Lately, we’ve been abusing each other. So wrote Nathan Bomey in his forthcoming book “Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age.” Bomey’s research covers the country, from Washington, D.C., where youth are making art to combat the city’s stereotypes as dangerous and politicized, to Detroit’s bankruptcy to the national fight against climate change in American politics. From a “family therapy” meeting between conservatives and liberals, where each listens to the other’s reservations about their own side, to the journalistic effort “100 Days in Appalachia,” which has (rightfully) lasted way longer than 100 days, Bomey reports on how Americans are building bridges across racial, political and digital divides, in a way that can bring hope to those looking at this country and just seeing disconnection and discord.
Through these concrete and colorful encounters, Bomey illustrates that unity is not required for what he calls “bridge building.” Social trust and personal relationships — not facts or statistics — make the difference. While we Americans are indeed entrenched in some deep-rooted, bitter disagreements, in so many more ways we are far less divided than we think. According to Bomey, if we look closely at everyday life in America, bridge building is actually a familiar part of our culture: think of medics, who provide life-saving care no matter someone’s religion; neighbors who bring casseroles when tragedy strikes; and those strangers willing to offer assistance or directions to lost travelers in their hometowns.
Being bridge builders does not mean meeting in the middle or acting as though both sides are always equal, Bomey clearly points out. Instead, effective bridge builders focus on creating relationships with people who are different from them before trying to hash out disagreements. This order of operations is exactly the opposite of what’s happening in our culture; we are quick to cull our friend group when any sign of disagreement happens, labeling differences “toxic” and building echo chambers and silos around ourselves in the name of “self-care.” According to Bomey, call-out culture has rapidly given way to cancel culture; in the rare events that we do choose to interact with those who are different, it’s a confrontation rather than a conversation. He says that we prioritize shaming and embarrassing “the other side,” rather than listening, understanding and really hearing. And this is what’s in the way of the changes and healing we all really need.
Unfortunately, “Bridge Builders” also contains some of the divisive, accusatory, alienating and overconfident language it claims to want to stamp out. While I agree with Bomey that facts do not change minds, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be citing sources for some of his “100% true fact” claims, especially when they are actually legitimately controversial. “Facts aren’t everything” does not exempt anyone from citing and explaining valid sources to back up claims that have not been proven and over which there is legitimate disagreement. For example, Bomey repeatedly claims vaccines are safe; without sources, blanket statements about the nature of vaccines, especially ones that are explicitly experimental, are too strong. Bomey only acknowledges his problematic instincts in some areas, and this inconsistency could lead a reader to believe that he has revealed all of his biases.
Overall, though, his focus on solutions is commendable. I’ve written in previous reviews about my nonfiction burnout because of the overwhelming detail with which problems are presented and the miniscule, if any, amount of time spent on presenting actual, doable solutions that everyday people can engage in.
“Bridge Builders” is different, with almost the reverse ratio: just enough time discussing the problem to make it clear why the proposed solution is needed and way more time spent on the whos and hows of the solutions. His concrete suggestions for action, taken from real-life bridge builders he interviewed, are refreshing and sorely needed in this time.
Each instance focuses on individuals building relationships with each other, which may not feel like the rapid and sweeping change we desperately need, but, as Bomey says, “if we don’t care enough about each other, change will remain elusive.”
Read more of the Apr. 21-27, 2021 issue.