They Have Worked on Conflicts Overseas. Now These Americans See ‘Red Flags’ at Home.
LEVERETT, Mass. — Paula Green has spent much of her life working on conflicts abroad. In places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Myanmar, Dr. Green, an American psychologist, brings together survivors of war, helping them see past their differences so they can live with one another again.
But recently, she began seeing some warning signs in the United States, flashes of social distress that she recognized from her work abroad, and after 29 years of peacemaking in other places, she decided to turn her lens on her own society.
Paula Green, who has spent much of her life working on conflicts abroad, is now among a growing group of conflict resolution experts who are turning their focus to the United States. Credit: Tristan Spinski for The New York Times
“People are making up stories about ‘the other’ — Muslims, Trump voters, whoever ‘the other’ is,” she said. “‘They don’t have the values that we have. They don’t behave like we do. They are not nice. They are evil.’”
She added: “That’s dehumanization. And when it spreads, it can be very hard to correct.”
Dr. Green is now among a growing group of conflict resolution experts who are turning their focus on the United States, a country that some have never worked on. They are gathering groups in schools and community centers to apply their skills to help a country — this time their own — where they see troubling trends.
They point to dehumanizing political rhetoric — for example President Trump referring to the media as “enemies of the people,” or to a caravan of migrants in Mexico as riddled with criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners.”
Political violence has flared: A gunman killed worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October after ranting about a refugee agency. That same week, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump sent pipe bombs to a dozen of the president’s critics. In 2017, an Illinois man steeped in left-wing politics shot four people at a Congressional baseball practice.
“There are a lot of people who have been working internationally who are calling me up and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we do? We have to do something,’” said Elizabeth Hume, a former conflict expert for the government, who is vice president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a professional association for conflict prevention experts.
“We are seeing some serious red flags,” she said, “things that make conflict experts like me really nervous.”
Conflict experts said while the United States is not nearly in the dire state of some of the other countries they work in, the resilience of American institutions was being tested. And the deterioration of political stability is always gradual.
“People are realizing we are not as exceptional as we thought,” Ms. Hume said of the United States.
Democracy rankers have taken note. The Fund for Peace, a nonprofit that focuses on fragile states, declared the United States the fourth-most-worsened country for 2018, after Qatar, Spain and Venezuela. In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research division of The Economist Group, downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy,” from a “full democracy,” citing declining popular trust in government that began long before Mr. Trump’s election.
Daniel Noah Moses, director of educator programs for Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit that began with work on the Middle East, but recently has ramped up its focus on the United States, said when he moved to America from Jerusalem in 2017, the political climate seemed strangely familiar.
“I’ve been surprised by how similar it all is — the gaps in understanding, the levels of emotion, the negation of ‘the other,’” he said.
Dr. Green’s homegrown peace mission consisted of 18 people from Leverett, a liberal enclave in western Massachusetts, and 11 people from eastern Kentucky. In three-day sessions in both places, Dr. Green used tools from social psychology to probe underneath politics. The goal was not to change minds, but to broaden them, by getting the participants to see one another as people.
The beginning was bumpy. The initial overture for a meeting with the Kentucky residents came from Jay Frost, a retired corporate training consultant in Leverett who admits that he did not think much of Trump voters at first.
“‘Stupid’ was the adjective I used,” he said, explaining his early thinking.
He wrote in an email that he wanted to understand “how rural white voters could possibly support such a vulgar, dystopian presidential candidate,” language he says he now regrets.
Dr. Green facilitated discussions with 18 people from Leverett, a liberal enclave in western Massachusetts, and 11 people from eastern Kentucky. Credit: Chana Rose Rabinovitz
Gwen Johnson, an education administrator, who was part of the Kentucky group that received it, said two people started to cry when it was read. But she didn’t take offense and decided to make the 15-hour trip in a van to Massachusetts to explain to people there that while some might have been mad starting in 2016, she had been mad for most of her life.
“If these folks want to hear why I voted the way I voted, I’m going to damn well tell them,” she said. “That was my attitude.”
And the people from Massachusetts seemed like eager suitors, trying to get the Kentucky residents to agree to a date.
“They had such desperation,” said Nell Fields, a community health researcher from Whitesburg, Ky., said of the participants from Massachusetts. “They are very well educated and I think they’ve always been confident that they’ll just carry people along with their way of thinking. And suddenly, when it didn’t happen, they didn’t hardly know what to do.”
She said she got the feeling that “they were kind of doing a project where at the end they would say, ‘O.K., look, we fixed them.’”
When they finally met, in the fall of 2017 in Leverett, Dr. Green applied a basic rule of psychology: Once people feel heard, their dignity had been acknowledged and the facts of their lives taken seriously, it is easier to take on harder topics like politics.
She decided to start with the things that people have in common. She asked everyone to talk about their families, because “everybody has one.” They sat in a circle in a white clapboard building surrounded by sheep pastures and spoke, one by one. No interruptions were allowed.
“We have been groomed and educated to have lots of opinions, but that all has to be set aside in dialogue,” Dr. Green said. “It’s not about opinions, it’s about profound listening.”
When talk did turn to politics, again in a circle one by one, they managed to stay civil. They talked about Mr. Trump, immigration and guns, but participants said they managed to avoid blowups.
Around the country, groups are using listening to tackle the political divide.
Rachel Milner Gillers, a conflict resolution expert who previously worked with the United Nations, has been practicing with college students.
In one exercise, students from Georgetown University, in Washington, and Radford University, in Southwest Virginia, many with different political views, had to ask curious questions of each other and simply repeat back what they were hearing without giving opinions. This is a technique sometimes used in marriage therapy. It turned out to be very hard.
“You had people turning red hearing what they were hearing,” said Ms. Milner Gillers, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School.
It got easier as they got to know each other better. The same was true for Dr. Green’s group. They had a spirited debate about guns over lunch in Kentucky. The people from Leverett believed they were safer when no one had one. The Kentuckians believed they were safer when everyone did.
To illustrate the point, Ms. Johnson pointed out that most of the women in the restaurant — including her — had guns in their purses. The people from Massachusetts were shocked.
Ms. Fields said the group was able to talk about hard things because of what came before: the feeling that the other side had heard them and that they had become, in a fundamental way, equals.