Monday, Oct 22, 2018
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Healing the political divide

An expert on conflict resolution discusses how we can regain mutual respect and start listening to each other again




    Donald Scherer, a former professor of environmental ethics in the philosophy department at Bowling Green State University, recently co-authored a book on conflict resolution.

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    'With so much information, it’s easy to think you know what’s going on. It all happens with less time for reflection,' Sherer said.

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Love him or hate him, President Trump has Americans on the edge of their seats.

Donald Scherer is not a political analyst or a psychologist.

But the retired Bowling Green State University professor, who founded BGSU’s applied philosophy program, may be in a good position to help break down what’s happening across America — and how the nation could potentially turn things around if it can get past its self-interests and think more collectively for the betterment of the country.

Mr. Trump’s admirers are pumped up. They joyously envision him as the leader of a long-overdue moment necessary to overhaul America’s politics-as-usual mentality, eager to see how his agenda plays out.

His critics — who go well beyond liberals — lose sleep at night wondering how much more they can stomach of a brash, unconventional reality-TV-star-turned-politician they view as reckless if not dangerously incompetent.

While views are sharply divided — as they usually are when a new president enters the White House — both sides continue to share a lot of anxiety for different reasons more than four months after Mr. Trump was elected Nov. 8.

A study released Feb. 15 by the American Psychological Association shows that 57 percent of Americans believe the current political climate is a “very” or “somewhat” significant source of their daily stress.

The report, part of the association’s 10th annual Stress in America project, was based on a survey of 1,019 adults in January.

Perhaps it was no surprise that 72 percent of Democrats claimed the election results affected their stress levels, compared to 26 percent of Republicans. But, surprisingly enough, nearly 60 percent of Republicans said they were stressed out thinking about the nation’s future, compared to 76 percent of Democrats.

Katherine C. Nordal, American Psychological Association executive director for professional practice, called the results “deeply concerning,” because it’s hard for Americans to get away from that type of stress.

Professor Scherer specializes in ethics, from those used in environmental decision making, to those used in business, religion, education, and other facets of life.

“As plans emerge for national policy, they will reduce anxiety in some cases and in others will replace and focus anxieties,” Mr. Scherer said, pointing out that focused anxieties themselves are less stressful “because you don’t have this total uncertainty.”

If he were still teaching today, he would assign students to examine ethics of communication and results in areas where Mr. Trump is promising substantial change, such as education, national security, immigration, regulatory reform, and the redistribution of the tax burden.

“These promise to be large initiatives,” he said. “The larger the initiative, the larger the chance for error.”

Mr. Scherer has devoted much of his life to environmental causes. For many years, he was a board member of Green Energy Ohio, the state’s largest group promoting renewable energy, and served as group president from 2007 to 2009.

But he is not a traditional environmentalist.

For more than 40 years, he has researched what he calls “social environments” — that is, human interactions and relationships.

When it comes to the environment, for example, it’s one thing to improve natural resources. But, he argues, humans also have to change the way they think of them.

According to his website, people care more about their social environments than they realize. Parents care about neighborhoods where they raise their children; employees care about their workplace atmosphere; educators want classrooms that stimulate learning, and business leaders want markets that are conducive to their products.

The goal of his research, which also has been applied to anything from big agriculture to promoting interfaith dialogue through the World Council of Churches, has been trying to help the human race achieve more of its potential through mutual cooperation and respect.

Many of his thoughts about conflict resolution are in Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a highly regarded 2016 book he co-wrote with journalist Carolyn Jabs about virtues people need to dissolve conflict, restore goodwill, build a common purpose, and help people thrive in anything from business to government to faith communities, schools, and family relationships.

In a lengthy interview with The Blade, Mr. Scherer said those virtues — like anything else in life — take work and maintenance.

He said that while the Internet age has revolutionized communication by making it possible to engage with people all across the world almost instantly, it may also be shortening our attention spans and building our anxiety.

“With so much information, it’s easy to think you know what’s going on,” Mr. Scherer said. “It all happens with less time for reflection.”

Perceptions about Mr. Trump are driven largely in response to his personality, Mr. Scherer said. For many people, he “is either forceful and right on target and doesn’t mince words — or he’s brash and ready to fly off the handle,” he explained.

The biggest obstacle to a lack of cooperation is an unwillingness to consider multiple points of view, Mr. Scherer said. It’s important not to let your opponent feel patronized, he said.

“If we don’t brainstorm together, we won’t be effective,” Mr. Scherer said.

As a matter of ethics, he said people need to think more in terms of what helps a society succeed, not personal validation.

“The great religions teach us to move beyond a focus on our individual self,” Mr. Scherer said. “They teach us to be sensitive to spirituality in all of its dimensions. That certainly involves respectfulness, but it also involves nurturing. It involves ways of trying to foster the benefit of the community.”

His advice: Recognize a lot of harm is inadvertent. Look for people willing to listen to multiple viewpoints, knowing that’s harder than it sounds.

“Don’t say you’re just one person and give up,” Mr. Scherer said. “That feeling needs to be countered in our society.”

Contact Tom Henry at:, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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