When it comes to talking about controversial issues — guns, immigration, climate change — Craig Rood thinks Americans are at an impasse.
Oh, there’s a lot of talk, but sometimes not much listening and, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be much openness to real communication and understanding, the Iowa State University assistant professor of English says.
“Openness entails the willingness to engage in communication, the willingness to listen to opposing views and, if they are persuasive, the willingness to be changed by them,” says Rood, the author of “After Gun Violence: Deliberation and Memory in an Age of Political Gridlock.”
The problem is that “the voices we see most prominently are the most entrenched, not open to changing their minds,” he says, referring to the pundits and cable news talking heads “who have the loudest voices.”
Too often, Rood says, those voices are driven by an attempt to increase ratings, “to build drama rather than to understand different viewpoints.”
“If that’s our model of public discourse, it’s a poor model,” he says. To him, “it’s a caricature of what people actually believe (because) I’m not sure that’s where most Americans are at.”
An expert in rhetoric and public persuasion
Rood, who has taught rhetoric and public persuasion at ISU for four years, makes clear that in writing “After Gun Violence” he was not advocating for or against gun regulations. Rather, his goal was to look at why discussions about issues such as gun violence often are so unproductive.
Regardless of the issue, Rood says we must understand how shared memory, inattention to the past and unchecked assumptions make deliberation difficult.
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“We need to listen to other viewpoints and try to understand the other side. If we cannot talk and listen to one another, then there is no hope for change,” Rood says.
But he has hope.
“I have days when I’m more cynical than others, but overall, I’m somewhat of an optimist,” he says about the prospects for elevating the level of debate. “I don’t want to sound too naive to say that listening will save the world. It’s more complex than that.”
Part of the problem with the debates over issues such as gun violence is the “us-versus-them” approach many people take. If people merely state and restate their talking points, it makes people who are less vocal hesitant to engage “because it’s so nasty.”
NRA, Brady Campaign use similar rhetoric
As part of his preparation for writing, Rood signed up for emails from both the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He was struck by the fact that both groups seemed to be making the same extreme claims about themselves and each other.
“You would hear things like ‘We are the real Americans.’ ‘We are concerned about children’s safety’ from both of the organizations,” he says. “I was struck by the fact that if you only listen to one of those groups, you’re going to have a very distorted opinion about your opposition because you were being told that your opponents hate America and don’t care about children.”
To get beyond the talking points, Rood encourages practicing openness — whether in face-to-face conversations, in online platforms or reading information provided by advocacy groups — not just with those you support, but with those who have a different point of view.
That won’t automatically lead to consensus, but Rood says it can establish some common ground. Before identifying the point of disagreement, he recommends starting with basic questions to find points on which you agree.
However, the discussion becomes more difficult when talking about specific policies, such as how to reduce gun violence.
“People may disagree about specific restrictions on guns, but agree that we need to find a way to reduce gun violence. We need to find whatever that starting point may be.”
Conspiracy theorists show openness has limits
There’s a limit to openness. If someone denies the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting happened, “that’s a case to walk away because the very act of engaging gives legitimacy to their viewpoint,” Rood says.
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It’s also important to make your assumptions explicit, as a way to lead to shared understanding and as a way to check your own reasoning.
“We’re in a place in America where we have our own news channels, we have our own feeds and we get a message that reinforces our own viewpoints,” Rood explains. “That can lead us to think our opponents are foolish, wrong and dangerous.”
Generally, that’s not true.
“There might be a case that you listen to somebody and say ‘I can’t understand where you’re coming from,’ ” Rood says. “But there are lots of cases it would be productive to try to understand why their argument makes sense — even if I’m not going to be persuaded by it. They may have experiences that lead them to find a particular argument persuasive.”
He also advises looking for historical context. Even if it’s as simple as asking how we got to this point.
“History is not going to provide an easy answer — and it can be distorted to fit a particular argument — but it is there to help us see beyond the current moment,” Rood says.
Despite the challenges, Rood doesn’t think gridlock is inevitable.
“I’d like to think there’s a world in which we can say, ‘I disagree with you, but let’s find a way to work together to address this problem,’ ” he says.
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