I GREW UP with three grandpas on one side of my family: my grandma’s boyfriend, Bruce; my mom’s father, Bob; and his husband, Herb. I remember seeing their wedding anniversary on the calendar — that was the first time I asked my mom if two men could be married to each other.
Most cities in the United States now celebrate a rainbow-filled Gay Pride parade, shows like Netflix’s Queer Eye dominate popular culture, and the 2020 primary presidential election saw its first openly gay candidate, Pete Buttigieg. Having openly gay grandpas is no anomaly, which is miraculous given recent history. In 1996, 68 percent of Americans opposed the legalization of gay marriage or same-sex marriage; in 2018, roughly 70 percent are in support. Contrary to the normal rate of change, the general opinion has essentially reversed, making it a model trajectory for how other social movements would aspire to progress.
Brian F. Harrison proposes in his new book, A Change is Gonna Come: How to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America, that this standout reversal can be an exemplar for how to bridge the political divide. An accomplished social scientist, writer, and award-winning teacher, Harrison gives concrete points on how to have difficult talks, leaving behind the drama of Twitter feuding, name-calling, and internet bullying that can make any sort of discussion with “the other side” seem impossible.
Harrison feels like the right person to write this book; as a gay man, a father of two, an established educator (University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, Yale University, Wesleyan University), and a researcher on communication, public opinion and political behavior, American politics, political psychology, LGBTQ+ politics, and partisan identification, Harrison is relatable as a father and credible on the psychology of political conversation. His voice is charming and approachable. He shows us that while calm, healing conversations may be the goal, he is not claiming to be perfect either, and he asks the same of us: that we simply show up and try our best.
His tips are not groundbreaking; they are simple and approachable. However, in order to willingly change from inaction to action and enter a situation we already find difficult to engage in, we need simple, concrete steps to get us started. For one, during our daily scrolls through our social media feeds and emails, Harrison suggests following and reading news sources that we may not agree with, instead of only tuning into those we already know we will support. Not only does this increase our understanding, but it is also a tangible way to actively work against the fierce partisan divide.
On the next metaphorical level, Harrison offers a step-by-step plan for a conversation: do it in person, one on one; allow yourself to be vulnerable; recognize your own bias; paraphrase their points back to them so they feel heard. These were not new tips for me, a grown person who has had difficult conversations before, but as someone who has yet to engage in frequent bipartisan dialogue, I found it helpful to read them within this context. In a recent conversation about how the United States was handling COVID-19, and about the nature of our health-care system at large, I found myself mentally returning to some of Harrison’s ideas, instead of jumping immediately to anger and frustration. When learning how to ride a bike, we may need to occasionally return to training wheels, even if we feel like we don’t need them.
Harrison anticipates arguments dismissing his request for communication. He makes it clear that he’s not saying that we have to agree, but we do have to try to understand each other: “Deliberative democracy is built on the premise that we will disagree at some point but that through speaking to each other about things we think are important, we can eventually reach a consensus.”
A lot of his points feel familiar and intuitive — most of what he proposes feels like something I have already felt to be true — still, he labels these feelings as communication and psychology theories and brings all of these ideas into one space. As a professor of rhetoric, I’m constantly talking to my students about the importance of considering the “rhetorical situation” (how the messenger, content, delivery, and framing each contribute to the effect and effectiveness of a text), stressing the necessity of “knowing your audience” and the use of rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, logos) to best convince them. Harrison touches on all of this, but he then frames it through the lens of political conversations and how these methods worked for the LGBTQ+ marriage equality movements.
Harrison also introduces new concepts. He writes about how our brains process information; how to use that knowledge to change public opinion (as was the case for the changed perception of HIV/AIDS); the issue of information inaccessibility and the “filter bubble,” or “selective exposure,” of our social media feeds; and the effect of these echo chambers on our opinions. We need storytelling perhaps more than ever before: “Listening to or reading narratives about the experiences of others builds our capacity to understand those around us.”
Harrison may say that we do not need to agree, but most of the strategies he offers are about how to convey thoughts to others. So is this really about winning arguments? He focuses primarily on speaking, and less on our own process of listening. However, he insists that we should not frame our conversations as battles to be won, but rather as information-gathering experiences that may eventually lead to change, or at least increased compassion and understanding.
Some of his suggestions feel a little like “thoughts and prayers,” yet he bolsters these platitudes with concrete steps for effective action. For example, humanizing the issue and leaning on shared identity markers allows for connection and increased chance of listening. Hypothetically, if someone knows no one who is gay, it is harder for them to care about LGBTQ+ issues; when they know someone, or hear their story, it facilitates empathy and, by extension, caring. By telling such a person about the challenges facing your gay son, after bonding over the fact that both your sons play baseball and all of you are fans of the Kansas City Royals, suddenly you’ve created a better chance of listening and real communication in what seemed a conversational stalemate about LGBTQ+ issues. Harrison advises that we try the same for today’s divisive topics, such as the climate crisis, abortion, or student loans.
Harrison reminds us that most of us do not hate, or want to hate, the “other side” — that all people, psychologically, want to be included and loved — that, really, we hate partisanship and the disagreement it often brings. “It isn’t necessarily that people don’t like talking about politics, it’s that they don’t like talking about partisan politics,” he writes. If we resist new attitudes, we inherently resist change.
The book begins with an epigraph from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” It ends with what seems to be Harrison’s response: “We can do this. Let’s go. Together.”