Bridging divides is the latest social justice trend without impact, garnering widespread financial & social support
Since this week marks the annual National Week of Conversation, I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the ‘bridge building’ trend that has become very in vogue over the past several years.
Just like DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), ‘bridge building’ work is financially lucrative and socially alluring — especially among social justice ideologues who are eager to collect virtue points. In 2016, the number of bridge building organizations continued to rise in the wake of increasing polarization, social justice ideology, and populism (and efforts to quash it) in the United States and beyond.
For ‘bridge builders,’ the concept is simple: Engage in meaningful conversations with people who may think differently than you.
One organization, Living Room Conversations, works to “heal society by connecting people across divides — politics, age, gender, race, nationality, and more.” Meeting Point is another organization that seeks to “reduce the divide in politics by creating civil discussion and events that host a variety of different political, religious, and ideological philosophies.” Make Dinner Great Again has the same goal: create an avenue for people with different viewpoints to have respectful, guided conversations.
It’s a multi-million dollar industry and the mission is well-intentioned and desperately needed, but is it really making a difference?
The short answer: No.
There are a few reasons for this.
For one, bridge building organizations, while claiming to be non-partisan, are inherently ideological. The type of person this work attracts subscribes to a certain set of narrow beliefs and ideas in the realm of social justice which then informs the organization’s mission, vision, program areas, and so on.
UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute (formerly called the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society) is one such organization that functions within a very narrow lens, and it assumes—and expects—that all who are involved are ideologically-aligned.
Back in October 2021 when Covid hysteria was still rampant, the Othering & Belonging Institute streamed a 2-day virtual conference with the express goal of “building bridges to understanding.” Some 2,000 participants virtually attended from all around the world.
In the various panels, the panelists and participants all took turns demeaning the same groups of people: conservatives, Trump supporters, ‘Covid deniers,’ conspiracy theorists, Russians, and so on. On the topic of vaccinations, the panelists expressed outward repulsion towards anyone who chose not to get the experimental shot, ignoring the actual science and long-standing history of the medical-pharma industry harming marginalized groups.
They also expressed how much they really, really hate white people.
In one session called “The Risk & Possibility of Bridging Panel,” the panelists all took turns answering the following opening question: “When was a time you took the risk to bridge towards someone you saw as ‘Other’, and if you took that risk, what did you learn?”
I was expecting to hear impactful stories of people coming together and sorting their differences out in a meaningful way, like the man who convinced hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members to give up their robes, or a former grand dragon of the KKK who became a self-described ‘reformed racist’ on the search for redemption.
This was not that.
All of the stories did involve white men, but in a very distant, nebulous way.
One speaker, Joy Harjo, said she was taking the subway in New York, and sitting across from her was a white male. She said, “There was a worker [and] he was real beefy . . . big, white guy . . . and he had a lunch box between his feet, and I started making all kinds of assumptions about him.”
Joy said that she noticed herself judging this stranger, and called it a ‘cosmic consciousness experience,’ where she then let go of her judgement.
For one, calling it a ‘cosmic consciousness experience’ adds a dimension of pretension that could only come from an event like this, and from a person whose dogma overrides rational thought.
Joy didn’t actually articulate what exactly about this man she judged unfavourably, but based on the details she chose to share, I think it’s fairly obvious.
Most people would glance at the ordinary stranger and get on with their day, but Joy hyper focused on this individual who did not do anything that would have made him stick out, other than being a white male. In her quest not to judge, Joy continued to judge this stranger some more, instead choosing to overcompensate and making these ridiculous assumptions about a man she hasn’t spoken a word to.
She said she could “feel his love for his family, how hard he was working, and how out of place he felt around people that he assumed might be judging him”— which is yet another assumption, and a complete projection on her part.
This completely inconsequential story in which literally nothing happened is demonstrative of the absolute derision she — and the other panelists — have for ordinary, working class people — particularly white men, as if they are props to be used to further their own social justice crusade.
But the real sticking point for me is that Joy didn’t have any other example to pull from on how she took a risk to bridge the divide with someone else. The entire theme of the conference and panel was about ‘bridging divides’ and she had no actual personal stories to offer. Nothing.
Another speaker, Akaya Windwood, recounted a similar story when she was camping and she saw a man who was “about 6’4”, white, big, maybe about 275 pounds and he was wearing a shirt, with a ragged American flag saying, ‘these colours don’t run.’ And I took one look at him and said, ‘Oh, I know who he is. I know exactly what he stands for.’ And I had enough wine at one point that I turned to him and said ‘Tell me about your t-shirt.’”
And then Akaya realized she, too, was wrong in her assumptions.
At least in this story the panelist actually spoke to the man she was silently seething about, but still this story was hardly a meaningful example of bridging divides. Do these people — whose very work is about bridge building — not have any other stories to glean from?
This anti-white stance is popular in social justice, and it demands all white people feel shame about their identity which is then manifested into internalized white guilt, like this participant states (in their own contrived and confusing way):
“As a white bodied person, I feel there is an invisible or unconscious loyalty to whiteness that white bodied people must explore to get further as a person of belonging.”
You can find the full panel discussion here:
It’s evident that the very people doing this work don’t actually make an attempt to bridge divides in everyday life. They’re so insulated within their own echo chamber that even being in the presence of a white male sends their heads spinning.
These stories also reveal how much judgement comes from social justice ideologues.
Judgement happens, absolutely. We all form judgments about people within seconds of meeting them, but what these speakers showed is that they go beyond reflexive judgement that is part and parcel of the human condition.
As the conference progressed, more claims emerged: one panelist claimed that conservatives are more susceptible to biased thinking and dis/misinformation, another said that Covid skepticism was because of Russian interference (one of the more ridiculous things I heard).
In one discussion, one of the moderators asked, “People who are caught up in anti-Covid conspiracy theories, how do we help them?” — perfectly summing up the condescension that is rampant in these circles.
These ‘bridge builders’ really see themselves as the Very Good People, the righteous, all-knowing saints who just have to educate the rest of us about what is right and wrong. If only we would just listen.
One participant stated, “Diversity is not rocket science. It is harder.” This quote perfectly encapsulates how delusional social justice ideologues are. They really believe they are doing God’s work.
When I enrolled in an online facilitator program for the ‘bridge building’ organization Living Room Conversations, I was very much in the same sort of company.
(Note that I was enrolled in the free trial run facilitator program, but apparently it now costs $150 to learn how to have common sense conversations with people).
I encountered more faux progressives who adhered to the same social justice framework. In the training I saw three things happen: 1) the promise of a ‘safe space’ sterilized people’s thoughts; 2) the use of ambiguous and academic language confused and distorted conversations; and 3) the denial of objective facts led to all lower ‘t’ truths being validated. The end result was people taking turns sharing their lived experiences, which no one else could challenge because doing so would mean we were disrespecting their ‘truth.’ This approach obviously leaves little room for actual difficult conversations to be had.
Additionally, it makes it all the more challenging to speak honestly when the organizations running these spaces have crafted this very specific way of communicating that only social justice ideologues would understand.
There is no better example of bridge building ideologues using inaccessible language than at the Othering & Belonging conference.
The following are real quotes made by the panelists:
“Accountability for violation of the soul by commodification”
“Revolution is a daily practice we make towards freedom.”
“My loyalty is to an integrity in which we all have a place.”
“An allegiance to the world I’m building.”
“What if it’s about being loyal to a cosmology that doesn’t ‘other’”
“If we just see ourselves as change agents, and not also recipients of change we lose out on so much.”
“The very construction of whiteness has to be challenged.”
“Mutating the other is mutating a part of ourselves.”
Participants completely ate it up (especially the ‘queering time’ phrase), but I was left utterly confused.
One of the most effective ways we can bridge divides is by using simple, accessible language — but that is not the case in these groups.
It makes me wonder what the actual end goal is here.
Using this type of language creates a ‘barrier’ (a buzzword social justice zealots love to employ) for ordinary people, but the usage of this rhetoric is not a mistake. The purpose is to confuse, distort, and be as ambiguous as possible. It also automatically puts social justice ideologues into a position of power, a title they often claim to resent. It turns this field into an exclusive, invite-only club in which you must adhere to the unwritten rules in order to be accepted. And if you follow the rules, you will be rewarded greatly both financially and socially.
Bridge building work is also financially lucrative.
Just like DEI, ‘bridge building’ organizations are healthily funded by some of the biggest foundations.
In 2018, the Othering & Belonging Institute’s total revenue was over $260 million, though it’s unclear how much of its funds are tied up in the UC Berkeley Foundation. Some of its funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation (in 2017 the Kellogg Foundation gave the Institute over $2 million), Tides Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. In 2021, the Institute doubled its staff, expanded its programming, and is looking to expand globally.
Employees are called ‘bridgers’ who comprise of the same revolving door of people who work in other similar organizations. And these major foundations are the same players that fund all ‘bridge building’ organizations. The end result is that all of these organizations start to resemble one another.
This begs the question: how can we nourish a pluralist society in which diverse views are allowed when the very organizations that do ‘bridge building’ work are ideologically homogenous and are funded by the same foundations, and who hire the same revolving door of employees?
For example, the organization Make Dinner Great Again was founded by Justine Lee, who is the former Executive Director for Living Room Conversations. Debilyn Molineaux is the President and CEO of the Bridge Alliance; she is also on the advisory board of Living Room Conversations as well as the National Conversation Project. Joan Blades is co-founder of AllSides for Schools as well as Living Room Conversations. And on it goes.
Much like DEI initiatives, corporations have also started co-opting bridge building initiatives. General Mills rolled out an initiative called Courageous Conversations, which aims at giving employees a ‘safe and supportive place to have candid discussions about important issues.’
Google, Chevron, Hewlett Packard, among others support an initiative called the Dialogue Project, which seeks to overcome divisiveness and help people find common ground. It’s unclear what the status of this initiative is as the website is currently down, but one can assume an initiative like this would go about as well as workplace diversity trainings.
The problem we face today is that we are no longer simply ideologically different, we operate in different realities altogether. And these diverging realities pose the greatest threat to humankind. They have the capacity to unravel the fabric of society, particularly Western societies that depend on some common truths, or a common foundation in order to function.
Bridging divides is simply not a realistic goal when we are living in different realities. Perhaps we should be addressing this first, and then we can confront our political, social, economic, and other differences.
These initiatives must go further. It’s not simply about having a conversation within a narrow framework, but it’s about the steps after this. It doesn’t begin and end with a conversation, but that’s as far as these organizations go.
Bridge building work may be well-intentioned but it is not without its flaws. I suspect it will follow the same fate as DEI, in which DEI advocates advocate for diversity and inclusion but in the same vein they refuse to allow for diversity of thought and exclude anyone who believes differently than them.
Taken all together, bridge building work is a multi-million dollar grift that produces zero results.
We are in desperate need of a paradigm shift, and that means solving problems from a different framework, not from an existing ideology that does more harm than good.
Feature image credit: Terushichi Hirai (平井 輝七), Life, 1938.