What would happen to the divisions in our country if we set aside our phones, and our assumptions, and truly tried to understand people who are different from us?
Mónica Guzmán did this in her own family, and she’s convinced that the country could do it, too. The Seattle-based journalist, entrepreneur and self-described liberal starts her new book with the personal story of coming to terms with her own parents, Mexican immigrants who voted twice for Donald Trump for president.
The rest of the book is a guide for the rest of us: I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.
Longtime readers will remember Guzmán as a technology columnist who wrote regularly for GeekWire in the early years of the site. We also worked together previously at the Seattle P-I newspaper, where she started the Big Blog for SeattlePI.com. She later wrote for the Seattle Times and went on to co-found The Evergrey newsletter in Seattle.
She’s currently digital director of the non-profit Braver Angels, whose mission of bringing together people of different political beliefs matches the premise of her recent work. She’s also the host of Crosscut’s Northwest Newsmakers.
We talk about her new book, and the role of technology in all of this, on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast.
Why was this an important book for you to write?
Mónica Guzmán: I think we can all feel the anxiety of the world right now: socially, politically, in our own lives. At the very same time, our media, and the way we communicate to each other, becoming so sharp, and so based on emotion. And all of these dynamics coming together to add up to a red alert moment. There’s got to be a better way to talk to each other, and to see each other and to hear each other.
You explain at the outset how your own family — your mom and dad, and you — grappled with these issues.
That really was what drove me to write the book in a huge way, my relationship with my parents. We are immigrants from Mexico. And we have been citizens since the year 2000. I remember my mom, beaming, holding a little American flag. And then not too long after that, I see a Bush-Cheney sign appear over her office. Then began the saga. Huge fights in the car. There were a lot of arguments; there was a lot of yelling.
And then in 2016, during that presidential campaign, things got very real. To the point of tears. What happened was these amazing conversations that got me to the point where I can say that, if I were my parents, I would have voted for Donald Trump, too. I would have done it twice, and I would have done it enthusiastically.
This gets to one of the key points of the book, and that is the importance of having one-on-one conversations with people who are different from you, who have different views, who are not caricatures in the abstract.
What I’ve been thinking a lot about these days is that it’s possible that the most important thing we can do for our democracy, for our society, is to talk with people instead of about them.
You write in the book about how social media can exacerbate the distance between “us and them.” Do you think about how technology could change, to enable the types of interactions you’re describing in the book?
In recent years, we’ve seen companies like Apple and device makers put into our smartphones certain reminders or protections to help us really, really look at our privacy. The economic model of the attention economy that drives social media really supports it and backs it because the goal is to keep us there for a long time. Fine. But I don’t think that that’s actually what people want. Just like we got there with privacy and with screen time, if we want technology to work for us, then let’s make sure it’s not blinding us to each other and to the world.
What do you hope people will take away and apply from the book?
There are two questions that I find so powerful: questions of experience and questions of concern.
Questions of experience: Instead of asking “why do you believe that?” you ask, “How did you come to believe that?” And the difference may seem subtle, but it’s huge. It’s a difference between asking people to justify themselves, like they’re on trial, in a climate of distrust, and saying, “Why don’t you walk me down the path you took to these views?”
And then questions of concern. It’s when you ask people, “What concerns you about gun rights or gun regulation? What concerns you about this presidential election?” Then you just collect that information together without judging it. Those concerns always reveal people’s values. They reveal what they most care about.
That is where I think we can find common ground most easily.
I Never Thought of It That Way, by Mónica Guzmán, is published by BenBella Books.