Setting up an Empathy Tent amidst the chaos that took place between political protesters in the University of California at Berkeley last week seemed like a thoughtful idea — a calm area where protesters from both sides could have a peaceful discussion, free of aggression.
However, it failed miserably, when a shouting argument led to a violent quarrel which ended with four people being arrested.
Among those arrested for violent behavior was school teacher-turned-Antifa leader, Yvette Felarca, who had been arrested before for similar behavior. This certainly makes you ponder about the violent ways in which those who consider themselves the guardians of free speech choose to operate. While this is worthy of scrutiny in its own right, I believe it is more urgent to answer: How can we put Republicans and Democrats in the same place without generating violence, and perhaps even produce mutual understanding?
Understanding Human Nature is Key
First things first. We have to acknowledge human nature. Not the nature of Republicans or the nature of Democrats, but the nature of how all people operate. We are inherently driven by our ego, and that’s especially evident when it comes to our political views. Our ego vehemently fights to self-justify, to the point that it blinds us from seeing anything else and blocks our capacity to understand any opinion that is not similar to or supportive of our own.
Therefore, it’s naïve to think that amidst the sweltering pot of egoistic urges from both left and right, setting up a tent will magically allow people to rise above their differences and find empathy, even temporarily.
In order to produce empathy in the Empathy Tent, participants need proper guidance and preparation. They need a method of deliberation that can produce equality in the discussions and a professional moderator who doesn’t take sides and whose only role is to maintain a “circular” discussion.
“The Circle,” a Safe and Positivie Discussion Platfor
To conduct a safe and positive discussion, it’s recommended that participants sit a in a circle, and not just because it helps everyone see and hear each other. This seating arrangement also places them in an equal distance from the center of the circle, which symbolizes a common place between them, where each has a bird’s eye view of all opinions in the circle, without cancelling their own. Only that higher perspective from “the center of the circle” can bring about mutual understanding.
How can such a common place be created? It’s the result of a successful round of discussion. And the starting point is to agree on two simple rules, which will be stated and kept by the circle moderator.
Rule number one: Equality in the discussion. Every participant is given the same amount of time to express themselves freely and safely. Freedom of speech at its best. Each speaker takes his or her turn following the order of the circle, so no one needs to spend their energies in fighting for their time to be heard.
The second rule is listening to every input. This means that when someone speaks in the circle, the role of the other participants is simply to listen. This does not mean they need to agree with what they hear, nor do they need to start thinking like the speaker. Rather, they listen in order to understand what motivates the speakers, what they aspire for, what is their view.
A professional circle moderator will make it clear that there is no attempt to decide on a winning view, and we also don’t want to blur out our differences. The circle encourages opening one’s ears without shutting one’s mouth. This brings us back to understanding human nature – when a person is certain that he will have the time to express himself and that his message will be heard, he also becomes more capable of listening.
American Society Needs to Focus on Collective Intelligence
These two simple principles, equality in the discussion and listening to each other, are like much needed oxygen in today’s society. But there’s more. These principles have been empirically proven by MIT researchers to drive the collective intelligence of any group of people. This means that if a group of people is faced with a collective challenge, their success is determined not by how sharp or talented the individuals in the group are, but rather how well they follow these principles in coming to a solution.
The relevance for the socio-political rifts in America is straight forward: with each side focusing on its righteousness, we are collectively incompetent in finding solutions to common challenges. We have to recognize the urgent need to foster our “collective intelligence” and establish effective practices to achieve it. Otherwise, what we witnessed in Berkeley last week is only the beginning. Social rifts will widen, the inability to communicate will become fixed, and violence will spread exponentially.
Fostering a New Social Mindset
Let’s face it. The change that’s needed in America will not happen by an occasional Empathy Tent even if it’s conducted according to the above guidelines.
Americans need to consistently experience the benefits of safe and positive deliberation, week by week, circle after circle.
Sounds far from reality? Of course it does. This is because we have come to accept a reality where constructive deliberations and mutual understanding between different views are not expected to occur. Instead, violence is an expected result when people of clashing views occupy the same space.
However, it is precisely this deadlock and these extreme disparities that bring about the dire need to implement a connection method that elevates us above our differences and enables us to find the “center of the circle.”
My experience has shown that such a method can be applied to all types of people and in all settings. This is because it relies on our natural wiring for human connection. It’s not about using pretty words and being polite to each other and has nothing to do with ethics.
Rather, we have to unearth the natural fountain of wisdom, resilience and efficiency that exists in the correct connection between people. In fact, it is a natural resource for prosperity in every aspect of human life.
But at the very least, it can prevent violence. Even for this reason alone, we should put it into practice as soon as possible. Otherwise, today it’s a flare-up at Berkeley, tomorrow it’s a wildfire everywhere.