Leavers vs Remainers, Muslims vs Christians, Israelis vs Palestinians. Across Europe citizens are meeting and "disagreeing together"

Leave-voter Ada meets Remainer Jon

Leave-voter Ada meets Remainer Jon

On the Daily Alternative, we’ve often talked about the importance of having face-to-face conversation with those of complete different opinions, and experiences, than our own. These conversations, when done in a neutral setting and with the right intention, can bridge the divides and foster more understanding and empathy in our communities and wider society. The ability to facilitate such conversations is an important tool in the tool-box of new politics.

So we were delighted to discover a new international platform titled ‘My Country Talks’ that offer to help facilitators reach out to citizens, match discussion partners and set up events and meet-ups. They are already engaging several media outlets and thousands of citizens across Europe.

Here’s how, and why, they got started.

The idea for launching a dating platform for political opposites originated in the ZEIT ONLINE newsroom in spring 2017. We were searching for an answer to the central question: At a time in which significant parts of society have forgotten how to talk to each other, how can we restart the conversation?

The answer was "Germany Talks": ZEIT ONLINE set out to bring together pairs of readers with completely opposing political views who lived as close to one another as possible. On June 18, 2017, 1,200 people across the country met up for face-to-face discussions.

After the first edition of "Germany Talks", media organisations from around the world reached out to us and said that their countries were also in need of more debate across political divides. Together with a group of international news outlets, we launched My Country Talks, which is a tool to organize political dialogue.

It matches people of opposite attitudes and beliefs and invites them to meet for a face-to-face discussion. Media outlets around the world can use the platform to reach out to their audiences and organize a My Country Talks event in their country, bringing people together and bridging political divides.

The website’s event section is a testament to the need for a different way of political debate and it’s appeal to people across Europe. Events have already taken place in Denmark, Norway, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Austria - and here in Britain.

In the UK, the event was titled ‘Britain Talks’ and took place on June 23, the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum. It happened in partnership with the Mirror and the Daily Express (supported by a dozens of regional newspapers) which have traditionally had very different readerships. The newspapers were asking readers to provide their opinions on the following statements:

  • Britain is better off out of Europe

  • Britain should take more refugees

  • We need higher taxes to support the NHS

  • Britain should be tougher on crime

  • Donald Trump is good for the USA

  • The UK spends too much money on foreign aid

  • Life in Britain is better now than 10 years ago

Below is an extract of the invitation to the event from the Daily Express and a cover of the meeting between two participants - 22-year old Remain-voter Jon-Connor Lyons and 72-year old Ada Pratt who voted to leave the EU.

Our new poll shows that an astonishing 82 percent of people feel our country is divided – and most believe those divisions have deepened since the EU referendum. Almost one in ten people say they argue with family or friends about Brexit several times a week. One in four people feel angry with those who voted differently, and 55 percent believe people have become less tolerant since the vote. Given the chaos in Parliament, maybe it’s no surprise that 79 percent of people have lost faith in British politics.

But there is good news too. The Daily Express poll by Survation discovered that people want to heal those divisions – 82 per cent wish the UK was more united, and 60 percent wish they could chat to someone of an opposing view without anyone losing their temper.

That’s why today, the Daily Express and other Reach PLC newspapers across Britain are joining together to launch Britain Talks – a plan to bring the nation together over a nice cup of tea.

Meet ups will take place on the weekend of June 23  – the third anniversary of the Brexit poll. What better way to remember the day our nation divided, than by coming back together? It is the same weekend as the Great Get Together, when people come together for street parties and picnics in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox.

But we know that divisions are getting deeper in other ways too – between young and old, townies and country folk, between England and Scotland, in Northern Ireland, over the rights of transgender people, and over welfare benefits and animal rights.

So often, discussion is reduced to short, angry tweets or instant messages, rather like the schoolyard taunts and intransigence that debase so much Parliamentary debate.It is as if we are forgetting how to talk to each other. Being polarised is paralysing not just our politics, but our nation.

So, on June 23 we’re asking you to have a difficult conversation. We don’t want you to agree with the other person unless you want to. We just want you to converse – to really listen to each other. Maybe you will something in common, maybe not. Maybe you’ll make a new friend, maybe not. Maybe you’ll even want to tell us what happened when you met.

Whatever happens, you will have shown the courage to step outside your comfort zone.

On paper, they have little in common. Two people born 50 years apart, caught on opposite sides of the Brexit debate. A passionate Remainer from a big city, and a grandmother from a small town who votes Tory and cannot wait to leave the European Union.

No one knew exactly what would happen when the Express asked retired nurse Ada Pratt, 72, from Littleborough, Greater Manchester, and Jon Lyons Connor, 22, a student at Salford University, to be the first participants of our new project Britain Talks.

Their challenge was to spend time together and hold a genuine conversation, to discuss their differences, but also find things in common. And to really listen to what each other had to say.

By the end, neither Ada or Jon had changed their views about Brexit or who should run the country. But they had changed their views about each other.

"I realise now, you’re not just one of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave, you are a real person," Jon tells Ada.

 “You care about this country. People say older people voted Leave, and they have messed things up. But you did it for your grandchildren, to make things better.”

For Ada, home is a neat terrace house in a small town near Rochdale, at the foot of the Pennines, but she says she has enjoyed spending time with Jon, who lives the hipster Northern Quarter of Manchester.

 “It is nice to meet a young person willing to listen to some old lady talking,” she says. “I don’t say he has changed me, but it has been nice to disagree without arguing. It’s hard to have a sensible conversation since the vote.”

Read the article in its entirety here.

If you are a national or regional website, a radio station, a television broadcaster or a blog you can also put on a ‘My Country Talks’ event and get of your readers to meet up for one-on-one political discussions. Send an email to mct@zeit.de to become a partner.

Meanwhile on Youtube, the LA-based channel Jubilee have been producing a series of engaging videos in which people from either side of a spectrum - Rich and Poor, Pro-Wall vs Undocumented Immigrants, Natural Beauty vs Cosmetic Surgery - are brought together to spark a dialog about their differences and similarities and see if they can find ‘middle ground’ (as the series is cleverly titled).

An especially engrossing episodes of the series tackled the historical and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Can Israelis and Palestinians look past this deep conflict to understand one another?

Watch below.

Go here for more Middle Ground videos.

Meantime, it doesn’t escape our observation that, while these mainstream news outlets - on all sides of the political divide - are doing important work to heal divisions, they also bear a lot of the original responsability for causing and deepening division in society. They have clear loyalties to one side, often one party, and don’t hesitate to fan the flames of conflict between them.

Will the outcome of these sorts of exercises be some healthy distrust - on the part of readers - of newspaper headlines in the future?