Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

A demonstration in Syracuse, N.Y., last June drew several hundred people demanding the removal of the downtown statue of Christopher Columbus. Mani Bell, right, engaged in a conversation with a man defending the statue’s presence. Bell, of Syracuse, told the man, who did not wish to be identified, of Columbus’ record of genocide. When she told him Black people in America continue to face systemic racism and oppression in America, the man responded, “How?” Photo © Maranie Staab.


As our book club sat around a cozy backyard fire one evening in the summer of COVID, a member used a metaphor that has stuck with me, and I think with the group as a whole.

We were discussing ways of communicating with — and to be honest, persuading or convincing — people with whom we disagree.

He said something like this: “We need to focus on people who are on the 10-yard-line. We’re never going to reach those who are 80 or 90 yards away from the end zone.”

The context was the extreme polarization of America, a divide that has widened and deepened — or perhaps has just become more visible — in the past four years. 

People with vastly different beliefs about everything from climate change to mask-wearing can get sucked into their own echo chambers fed by social media and their preferred broadcast outlets. 

Many folks seem a lot more than 90 yards from the end zone. They may as well be in a different stadium far, far away, not even playing the same game, by the same rules.

Much has been written about how to bridge such disparate views — finding common ground, using active listening, having “radical empathy” for those whose views and behaviors that we not only disagree with, but find abhorrent. 

Nothing is working.

Will anything change after Jan. 20, 2021?

In an editorial titled “The Decency Agenda” Dec. 6, the New York Times lays out a rough roadmap for President-elect Joe Biden for his administration to unify the country. 

“Speaking to the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters, without condemnation or condescension, will be crucial to Mr. Biden’s unification efforts. … In pursuing his governing agenda, disagreements will arise over deeply held beliefs, and the arguments are bound to get heated. But, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden knows the difference between opponents and enemies.”

It’s not a stretch to say our nation’s future depends on that distinction. But where to begin? 

The book our group was discussing, “Nonviolent Communication,” by the late Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, outlines a four-step process of respectful communication — observation, feelings, needs and requests.  

At the risk of oversimplifying Rosenberg’s very nuanced, non-judgmental approach, here’s an example of how it works: 

You observe that your friend Sam recently has taken to using racist language, including the N word. You identify the feelings around your observations, and determine what you need for your well-being. Then you make respectful requests (not demands) of Sam. If that conversation goes well, it gives Sam an opening to examine his feelings and his words and maybe even change them.

The flip side of this is even more challenging — putting yourself in Sam’s shoes and trying to determine the feelings and needs that are behind his words. 

While Nonviolent Communication can work with a friend or family member, Rosenberg’s technique may not succeed with many who have succumbed to the barrage of disinformation and lies of the outgoing administration. Or with those who fervently embrace the attitudes and behaviors of the departing president.

While I am in favor of respectful communication with my opponents, and would like to feel empathy for them, I cannot respect their views. I am trying to win a fact-based argument. As the New York Times editorial board said, “Forget shared values. Americans cannot agree on a shared reality.”

We are running out of time, and out of patience with one another.

We need to do something.

Should we give up on those who are, at best, at the other end of the field? Do you know anyone hovering near the 10-yard line? What techniques have you tried to get them into the end zone? Maybe Nonviolent Communication can work. Perhaps you have another idea that holds promise.

I am at a loss, frankly, and welcome any suggestions.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He agrees with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

5 thoughts on “Searching for paths across the great divide

  1. gallery217 says:

    Jim, I’m also at a loss. But I think many people are mistaking evil for confusion. A lot of our fellow countrymen don’t need to be educated. They need to be guarded against. Willson

    Willson Cummer (315) 863-3487



    1. Jim McKeever says:

      I wish I could say I disagree, Willson, but there are too many examples (Lansing, DC, Portland, et al) that prove your point. Are their hearts and minds salvageable somehow?


    2. dennnisharrod says:

      I worry that we think of all those with whom we disagree on the basis of those who make the most noise. We have to talk to the quiet ones. And listen as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, Jim. I applaud your tackling these difficult issues. One thing to remember is that the lunatic fringe has been and will always be there. The evil of Trump and other demagogues is tapping them and fueling their hatred. The oxygen that is the presidential bully pulpit will soon be denied to trump. With the appropriate, thoughtful and fair policies that Biden and his diverse team will (presumably) develop should start to make things better for at least some of those who are less lunaticy. The key is to deprive oxygen to trump and the like. The media plays a key role in this.

    I know this begs the question of communication with those on planet Fox, but unless one immerses him/herself in the Fox universe and finds a person on the other side who is willing to reason (BIG if, that) and accept verified facts, the prospects are dismal

    Keep up the good work, Jim.



    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Jack … It used to be that the question, “How do you know that?” would at least make someone stop and question his or her own understanding of an issue or an event. That doesn’t work anymore. Twenty thousand lies/misleading statements from the White House don’t matter. I keep going back to Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “Caste,” and a central theme: some people must have a group (an “other”) to look down upon and oppress so that they feel “better than” somebody — no matter how awful their own situation. It’s sad. I like what Dennis says above … we must find the quiet ones and work with them.

      Liked by 1 person

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