The Current

Calgary book club wants to bridge political divide by asking: How Can You Think That?

A Calgary book club brings together people of different political stripes, for discussions aimed at bridging the divide. Founder Julie Sedivy tells us how it works, and why she thinks it's more important than ever to disagree face-to-face.

Julie Sedivy says face-to-face interaction helps people find understanding

A Calgary book club brings together people of different political stripes for discussions aimed at understanding their differences. (Connel/Shutterstock)

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A Calgary book club aims to help people understand different political perspectives by exposing them to a book with ideas they may not agree with — and fellow readers they might agree with even less. 

"There's something about being surrounded by people who reinforce your views that shifts people to an extreme," said Julie Sedivy, founder of the How Can You Think That? book club at Shelf Life Books in Calgary. 

"And this seems to happen regardless of whether you're talking about pipelines, about climate change or even about whether Brad Pitt is the hottest actor," said Sedivy, who is also an adjunct professor in linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary.

Sedivy organized the book club in 2017 to overcome that echo chamber, and expose herself to differing viewpoints.

We're all in this democracy together. There are always going to be people that we disagree with.- Julie Sedivy

The group meets regularly to discuss an assigned book, under the guidelines that they listen to varying viewpoints with respect and restraint, in an effort to better understand each other.

Sedivy spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about how it works, and why she thinks it's more important than ever to disagree face-to-face.

Why did you want to start this book club?

Like many people, I was beginning to be distressed by some of the political rhetoric, the extent of polarization, the sense that I didn't really understand how people on the other side thought about political issues that I didn't agree with. 

You said you were distressed by that. I mean, that's a strong way to describe that. What is distressing to you about that?

I was becoming aware of political opinions that I just did not understand ... the feeling that there's almost another species that you're sharing a planet with. 

I have the feeling that we're all in this democracy together. There are always going to be people that we disagree with. Often those people will be in power, and we just have to somehow find a way to express our concerns to each other without shutting down.

Members of the How Can You Think That book club explain what they learn from the group discussions. 0:40

Why a book club? 

A book is a way to engage very, very deeply with the ideas of the person who wrote it. 

It's a commitment to really kind of entertain a perspective. And we discuss books on climate change, sexual harassment, political correctness, on basic universal income, just all kinds of topics that come up across the spectrum. 

Those can be divisive issues. Do your conversations get hot?

Yes, sometimes they get quite passionate. I think one of the ones where there was the most heat in the room was probably the discussion we had on sexual harassment. 

Take me into the room. I mean, what were some of the things that people were reacting to, and what was the dynamic? 

So that session was actually intensely personal because as you might imagine, a number of people had very direct experiences relating to the issue. We had some women who had been affected very directly by sexual harassment. We had a man who voiced an experience he had being investigated for sexual harassment, and the stress that he felt during that process. 

Even when things get heated, I think there's a general sense of respect and restraint- Julie Sedivy

One of the things that I've noticed is that the group has a particular ethos that has developed as a collective. And even when things get heated, I think there's a general sense of respect and restraint.

On one occasion recently, someone kind of lit into another member of the group and disparaged his views and immediately another person jumped right in. And this was a person who actually disagreed with the person that she was defending, very strongly, but just kind of jumped in and said, "Whoa, whoa, that's not cool. We don't have personal attacks here." 

Because it's so easy to be shouted down for your point of view, you have to create a space where people feel comfortable and safe in expressing their point of view.

Yeah, I think that's one of the things that I've become really convinced [of] — as a result of participating in this book club for several years now — is the power of personal contact, personal relationships, trust that's built over time. 

Is that different than the interactions that we would have, for example, online?

Oh my gosh, it's the polar opposite. If you're a Conservative, your views of Liberals are going to be shaped very closely by the nature of the interactions that you have with people of that group. Online, I can see that the majority of the interactions are very negative. There's a lot of mocking, there's a lot of outrage, there's a lot of anger.

If you come to our book club, the vast majority of the interactions are extremely positive. And we know that positive interactions with people of a different group really soften the stereotypes that one has about them, and just the general openness to them.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jennifer Keene.

This story is part of The Fix — The Current's theme for this season.

From climate change to polarized politics, the challenges we face in today's world can feel overwhelming. But there are people working to find the answers.

We'll bring you their stories: from problems big and small to solutions that worked, and ones that didn't.

 

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