How to Live with Difference in a Divided Nation

In an age of disagreement, advice for getting along

Whether you’re overjoyed or petrified at seeing Donald J. Trump in the White House, there’s probably one thing everyone can agree on: the other half of the country has gone mad. Yet despite our sharp ideological divisions, we all have to live together. David W. Montgomery (GRS’03,’07) is an expert on helping people with fundamental differences get along with each other. He says the secret is not to look for common ground, but to acknowledge our diversity—and disagreements. Montgomery is the coauthor of Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World (University of California Press, 2015) and director of program development for CEDAR, Communities Engaging with Difference & Religion. The book, written with Professor of Religion Adam B. Seligman and Rahel R. Wasserfall, is based on CEDAR’s experiences bringing people of different backgrounds and faiths (or none at all) together. The educational nonprofit runs fortnightly programs designed to encourage people to build a more tolerant world.

arts&sciences asked Montgomery, who is also a policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for his advice to a divided nation.

arts&sciences: A common theme during the 2016 US elections and UK Brexit vote seemed to be the protection of a particular way of life. Why do you think that was?

Montgomery: People are uncomfortable with change. There’s nothing novel in saying that. What we don’t know tends to lead us to assume the worst about others, and we don’t live with ambiguity very well. So when we see different people coming into the neighborhood, we tend to attribute the discomforts going on in our lives to those people we don’t know well or who seem to do things differently than we do. We reminisce about the past and speak with longing for a less complicated time, yet such times were more complicated than we remember and communities have always been undergoing change. The present and the future will always be different from the past, so the challenge is how then do we live within these new diverse communities?

Is it so bad for people to want others coming into their culture to assimilate into it—isn’t that one of the hallmarks of America?

That itself is not necessarily bad, but assimilation is a relationship; in the American past, new and existing communities impacted each other to create something different. Where the tension is, is that when I say we’re the same—or should be the same—I mean that you’re like me, not that I’m like you. So the types of difference that we tend to be willing to accept are ones that we control. And that makes assimilation—and acceptance of my way of life—the responsibility of someone else. We can talk about being open and multicultural, but our meaning is often a bit less accepting than it seems; I might say I like Indian food, I like Chinese food, I like Creole, and I’m pretty open minded, open to immigrants, conservatives, liberals, and others. But being open to picking the types of differences that I engage with is very different than an Indian or Chinese person moving in next to me and we share a townhome wall—I can’t control the smells that come from their house or the music that they play—and we compete with each other for work, and now things seem threatening. The all too frequent response is to condemn the neighbor for not living my way, and to argue he or she needs to assimilate.

How do you deal with that discomfort?

The first step is to actually recognize it, to recognize that we all have biases and prejudices—that gives us a way of being more empathetic toward others. In the US and in much of the world, people downplay difference to avoid engaging with those things seen as dividing us. There is an assumption that people need to resolve their ideological and behavioral differences. I don’t know that we need to do that. Part of what we really need to do is engage with people, to not distance ourselves from what other people do, but to recognize that being in community implies not all of my preferences can be realized. It doesn’t mean that we accept everything that someone else does, but rather that we live with the ambiguity and acknowledge that some differences cannot be reconciled, but must be endured. I can morally disagree with someone yet still engage with them, still be part of that relationship, but it does require reciprocity and respect. I think the way to do that is through shared experience. I grew up in a small town in central Illinois and many of the people I went to high school with, who I grew up with, I’m sure disagree with me on a lot of things—politically, socially, religiously—and yet, we’re willing to grant each other moral credit that we’re unwilling to grant people who we don’t know. I make exceptions for them, and they make exceptions for me, like, ‘Well, he’s a liberal, but he’s okay,’ or, ‘She’s a conservative, but she’s okay.’ Those are the types of relationships that we need to foster, ones where you know the other person sees the world differently, but you’re still willing to view the world with them.

“Differences are unique and we shouldn’t try to pretend these are things that can be reconciled”

David W. Montgomery

Photo by Jim Heine

How do you even get people who disagree so fundamentally to sit in the same room and actually listen to each other in the first place?

It’s hard. That’s the reality of it. But we’ve been relatively successful in doing so through CEDAR programs. Generally, the challenge is to get people to see that they’re contributors in the community in which they live, and that they hold neither a monopoly on the truth nor a monopoly on suffering. Claiming that we all suffer is not the end of a conversation; rather, it allows a conversation to be possible. And, of course, the differences really matter in terms of who we are as individuals and who we are as communities. If you think within terms of religion and religious communities, talking about what’s shared in Abraham, is very different than acknowledging that there are important distinctions as to how Christians, Muslims, and Jews understand Jesus: he’s either the son of God, a prophet, or a heretic. And those views can’t be reduced to what’s shared. Differences are unique and we shouldn’t try to pretend that these are things that can be reconciled—they can’t.

Have your attempts to get people to talk backfired?

There’s this stressful period where people start to realize how difficult it is to live with people who challenge you, who don’t let you control the nature of the difference in your relationship. And it’s an uncomfortable space. As organizers, we have to allow that space to emerge. You can guide it, but you can’t overly control it. You give space to this community that you’re letting form and they work it out.

With social media, it’s easier than ever to live in a bubble, to just see the stories or people we want to see. How do we break out of that?

There’s a real risk and there’s a real challenge as you have people increasingly siloing their communities and not engaging with those who physically surround them. Creating virtual communities that allow one to engage with only parts of an identity may make you feel comfortable, but it also leads you to assume that those who share one view with you, share all views with you, and that is misguided. Differences are there even if they are not talked about. And, the reality is, we still have people who move in next door to us who may seem different. I don’t think in the long term that the virtual can substitute for the real. Virtual communities provide only so much; we still need the interaction with people who are near to us and we’re still trying to figure out the best way to do it.

Some people are very excited about the next four years; others are very fearful. How can they get along?

There’s a great level of distrust between those who supported Clinton and those who supported Trump and it is reflective of larger differences, ideological views about the world. The only way of beginning to make any progress in that respect is around finding ways to engage with people. The idea of making America great again references a time where there was a certain type of interaction perceived as better, and that was largely a place where there was bipartisan cooperation. As a society, we’ve moved away from that openness and that willingness to see ourselves as being engaged with others, connected and bound to others. Our political system is one that to function well requires a certain level of cooperation. Sadly, many of our leaders have failed to see themselves as bound to those who are different; politics has become an environment of overriding those who are different. Living with difference is a bipartisan endeavor and we should expect it of our leaders, as well as of ourselves. Bipartisanship requires each of us to be willing to see the concerns and needs—however different—of others as related to our own.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.