someone who told me, tradition is peer pressure from dead people. I was like, whoa, I never thought of it that way. Peer pressure from what? The thing about I never thought of it that way moments is you don’t know which ones are going to plant a seed in your mind. I was looking through my list, and there’s several that I can’t share because they would open up too big of a conversation, and it doesn’t feel right to share them without more. 

Anyway, some of them plant seeds in your mind that may get dug out of the ground tomorrow, or you may find in a year something has changed. When you inquire why you’ve changed your mind on something, you remember that moment when you heard somebody say something in a particular way or when you heard a story. Man, if we became more aware of what was going on in our minds, what seeds are getting planted, what the soil is doing, what is happening with the ground, where it’s fertile, where it isn’t. If we look inward, then I think we’ll just get more adept at controlling the only thing we can control in this world, which is ourselves. 

[00:42:29] Eboo: Totally. It’s a perfect place to leave it. Mónica Guzmán, you are awesome. I am grateful for your book. I’m even more grateful for your friendship. Thank you for being who you are, and go impact those students. Go impact those students. 

[00:42:43] Mónica: Thank you, Eboo. This was wonderful. Thank you. 

[00:42:45] Eboo: Appreciate you. Friends, I loved that conversation with Mónica, and I learned so much. I hope you did too. One of the things I learned was how do you have a conversation which inspires a connection? How do you lead with inquiry and not judgment? Let’s ask ourselves some questions. What have I never thought about? How am I leading with curiosity instead of animosity? I’d love to hear how it goes. 

Message us in the comments or wherever you live on social media. You can find us on Twitter @interfaithusa and Instagram @interfaithamerica. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel. 

[00:43:45] [END OF AUDIO] 

Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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