Out of left field: Making connections can help resolve our divisions

Roz Liston

During the past few weeks the word “connections” has been on my mind in a variety of respects. In recent columns, I have tried to illustrate the ways people build global threads that link individuals and nations together.

Recently, I read again E.M. Forster’s injunction “only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Writing more than a century ago, Forster gave admonitory views of technology that separates people (contributes to loneliness) and affirmative ones (connections could become personal relationships).

In his 1939 book “Two Cheers for Democracy,” the English novelist contends that “personal relationships are the only thing comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty.” He avers “the state exists for the individual, not vice versa; that tolerance and free speech are essential for human flourishing.”

An email arrived for me this week from the group “Better Angels,” tapping Lincoln’s call for affirmative associations.  It urged people to collaborate and communicate with more humanity and with deep commitments to the public good.

I have also been rereading Philip Roth’s provocative, but disturbing, book “The Plot to Overthrow America.” In addition to the major focus on anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, and fascism coming to the United States, Roth elaborates on a common, negative view of connections – the manipulations of personal ties with people in order to make advancements in building selfish, self-serving networks of affiliation.

This use of connections is often associated with politics and implies a special kind of favoritism. It is mostly inattentive to individual merit or larger social purposes. In this regard, I was reminded of Jared Kushner, special assistant to President Trump and his son-in-law, and the techniques he applied when he was in charge of arranging adequate supplies for FEMA to deal with the Pandemic.

Many analysts believe we need an inspector general to investigate Kushner for his “grossly inadequate” response to the Pandemic because he insisted on involving people with Trump political connections, especially VIPs, who were often inexperienced and inept. How did Kushner’s leadership and connections affect what happened in the United States since March?

Are we losing sight of affirmative dimensions of connections as explained by the late Hal Saunders in his book “Politics is About Relationships?” From decades as a presidential adviser and as director of the Kettering Foundation’s International Programs, Saunders developed ways that people from different nations, with wide ranging diversities, could build connections that were transformative.

Saunders’ approaches may appear deceptively simple; they are partly revealed in two of his earlier book titles: “Sustained Dialogues to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts” and “A Public Peace Process.” As this last title indicates, a key way to proceed is with openness and transparency.

Because social change and shared progress depend on trust and understanding, back channel dealings should be avoided. Folks who are willing to address issues that matter deeply to them need to be ready to engage in thoughtful, structured interactions with others who also seek changes.

The 2017 Lincoln Center play “Oslo” about the peace accords between Israel and the PLO provides examples of building and sustaining “connections” defined by Saunders and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a synonym for “relationships.”

The beginning challenge for “Oslo,” and for Saunders, is having people come forward who will commit to work for change and progress. Once folks begin meetings, they have an opportunity to expand connections to relationships as occurred in the reality-based Oslo drama).

These connections can be expanded by common sense conduct: 1) conversations that are civil, not confrontational regardless of disagreements; 2) by careful, attentive, listening to each other so there is clarity of understandings; 3) seeking trade-offs, as needed, regarding setting an agenda and meeting schedules; 4) as Saunders conveys in the title of a key book, the sessions need to be “sustained.” It cannot be predicted in advance how how many sessions will be needed, but folks interested in deeper connections that can become transformative relationships will need to have the flexibility for the time that is required); 5) at meetings care should be taken so one or two folks do not dominate the discussions. Among ground rules that can be established: “the no single leader” approach, that all in the group share responsibility for the directions of discourse and calling on fellow participants to be mindful of others; 6) as matters of disagreement emerge, clarify why the other party holds her views – does she have particular grievances, does she have proposals for remedies.

I have not included in this process an important beginning point for Saunders — one that was used in “Oslo” –– to spend early time getting to know more about each other. Such personal narratives take participants beyond professional roles, and they can provide scaffolding for an expanded intimacy in which relationships  have a chance to emerge.

At the conclusion of each session the group collectively decides on an agenda for the next meeting and, as appropriate, takes stock of progress made and challenges still to be addressed.

About the author

Roz Liston

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