Nancy Gibbs | “Trust, Truth, and Trauma: Is Forgiveness Politically Possible?”

Posted By on November 14, 2019


– Good evening. I want to welcome all of you to the library of Princeton
Theological Seminary. For a thought provoking
and timely presentation on faith and modern political life. I’m honored to introduce Nancy Gibbs as our speaker this afternoon. Nancy is an award-winning journalist and presidential historian. She currently serves at the
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, as the visiting Edward R.
Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy. She spent three decades of
her career at Time Magazine. She’s written more cover stories for Time than any writer in the magazine’s
one-hundred-year history. I first met Nancy several years ago at the Chautauqua Institution where I had the privilege
of listening to her speak. While my mind was caught up with the wonderful ideas
she was presenting, in the back of it was, I have got to get her
to Princeton Seminary. (crowd laughing) Her lecture tonight is entitled
Trust, Truth, and Trauma: Is Forgiveness Politically Possible? Please join me in welcoming Nancy Gibbs. (all applauding) – Thank you President Barnes. I’m especially honored to be here because this seminary has
played such an important role in my own spiritual and
intellectual education, albeit indirectly. I grew up in the Fifth
Avenue Presbyterian Church, under Brian Kirkland and Tom Tule and now Scott Black Johnson. And when we moved to Connecticut, I had the good fortune
to join a congregation led by Nathan Hart, another of your alums, and so all the way through
my journey growing up, the teachings and the
beliefs and the priorities and the explorations of this seminary were somehow traveling
along with me as I explored. My world to politics and of journalism and of our public discourse. I come to you, not as a
clergy certainly or scholar, but as storyteller. And I assign myself this topic because I wanted to be
forced to think about it and I knew I wouldn’t,
like all journalists, unless I had a deadline. (crowd laughing) Yet while President Barnes
gave me plenty of time to do my homework, I
realized that I still feel like I accidentally have ended
up in the advanced class, for which I am not prepared. So with that in mind, I’m
going to offer you a few ideas and then I would like us
to have a conversation about this moment that
we find ourselves in, in our country’s life as fellow citizens, and as fellow explorers. Like many of you, when
anytime I need something mental or physical or spiritual, I know just where to go, Amazon. (crowd chuckles) I asked Amazon about the
latest thinking on forgiveness. I found what you might expect, books like “The Power of Forgiveness,” “Guide to Healing and Wholeness,” “Radical Forgiveness,” “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” And then, inevitably, “Forgiveness Made Easy.” (crowd chuckling) Of course, it never really is, is it? It’s hard to let go of anger. Unalloyed fury can be
so much more satisfying, and nourishing. It makes us feel superior and righteous. It binds us to others who are allied against whatever foe we have chosen. Anger makes us feel alive, and alight, like a fighter’s bald fist or a runner’s crouch, ready
to spring at any moment. Sympathy is so soft. So much more muted, and liquid. And it’s delivered typically
in the form of listening. Not yelling, not judging,
not dismissing or despising. We’re taught to be slow to anger, to not let the sun go down on our wrath, that anger resides in the lap of fools. But it feels right now like anger has somehow slipped its bonds, and is running loose across our platforms and our press and our politics, and even our most private encounters. And the further it travels,
the stronger it grows. Some evidence of this;
so NBC News asked people whether they felt the country was coming together or coming apart. 80% of people said that
we are more divided than we have ever been. One in six Americans reports that they have stopped
talking to a family member since the 2016 election. Social networks that were designed to bring people together, they gave a whole new
meaning to the word friend, have instead turned out to be designed, really brilliantly, to create enemies, and to spur outrage. A Wall Street Journal poll
found that people think social media does more to divide us than to unite us by
significant majorities. 67% of people say that
their side loses in politics more than it wins. (crowd chuckling) Now do the math. We know that’s not mathematically possible but we also know that that is spiritually and emotionally possible but that is what people experience. It’s a testimony to
this abiding bitterness that people feel about the landscape that they find themselves operating in. The President held a rally
last month in Dallas. One of the warm-up acts was the Texas Lieutenant Governor, introduced him this way, he said liberals are not our opponents. They’re our enemy. That was mirroring descriptions of the President’s supporters who are derided as deplorables, fascists, knuckle draggers, Christian sharia. We face adversaries that look to weaponize this name calling, this hostility. One Russian troll from the
internet research agency, put it this way, he said “Our goal “wasn’t to turn Americans towards Russia. “Our task was to set Americans “against their own government,
against each other, “to provoke unrest and discontent.” America, you could say, is a story of coming apart and coming together. Born of a revolution fought against what is now our closest ally. Rent by civil war, serially splintered over all kinds of issues. On the way to trying
to make America better. You might say we’ve always been divided. You might even say that even experimenting with the idea of an ethnically, racially, spiritually, heterogeneous
society was a long shot. You could say that human
beings were designed to form into tribes,
into relatively small, relatively homogeneous groups that protect one another,
and reinforce one another, and make the world sensible. And you could say that
as too many churches and bowling leagues and rotary clubs, and even shopping malls are challenged to keep their cohering power that it becomes much easier for us all to just retreat into our
social media filter bubbles and allow politics to define
just about everything. For too many people partisan politics has become the church that we belong to. Now, the Pew Research Center, did this extraordinary
survey about what divides us. And they looked at 10, what we would consider
10 political issues. How you feel about
immigration, national security, the responsibility of alleviating poverty, the environment, and they asked people to express their views
on each of those issues. And they found since
they started doing this, back in the 1990s, that the
amount that people disagreed based on their age,
their race, their gender, their level of education, their frequency of attending
religious services, and their party affiliation all stayed fairly steady. That there would be sort
of this fairly steady 10 to 15 point gap across
all of those measures. In the last three years,
that chart has exploded. All those differences around
race, gender, religion, income levels are still at
that same 10 to 15 percent gap. The gap on partisan
identification is 36 points. We no longer define ourselves by anything as much as we define ourselves by whether we identify with
the red team, or the blue team. And here’s the funny thing about that. This isn’t even about political parties institutionally the Democratic Party, the Republican Party
are in some ways weaker than they’ve ever been. Nor is this about issue positions. This is not actually specifically about how strongly you agree
or disagree with issues around gun control or
putting a tax on carbon or allowing school vouchers. The most surprising thing about the increase in partisanship, is that it isn’t really about anything other than more partisanship. It’s as if our emotional identification with one team or the
other is driving ideology, rather than the other way around. University of Maryland
Professor Liliana Mason calls this ideologues without issues. Did you feel strongly that you were either on the red team or the blue team, without actually knowing
or caring that much, what positions you therefore hold? The way Sean Westwood at
Dartmouth puts this is that in order to have an
understanding of the ideology of your party and of the opposed party, you have to have a lot of information. And that is something
that just doesn’t happen to with the majority of the electorate. But if you just believe
that your side is good, and the other side is bad. Then, this helps explain
why for one thing, we are seeing politicians much more freely changing their positions on issues. As long as they are loyal to the team, there is no penalty for that. If they are disloyal to the team, just ask Mitt Romney what happens. It’s why politicians with
high personal disapproval ratings can still easily get re-elected because so many people are not voting for them
in the first place, they’re voting against the
person on the other side. Now, even as political
identity detaches from issues. It attaches to everything else. I wouldn’t have chosen political
forgiveness, as a topic if this were just about the positions that we take on what are
appropriate tax rates, or what is the best approach
to universal health coverage. We are not just divided about issues, we’re divided about everything. We’re divided about football. We’re divided about late night comedy. We’re divided about food. When the people who’ve
made the impossible burger, the marvelous carnivore fooling, new plant based burger, were instructing retailers
about how to market it, they said, “Don’t call it vegan “or vegetarian. “That would be polarizing. “Call it plant based, “because there’s nobody
who doesn’t like plants.” (crowd laughing) The challenge of political
forgiveness is paramount. Paramount because this is
not just about politics. This is about everything. About how we live, and where we live. And this is another part of the challenge. We have actually literally sorted ourselves into comfort zones. More than 61% of voters in 2016 cast ballots in counties
where either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump won more
than 60% of the vote. Only 10% of the more than
3,000 counties in this country were decided by 10 points or fewer. The vast majority of us
live in landslide counties. And we can go to a PTA
meeting or a coffee shop, or the movie theater, or the soccer game, and never cross paths with someone who doesn’t think the way we do. If our experiences aren’t just in politics. They aren’t just
experienced as disagreement. Increasingly, they’re
experienced as disgust, as contempt. Now, those of you who
have a lot of experience with pastoral care know that the most surefire predictor of divorce is when contempt enters
into a relationship. Couples can fight and thrive. It’s how you fight, and when you start demeaning the other person’s worth and dignity. When you sneer and are snide. When you treat them with contempt. Those are the hardest
relationships to heal. Social scientists talk
about something called motive attribution asymmetry. This refers to the idea
that I am motivated by love, and goodwill and you are motivated by hate and corruption, or bigotry. Well, that kind of takes
debate and negotiation and compromise off the table, doesn’t it? This isn’t about finding common ground if you’re convinced that the person on the other side of
that negotiating table, actually poses a risk to your community or to the country. Calls for stability are scorned as weak, as unilateral disarmament. If the other side is not
just to be disagreed with, but destroyed. The vast majority of people
who embrace this asymmetry of motive says that they
don’t like the other side because they think they
are a risk to the country. My colleague at Harvard, Arthur Brooks, has written a lot about this in this extraordinary
book “Love Your Enemies,” where he talks about how contempt operates on our bodies and our
psyches, as well as our souls. Treat people with contempt,
they feel rejected, it leads to depression. And one Harvard Conflict
Resolution Specialist, Donna Hicks, who studied the Israeli
Palestinian conflict has said that neuroscientists who track, the impact of contempt on people is that the body responds
to it in the same way it responds to a physical threat. We respond to threats to our dignity in the same way physiologically that we respond to physical
threats to our safety. So I often ask people to ask themselves the hard question of whether in the last 24 hours,
48 hours, in the last week, have you thought about people, wherever you sit on the political divide, have you thought
something, said something, tweeted something that is derisive about the other side? And however legitimate you
thought your grievance was, what would it have taken
for you not to do that? And what price would you feel that you pay in your personal honor to not denounce and call out the opponents that you
think are dangerous, because both sides are viewing
their opponents this way. We are hearing from some
presidential candidates who are arguing that if
we don’t get past this, if we don’t figure out a way to once again elevate the very possibility, and value of some kind of unity, some kind of compromise and collaboration, it is not going to be
possible as a country for us to get anything done. The way Pete Buttigieg put it was this, he said, “The real question
of leadership is not, “Do we round up all the good people “and hope it’s more
than 51%, come together “and crush the bad people? “It’s are we going to bring
out what’s better in us, “versus what is worse than us?” Now, there are so many reasons that we want to get out of
this very polarizing moment in our public life that you
have to ask why is that so hard. And that goes beyond mere human nature beyond the fact that sharing an enemy, often makes us less lonely. And that this speaks
to holes in our hearts and holes in our homes, and there is certainly that. There is also however, in a way that was not nearly
as technologically powered in the past it is now, an extraordinarily powerful
outrage industrial complex. There is a lot of money to be made on making and keeping people angry. It raises money for candidates. It raises money for activist groups. And now we have come on our service for a moment of confession. It is very much in the
business model of media. A lot of news organizations, a lot of publications in print,
online, television networks, have found that it is extremely profitable to make people angry and keep them angry. The algorithms that shapes
so much of what you see and share and consume,
light up when you’re mad and are engineered to keep you that way. I was happy to be reminded
that it was actually the Apostle Paul, who
was the first to spot the dangers of cognitive
bias and filter bubbles. Second Timothy, “For the time is coming “when people will not put
up with sound doctrine. “But having itching ears, “they will accumulate for themselves, “teachers to suit their desires “and will turn away from
listening to the truth “and wander off into myth.” We wander off into the myths that conform with what we want to believe. And tell us what we already know, and make us feel better and smarter. And so what would it take
to come together now? And to forgive each other our many sins. When we talk about political forgiveness, we usually are talking
about its public expression. It will be a leader or a legislature that offers an initiative to, in the spirit of repentance over slavery. Over the treatment of indigenous peoples. Australia has a sorry book where citizens can record their remorse over a government policy that used to remove Aboriginal
children from their families. Part of this is about
what countries need to do in order to move forward. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, which was an act of both individual and public forgiveness, because he said, My conscience tells me it is my duty not merely to proclaim
domestic tranquility, but to use every means
I have to ensure it. He believed that the country, in the wake of Watergate, could not move forward. Could not accomplish
any of its urgent needs. Without this, act of forgiveness. Knowing that it would very well and probably did cost him any chance of being reelected to the office in 1976. It was interesting to me that it fell to another family, 27 years later, to honor the courage that, that act of forgiveness took, when the Kennedy’s gave Gerald Ford their Profile in Courage Award, which was essentially
one presidential family forgiving another for pardoning a third. On his first day in office, Jimmy Carter announced an amnesty for hundreds of thousands
of Vietnam draft evaders, an act of political forgiveness, because he believed that the
country could not move forward. And it’s easy for us to forget now in the midst of the furors around us, of just how divided the
country was around Vietnam. How divided it was around Watergate. In those cases, you could
argue that forgiveness, had a strategic, even
potentially cynical edge to it. He who forgives first wins. It’s a competitive advantage. That’s different than
what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something
that is much more intimate, much more one on one about the families and the friendships that have been damaged. And the discourse that has been poisoned by how we as individuals, navigate this current
political environment. What will it take to reconcile these deep personal differences that are expressed in
ever more virulent ways? Well, I’m encouraged by
the work of a group called More In Common, who as its name suggests, has as its mission to build
more united, inclusive, and resilient societies
in which people believe that what they have in common is greater than what divides them. Their research finds that 93% of people are tired of how divided we’ve become. 89% of people are looking for leaders who are prepared to
restore the possibility and priority of compromise. And so in good Presbyterian fashion, I’m going to suggest three things that I think will help with that. And then you all are
going to add to those. The first is clarity. The second is complexity. And the third is humility. So clarity, first. That More In Common survey found that three quarters of people say they don’t identify with the extremes on either side. We’re fighting about guns. Three quarters of people
believe in the need for stronger gun control legislation. We’re fighting about immigration. About three quarters
of people also believe in a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented aliens. Wait, you say, how can that be, when we’re so polarized
around these issues? And the answer is, remember, we are not as polarized as the issues as we just are around
our partisan identities. We love our team. We don’t like the other team, because we think they’re
a threat to the country. More than 90% of both
Republicans and Democrats, describe people on their own side as honest, reasonable, and caring. And they describe people on the other side as brainwashed and hateful. And that’s the trick. We don’t identify as
holding extreme views. But we misperceive that our opponents do. And so there has been fascinating research about what that looks like. How dramatically, on
average people believe that 55% of their opponents
hold extreme views. When fewer than a third actually do. That is a recipe for misunderstanding, and therefore division, based on the lack of clarity about what people truly believe. So Democrats for instance, misunderstand Republicans
most on immigration. By like a 33-point gap, that Republicans actually think that a properly controlled
immigration system is good for the country. Most Democrats think that most Republicans don’t believe that. Most Democrats also think
the most Republicans believe that racism and sexism
is no longer a problem. It is not what most Republicans believe. The same is true, the other way. Most Republicans believe
that Democrats, by and large, think all police are bad. That the US should have open borders and be a socialist economy. Most Democrats don’t believe that. And so, as scholars find that people tend to dramatically overestimate the extremism of beliefs on other side, it of course, drives the perception that the other side poses
a risk to the country. And they find that when people acquire a more accurate, clear
vision of the values, and the judgments and the
belief of the other side, that the hostility and the intensity tends to drain out of the conversation. Where does the perception gap come from? Another confession, it comes from media. Because the group that had
the smallest misunderstanding of the other side, like just a two point misunderstanding, was the group that reported
it consumed very little. Very little news, didn’t watch the news, didn’t watch TV, and of course, the groups that had the
largest perception gaps, not surprisingly, are the ones that were most
likely to be tuned into the most partisan news sources. This is not an argument
for turning off the TV and canceling your subscriptions and getting all of the
newsletters out of your inbox. It is an argument for media literacy. And for us to be very deliberate in understanding what
is being communicated. And I think there should be a price that public leaders should pay for intentionally dividing, intentionally caricaturing, intentionally, for their
own political ends, and when I say public leaders, I mean, not just in politics, but in any sphere of public life. If they are contributing
to the misperception, if they are clouding our
understanding of one another, they are doing active
damage to our ability to function as a society, and I believe there should be a price to be paid for that. This is not sport. This is not entertainment. This has genuine, very
serious consequences. I’m heartened by the
fact that Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better
Angels of Our Nature,” suggested that the printing press, actually contributed to our ability to empathize with one another. To read one another stories, to walk in one another shoes. And so maybe in an ideal world, the dangers that we are
increasingly aware of that social media poses to us, the inverse can also be true. If even technology becomes a means for us to get to know one another better and more accurately. And this points now to my
second point about complexity. Among the many cognitive biases that we all carry around is a binary bias that we tend to see things in black and white. Once again, media often
feels like it is our job as storytellers to make things simpler. In fact, the imperative right now is to make things more complicated. To break us away from a
black and white, us and them. Red and Blue, simplified
understanding of our world. So that all of the grays, all the other dimensions, can enter in. How do we know this
works, here’s how we know. Researchers gave a group of people, a set of policy initiatives, like do you think that we should have merit pay for teachers? Do you think that there should be a single payer healthcare system? And ask people to rate
on the scale of one to 10 how intensely they agreed or
disagreed with that position. Having registered the
intensity of their beliefs. They then said, Okay, how would that work? Tell me how you would implement merit pay. Tell me how you would make
it fair and equitable, how you would fund it. Tell me how a single payer system would affect the delivery of healthcare and would it lead to rationing, start drilling down
into the actual details of any of the policy positions. And it won’t surprise you that most people can’t go very many levels below “I believe in this, I
don’t believe in that.” That’s not what was important. What was important was that
when they then went back and said, “How intensely do
you support these positions?” Well they were suddenly much less certain. An encounter with complexity ended up draining some of
the anger, some of the fury, some of the certainty out
of people’s positions. In other words, you could say that an intellectually humbling experience of not being able to explain very well something they believed adamantly led to a softening of
the lines of division. And these, so these
first two prescriptions of clarity and complexity complement each other, right? If we once we see each other more clearly, we see that we are complicated people. That we tend to hold a mix of views. That we weight our values
in subtle and important ways that shape the way we
engage with the world. And so seeing one another more clearly allows us to appreciate the complexity that we each bring, and so that, of course,
leads me naturally, to the third and most urgent need. Which is for humility. That means holding your
beliefs and values, both strongly and gently. Open to the possibility that the things you are certain of can still be wrong. This is not an argument
for moral relativism. This is not an argument
for situational ethics. This is not an argument
that there is no such thing as things being true. It is simply that we are
human and we are fallen. And none of us has perfect knowledge. We are creative creatures
who can keep learning. This is the whole premise
of the scientific method, that you be open to new evidence. That you can refine your hypotheses. As new evidence becomes available to you, which requires a constant
condition of humility. In order for that to work. Once you stop believing
that you might possibly be wrong you might possibly
have something else to learn. Well then you’re no longer exploring. You’re just standing still, with your eyes closed and
your hands over your ears, which is not where we need
to be as a country right now. “It is always wise to seek the truth in our opponents error,” Niebuhr said. In the error in our own truth. So, we know that we can’t hope to change hearts and
minds, without empathy. The oldest gospel in politics is that they don’t care what you think unless they think that you care. And it is very hard to
express that kind of caring, without a spirit of radical
humility guiding you. We clearly need better ways
to get to know each other. And not just virtually. The idea that more exposure to people with different points of view is an intuitively attractive one except it turns out it really matters what that exposure looks like. Researchers have actually
found that exposing people to their opponents views on Twitter, just makes them angrier. That doesn’t work. This has to be direct and
sustained and in person. And in pursuit of common purpose, which seems like a
really excellent mission for our churches to really dig into in all sorts of ways. Not just within their communities but in bringing together
disparate communities, and exposing people to people and ideas that will surprise them. The very act of being
surprised reminds us again, that we are learning. Leadership is going to come from uncountable individual decisions to model kindness, and to lift up the stranger. And to get offline and into the streets, and the classroom, and the sanctuary, and help people in trouble. Culture changes and politics changes, one heart and mind at a time. And I don’t want it to
take another massive national tragedy like 911 to confront us with our shared humanity. And how much more we love each other than we hate each other. But we do need a culture,
including a media culture, that covers our commonality
as well as our conflicts. We need to reward leaders, not just for what they fight for, but how they fight. We need to seek out strangers to connect with and tell our stories, because we are a country on a pilgrimage. This is a journey with purpose to a destination seeking the divine and it feels right now
like we have lost our way. Be the people who draw the maps. Who model, not just mere civility, but active, courageous, kindness. Who forswear the snobbery of certainty. And who honor the Prince of Peace. Thank you very much. (crowd applauding)

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