Challenge yourself, and find common ground


Mary Thomas Watts - Contributing columnist



Fifty-two years ago, Captain told Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” one of the silver screen’s most familiar — and often slightly misquoted — lines.

I’ve heard it reprised in the context of our current political divide, but with a heart for mutual understanding and a little effort, we can stop the madness, at least in our own spheres. Which brings me to how I spent several recent Saturday mornings.

“The Mueller Report” doesn’t fall neatly into popular summer reading genres, but it’s been a non-fiction bestseller since its publication in the spring, and of late it’s been the choice of in-person and virtual book clubs and reading groups across the country. One of those groups was here in Wilmington.

Attending the local, five-session series of Mueller Report discussions left me with a renewed appreciation for how edifying conversations about important topics can be.

The more than 20 participants were not all of the same mind about the implications of the Special Counsel’s 448-page “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election.” But we discovered common ground on many points, and that in itself felt like safe shelter from the storm of political polarization that wears a body down.

We followed some basic guidelines: 1) stay on topic; 2) one person speaks at a time; and 3) put personal opinions in “I” statements (as opposed to “everybody knows”). There was a lot of respectful listening, some spirited back and forth, but not a single personal attack.

What we did would be easy to replicate, and I hope it will be.

If you’ve read “The Mueller Report,” or want to, invite a friend or two or more, or join an online group, and share what you’ve learned that you didn’t know before, how what you’re reading affirms or challenges what you’ve heard and read about the report in the news, what questions the report raises for you, and what you believe are the implications of what is contained in the report.

Start with the introductions and executive summaries of the two parts of the report. Volume I is about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and Volume II turns to the matter of obstruction. Appendix C contains Donald Trump’s written responses to the Special Counsel’s questions.

Don’t let the length of the report deter you. The redactions whittle down the actual text considerably. There are many editions to choose from, including free online PDF downloads. I’m partial to the Washington Post print edition, which includes additional material, including some related court documents.

In a June Christian Science Monitor story about the proliferation of Mueller Report study groups, Democratic Iowa farmer Barb Nelson, whose group includes her Republican sister and 20 other readers, some who drive as far as 50 miles to attend their meetings, said, “Until we listen to people and find out who they are, we’re not going to find common ground.”

It’s true that you can’t know how a conversation will play out until you have it, but know that focusing on a text is an effective way to establish the emotional distance essential for keeping things civil.

Certainly, the way we’ve been going at each other isn’t doing us any good, so why not try another way?

Mary Thomas Watts lives, writes, and reads in Wilmington.

Mary Thomas Watts

Contributing columnist