The wake-up call she needed came from her 17-year-old son.
It was the middle of the Obama administration, and Julie Winokur, a self-described liberal, was so frustrated with what she saw as Republican obstructionism that she would immediately dismiss any argument from the right. Then one day, her own child flipped her narrative. He told her she was “the most politically intolerant person” he knew.
“If the other side had a good idea, you wouldn’t know because you’re not listening,” she said he told her. “I realized in that moment that I was as responsible as the people I was pointing fingers at. You have to take ownership of your own contribution to the negativity.”
That was 2012, at the height of the tea party movement and in the midst of that year’s presidential election, when it felt like the partisanship and rancor couldn’t get worse. Her son’s criticism inspired her to stop lamenting it and instead try to fix it.
So Winokur, a documentary filmmaker in New Jersey, set out on a cross-country journey to meet people of different ideologies to discuss divisive issues. Carting a square folding table and a navy tablecloth with patriotic stars, she endeavored to take her son’s advice and really listen to other’s viewpoints. She wanted to get beyond talking points and regurgitated soundbites to discover why people who see things so differently from her believe what they do.
She couldn’t have known then how novel that concept would seem by the next presidential election.
She took her table to towns big and small, gathering a diverse cross section of Americans to interview. She even set it up outside the Democratic and Republican national conventions that summer.
“I always saw this as the citizens’ antidote to politicians. It’s taboo to ask people about their politics, but after being on the road and having many, many people who want to share, they are much more rationale and reasonable than we assume them to be,” Winokur said. “When you preface something as an opportunity to have a sober conversation where people can share what they believe, it’s amazing how many people are empowered to help other people with what they’ve experienced.”
In that spirit, during last year’s presidential election, she took her finished film project, Bring it to the Table, to college campuses around the country to spread her message about civil discourse. Since she’d embarked on her own self-discovery to understand the other side, the national political dialogue had further deteriorated.
In her presentations, Winokur teaches students how to frame questions and engage political others without being confrontational. She tells them to never flatly tell a person their ideas are wrong. Instead, she advises they ask the person what experiences they’ve had that shaped their opinions on a particular issue. If there wasn’t a personal experience that led them to their opinion, she said a follow-up could be asking what they might have read or heard that led them to their conclusion.
Then she’ll take out her table and invite students to try it themselves. Sometimes she steps in to facilitate the dialogue, while other times she has the students engage with each other.
The goal isn’t to change someone’s mind, but rather to get people thinking more deeply about where their beliefs come from and, in turn, give the questioner a more well-rounded perspective of opposing views.
“We regurgitate things, we have a lazy way of analyzing information, we jump on the bandwagon of simplistic language,” she said. “The primary breakdown is the lack of shared information; there’s a huge breakdown because we’re getting totally different information. When you don’t share presumed facts, the conversation isn’t even. You’re in different rooms pretending you’re in the same room talking the same language when you’re not.
She had hoped to take a break after the election, but almost immediately after Donald Trump’s victory there was suddenly high demand for getting Democrats and Republicans talking to each other. And with the rise of hate crime incidents on college campuses, she’s been called in by university administrators “scrambling to bridge divides they hadn’t previously acknowledged,” she said.
She has personally learned through this process how to separate an individual from the candidate they voted for; to see them as American citizens rather than political adversaries. Healing the country’s deep political divide won’t happen overnight, but she believes that having these conversations is the only way forward.
“You can’t solve a problem unless you bring it out in the open,” she said. “I thought it was so bad five years ago, and then it got worse. And we’re in a moment where it could get even worse. I think it’s a long game. This is an ugly moment that will get uglier, but you can’t remedy something unless you air it, unless you’re honest about it.”
Read more Inspired Life: