Podcast: Jacob Hess, Defining Words from All Sides
Updated: May 22, 2019
“Our belief is that civility doesn’t have to taste like broccoli,” said Jacob Hess, member of Living Room Conversations and Director of the Utah chapter of The Village Square. “It doesn’t have to be this heavy civic duty that people do just because they’re supposed to. We can actually have some fun with it.”
Hess appeared on This is Civity Radio to talk about the AllSides Dictionary, an online resource that helps people from differing perspectives better understand what a word means coming from a different bubble.
The goal is to “take a word that’s been weaponized or become a dog whistle or become a real divider – I’d say ‘climate change denier’ might be one of those” – and define it from several perspectives. “Our hope is that if people understand – just understand that another human being who is thoughtful and maybe even good-hearted is experiencing this word in a very different way, maybe then I can use it in a different way. Maybe that changes how we share it.”
Hess said many of the issues surrounding language today do not come from people who want to do each other harm. Rather, they come from lack of understanding.
“I don’t think we as human beings want to be as aggressive as the words are sometimes set up to be," he said. “I don’t think we really want to cudgel, badger, and bully. We simply may not realize how these words have a life of their own sometimes.”
Hess encourages people, “instead of taking offense first, say ‘help me understand what you mean.’ Or, ‘that word offends me, but I am sure that’s not what you’re trying to do. Let’s talk about it.’”
This work can be difficult, but Hess and other people and organizations working to bridge divides and build Civity say it is important to face the work head on and push through any discomfort.
Stop pretending it’s fun, he said. “It’s hard work. It can be scary. It messes with tribal dynamics, and it is totally worth it.”
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer natural spaces exist where people are coming across those who think differently, especially online, where we can actually block or unfriend those whose views we don’t want to hear.
“In so many instances, it’s hard for people to find those opportunities,” said Hess. Beyond social media, “they’re not happening at church or schools. We cluster with the people who think like us.”
The fallout from this separation has been some growing anger and aggression, but also growing number of people who are speaking up against that separation. That’s where organizations like Civity, The Village Square, and Living Room Conversations come in, inviting, encouraging, and guiding people through the process of engaging with their other, listening, and bridging these divides to find common ground.
Hess believes that with awareness comes opportunity. “There really is so much hope in this work,” he said. “We can find affection across our deepest differences.”
“Thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on pretty much everything,” said Hess. “Once we realize that, life gets a lot calmer…. When I hear somebody ask a question with real curiosity, for me, it’s one of the most beautiful things. I just love it. There’s something about real curiosity that’s just – it’s like a sunset to me.”