True to its title, Julie Ethan’s book, How Can Half the Country Be So Stupid? A Memoir and Guide to Friendship Between Political Opposites reads like a conversation between friends. Her guiding principle is “Relationships over politics,” so if you’re worried that the book is an attempt to change your political team, rest easy. As Julie points out, “Researchers have proven that facts don’t change our minds, that we won’t let go of our beliefs even when presented with contrary evidence.”
What you will hear in this 33-page, 10-chapter offering is Julie’s compassionate, humane voice. I’ve no doubt that if you went for coffee together, she’d ask about you, listen intently and make you feel at home knowing that conversational skill is, above all, a gesture of hospitality. The foundation of conversation requires listening and this is how we find common ground.
Julie’s conflict resolution credentials and life experiences as a mother and business owner are beautifully woven together in this book written in, of course, a conversational style. Part memoir, part self-help, part how-to guide, she offers her story and journey to show the reader how her ideas evolved. She takes the reader from motherhood in “Shenanigans and Lego Bricks” (best line: “We didn’t know much about Wall Street, but we knew the call of a loon, the smoky haze of a campfire, and the glow of a perfect sunset.”) to the final chapter, “Using Your Brain to Overcome the Urge to Murder Your Political Opposite”. The last chapter is not just about regulating your blood pressure and keeping yourself out of jail, it rallies all the previous ideas and suggestions in the book into concrete actions we can use to cool political discussions and maintain friendships.
The chapter, “A Blueprint for Bridges”, shows Julie using everything she has learned to bring people on opposing political sides together, to listen to each other, and to hear each other without being hostile. Even more than the chapter which recounts her family business economic crash between 2008 and 2010, this is a harrowing account of the canyon that separates people in America’s two-party camps and the pain felt in both groups. But Julie doesn’t wallow. Instead, she gives readers a tool to help identify the so-called “villains” in news media and campaign advertising. She shows the reader how to cultivate compassion by asking questions and how to listen.
The book’s goal is to build common links between all people and thereby restore some civility to political conversations and civic life. Given the chasm that seems to widen every day in the USA, the goal seems impossible, but Julie makes it look doable. As a Canadian and an outside observer let me assure you that Canada has its own polarized issues – our fraught and toxic relationship with First Nations’ peoples, for example – and her book is equally a guide for snowshoeing the blizzard of our national politics.
So, if facts don’t change our minds or help us see another point of view how do we find common ground? Julie proposes looking “… for underlying values you might share in the situation”, values like community, family and jobs.
I know this book will help me keep calm when having political conversations with those I may not agree with. I will take Julie’s advice and ask open ended questions, try to listen, AND hear the answers without launching into hyperbolic orbit. It may even help my blood pressure when watching or reading the news.
I urge you to give Julie’s book a shot. It might defuse discussions with friends and family AND infuse you with optimism about the future.