Reflections on Bridge Builders in a Polarized Age
By Nathan Bomey, author, Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age
Unifying Theme: Hours of Hope: Case Studies in American Progress
Summary: When profiling diverse leaders across America—the bridge builders, who do not accept the status quo of bottomless rage toward others—I discovered that these bridge builders are countercultural. They do not accept buzzwords. They do not use labels. They choose nuance over caricature, realizing that when they box people in, they box themselves out of the possibility of meaningful connections that can lead to genuine change.
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When I set out to write a book on how to bring people together despite their differences, I was determined not to use divisive buzzwords and phrases to describe our environment of toxic polarization.
That’s why the term “cancel culture” does not appear in my new book, Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age.
So I guess I’ve already gone astray using that term in this essay. But something I realized in reporting this book—in which I profile diverse leaders from throughout America who do not accept the status quo of seemingly bottomless rage toward people who aren’t like them—is that bridge builders are countercultural. They do not accept buzzwords. They do not use labels. They choose nuance over caricature because they realize that boxing others in also boxes themselves out of the possibility of forging meaningful connections that can lead to genuine change.
Bridge builders are not ignorant of ignorance. They understand that people are flawed. But they see others aspirationally, and they believe people are capable of change. They’ve seen it happen. And that’s why they don’t seek to shame or to humiliate. They believe that shame and humiliation are tools of destruction that typically drive both sides further apart.
Instead, bridge builders use tools of construction: Inquiry. Listening. Acknowledgment. Edification. Conversation. Education.
That does not mean they accept hate. They do not. That does not mean they accept misinformation. They do not. That does not mean they believe in letting people off the hook. They do not.
Bridge builders believe in accountability. They believe in challenging people’s beliefs because you can’t build a bridge without ensuring that the structure is anchored to a firm foundation of truth.
In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson put it like this: When good doctors seek to diagnose ailments and prescribe treatments, they do not express disinterest in your past or declare it to be irrelevant. In fact, the first thing they ask for is your medical history. You have to fill out a form about your medical history before you even step into most doctors’ exam rooms because it’s so essential to your treatment plan. You can’t proceed into the future without looking back into the past.
“Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them,” Wilkerson wrote. “You don’t ball up in a corner with guilt or shame at these discoveries. You don’t, if you are wise, forbid any mention of them. In fact, you do the opposite. You educate yourself. You talk to people who have been through it and to specialists who have researched it. You learn the consequences and obstacles, the options and treatment. You may pray over it and meditate over it. Then you take precautions to protect yourself and succeeding generations and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again.”
Indeed. Exploring the roots of our ailments is essential to prescribing a treatment.
Does that mean, for example, that we should teach critical race theory in our classrooms? Well, I know this much: We need to shed our uneasiness with conversations about the origins and legacy of inequality, inequity and racism. This is our medical history.
Does critical race theory have everything figured out? I don’t know. I’ll defer to much smarter people on that. But I do know this: Bridge builders approach life with a mentality of curiosity. They understand that there are things they don’t know about the world and the people around them. They are always looking to broaden their perspectives on life. In a way, bridge building requires continuous education.
There’s a reason the word question contains the word quest. Asking questions launches you into a journey of discovery. Sometimes that journey will lead to a painful destination. But a state of ignorance is a more dangerous place than a state of enlightenment.
Sometime before COVID, I was working out at the gym at my office when I heard a catchy song by Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey come over the radio.
Baby, why don’t you just meet me in the middle?
I’m losing my mind just a little
So why don’t you just meet me in the middle?
In the middle
Fun song. But that’s when it hit me. That song expresses precisely the type of mentality that leads people to believe, incorrectly so, that the pursuit of connection with people of difference is harmful. We’ve been conditioned to believe that building bridges with people on the other side of some issue, whether it’s politics, race, religion, class or culture, requires meeting them in the middle.
Sometimes it does, but not always. With apologies to Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey, we don’t necessarily have to meet people in the middle.
Even real-life bridge builders don’t always meet in the middle. Oftentimes, architects, engineers and contractors build bridges from one side of a ravine to the other. The point is that sometimes you can’t even ask people to meet you anywhere in between. For example, other white people and I can’t expect Black Americans to meet us in the middle on conversations about race and equity. We haven’t earned that right. People who look like us—and in some cases we ourselves—have subjected Black Americans to oppression that has lasted centuries.
That’s just a fact. As Ibram X. Kendi has argued, it’s time for white people to begin understanding that racism is not exclusive to people who wear KKK robes or carry torches at white supremacist rallies. It runs much deeper than that. We, as white Americans, need to build a bridge toward Black Americans by acknowledging, for starters, that racism continues to infect our civil society. And that means it’s time for us to understand that people we may have long revered have been capable of perpetuating terrible injustices.
Does that mean we should “cancel” them? Again, I don’t find that term useful. Put it this way instead: We need to embrace context and perspective and, when necessary, abandon our conventions that have done too much harm and will continue to hinder progress.
After launching this project in late 2018, I can say confidently that bridge builders embrace hard conversations. Someone who embodies this is Latasha Morrison. A dynamic Black Christian leader of a group called Be the Bridge, which has tens of thousands of members, Morrison speaks at churches throughout the country—often white, evangelical congregations—about how the history of the American church is filled with examples of Christians hurting people of color. She talks frankly about how racism, white supremacy and white privilege have endured and caused so much human wreckage. She talks extensively about painful historical events that have, in many cases, been expunged from history books. This, she explains, is why many white people have never even heard of events like the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. Morrison understands that you can’t begin building bridges unless you first understand the history of the place where you’re building.
That’s why she calls on Christians to dwell in lamentation—a word that serves, in plural form, as the title of one of the 66 books of the Bible. But she draws a distinction between lamenting and shaming.
“To me, lament elevates God,” she told me, while “shame elevates you.”
Therein lies a rarely drawn distinction. Accountability is complicated. It demands an appreciation of nuance. But it’s what we need if we want to begin healing the wounds that afflict us, whether they be old or new.
And yet I’m convinced that we can confront without being unnecessarily confrontational. A spirit of hostility is rarely helpful. As any surgeon can attest, sometimes you do have to cut to heal. But that requires care and precision, lest you risk losing the patient.
Given the gravity of our challenges, one of the most critical questions of our time is how do we have difficult but productive conversations at a time when it feels like Americans would rather yell at each other and call each other names.
After visiting, observing and talking with bridge builders from throughout the country—people who have overcome some of the largest divides you can imagine—I have come to the conclusion that the answer is simple. It comes down to forming relationships between people of difference and using those relationships to bring about change.
When you get to know someone who’s not like you—whether they think differently, look differently, pray differently, speak differently, vote differently or all of the above—you often begin to gain an appreciation for your shared humanity. You begin to appreciate, rather than detest, your differences. And you begin to focus instead on the things that you share in common.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that if you want to have a tough conversation with someone, take a walk with them. Why? Because it’s easier to have a difficult talk when you’re looking at the world from the same perspective. When you’re face to face, it’s a posture conducive to hostility. But when you’re shoulder to shoulder, it’s a posture conductive to cooperation, even as your differences remain. This is why activities such as public service projects can help bring people together. They help the servicers gain a greater appreciation for each other and for the people they’re serving.
None of this means that we can eliminate conflict. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Our democracy needs conflict to survive. Without it, we would not be a democracy—we would be an authoritarian government, according to David Blankenhorn, cofounder of the nonprofit Braver Angels, which is teaching Americans how to talk to each other again. Blankenhorn told me that, contrary to what you might think, his group’s goal is not to get people to reach agreement on the issues. Instead, it is to help them achieve a degree of social trust.
“We’re not trying to do away with conflict,” he told me. “Most progress would not have occurred without conflict. The only way you get rid of conflict is to get rid of freedom. Free people disagree, often passionately, and that’s normal and healthy. The question is, how do you deal with it?”
You deal with it by approaching it from a different angle. People don’t want to be preached to. I know this firsthand—I’m the son of a preacher. But as any good high school English teacher will say, you have to show, not tell. And that applies to connecting with people of difference, as well. You have to show them life from your perspective, not tell them. It involves seemingly minute but actually significant differences in approach. Essentially: “Let me show you what I’ve experienced instead of trying to shame you into something better. Let’s talk, and let’s move forward together.”
Essentially: “Let me show you what I’ve experienced instead of trying to shame you into something better. Let’s talk, and let’s move forward together.”
This, in the end, is the route to overcoming some of our deepest divides. And it is, indeed, countercultural. Very much so. It is much more natural to congregate with people who are like us, to reinforce our culture of destructive tribalism. Which is why this is so hard—it goes against our human desire to seek community.
It is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as a democracy. But if we care about achieving progress, it’s the only way forward—because our two-party system was built on the premise that if we don’t work together, we won’t advance apart.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our lives are interwoven. Or, as the Sikh civil rights activist Valarie Kaur put it in her memoir, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, “You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
We simply cannot move forward without each other because our journey is singular, not plural. And this—in the epitome of etymological irony—is the essence of pluralism.
- Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age, by Nathan Bomey (Polity Press, 2021)
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, 2020
- See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Love, by Valerie Kaur, June 2020
About Nathan Bomey:
Nathan Bomey is a reporter for USA TODAY and the author of the new book, Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age. He is also the author of After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump and Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back. Before joining USA TODAY in 2015, he was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and several newspapers in his home state of Michigan. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @NathanBomey.