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Face2Face community conversation unpacks the complexities of polarization

Face2Face community conversation unpacks the complexities of polarization

How do we respond to the strong rhetoric of polarization that is gripping our world? How can we listen and talk to people that are different from us, and why does it matter if we do?

More than 180 people gathered in Canadian Mennonite University's (CMU) Marpeck Commons on February 10 to discuss these questions. The Face2Face event, hosted by CMU, was titled, "Us and Them: How did we become so polarized?"

The event featured presentations by four panelists and a question and answer period moderated by Paul Doerksen, Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at CMU. The panelists included Larry Updike, Will Braun, Sandy Koop Harder, and Marnie Klassen.

The main message of the evening? We need to work harder at listening to each other and building understanding.

"That's sort of how I see polarization: two groups or people yelling at each other with a gap in between...The only way that I can think of turning down the volume is just to be quiet, put your bullhorn down, go to the brink, jump over, and listen," said Will Braun, farmer, former co-editor of Geez magazine, and journalist for Canadian Mennonite magazine.

Larry Updike, former radio host for CBC and CJOB, stated that we need to rediscover intellectual humility, emphasize pluralism, and encourage a diversity of viewpoints.

Sandy Koop Harder added, "We need to make a choice to shift away from binary either/or, us and them thinking...We need to be less certain about basically everything. We need to get curious about the other person's experience and perspective..." Koop Harder is a professional mediator, partner, and business manager for Facilitated Solutions.

Marnie Klassen is a social theology student at CMU who recently did qualitative research on polarization in the Christian church. She has been part of both conservative and liberal churches and has been saddened by the judgement she's witnessed from both sides. While all her participants could identify as liberal or conservative, they could only do so with caveats. No person is just one thing; we are complex beings.

The audience posed sharp, insightful questions. Queries like, how do you approach the polarization conversation when liberals seem to be the only ones worried about it and conservatives don't seem to care?; how do you make space for multiple viewpoints without compromising your values?; how do you deal with the paradox that in order to be truly tolerant, you can't be tolerant of intolerance?

These questions were engaged by the panelists, but were ultimately still left floating in the spaces between people. These are difficult conversations and ones that won't easily be written off. But putting complicated ideas into practice requires hard work.

"Polarization will only increase as long as we continue to associate only with those who are like us," said Klassen. "Perhaps [this research] also leaves us with a call to live dangerously. To put our safety at risk by trusting the indefinability of others."

"My kids sometimes want to dismiss people just the way I did when I was a kid, maybe the neighbours who farm very differently than us and drive by way too fast in their gas-guzzling four by fours," said Braun. "And then...I'll say something like, you know guys, someday we're going to be stuck in a snowbank and that guy's going to come with his big four by four and he's going to pull us out and we're going to be really grateful."

"Because in the end, we are all neighbours."

Started in 2013, Face2Face is a series of conversations organized by CMU, designed to engage the community on a wide variety of current events and issues at the intersection of faith and life. Previous events have explored marijuana legalization, urban reserves, and cohabitation. For more information, visit cmu.ca/face2face.

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