Demonizing the other: a “trap” easy to fall into

Julie Winokur, Bring It To The Table documentary producer, with student

By: Anthony Moretti

Documentary producer Julie Winokur remembers the day. It was about six years ago, and she was sitting at her kitchen table with one of her sons.

“He called me intolerant. He said I wouldn’t listen to other people,” Winokur said, as she spoke on Monday to about 320 students gathered for the first day of The Washington Center’s Inauguration 2017 academic seminar.

She knew he was right. Like so many other people, Winokur had become convinced that she had the answers to the country’s political issues and problems. Anyone who dared challenge her would be met with a feisty response.

At that moment, a project was born.

“Bring It to the Table” explores what happened when Winokur traveled across the country before the 2012 presidential election. At each event, she put a small table, draped with an American flag, in front of her. Her interview subject sat across from her. A plastic potted flower was in the middle. The conversation always began with Winokur asking that the person place that flower as far left or as far right as they thought they were on the political spectrum.

She spoke to more than 100 people about the beliefs that anchored their political ideology. But instead of agreeing or disagreeing with each person, she asked them to help her understand why they believed what they did.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the documentary comes when a white conservative voter and a black liberal voter individually discuss welfare. The conservative said he was raised to believe that “no one was special.” His mother, despite working three jobs, refused to allow her son to take free lunch at school. The liberal voter said welfare and his school’s free lunch program gave his working mother and him the chance to meet their needs. He grew up and went to Duke University.

Winokur’s work doesn’t suggest either man is right; rather, their words illustrate how two private citizens can see welfare from distinct positions.

Winokur contends that attempts at political conversation break down for too many Americans because they forget a simple premise: “We enter from different doorways, but we want to talk from each other as if we entered through the same doorway,” she said.

As a result, Americans are quick to fall into the trap of demonizing the other, she added. The corrosive effect is that a kind of purity test eventually develops in which “we are forced to be all or nothing,” according to Winokur, as Americans seek to remain within the group of people who believe as they do.

Maria-Evengelica Telfort, who attends Suffolk University, asked for Winokur’s advice about defending her political positions “while also maintaining my integrity.”

Winokur suggested Telfort and everyone else in the room needed to keep the “you’re wrong” response off the table. She then spoke of the importance of asking people to discuss why they felt as they did: What experiences or what information were they using to come to their political beliefs. If people felt comfortable and safe, Winokur said, then there was a better chance they’d open up about themselves.

Winokur concluded by doing a table talk with one of the students. Kirwin Seger is a student at Juniata College. He’s from New York City, and he was raised by two lesbians. His placement of the flower suggested he was liberal though nowhere near as far left as he might have been.

Their conversation took an unexpected turn when Seger acknowledged he was an advocate for the Second Amendment.

Winokur lives in nearby New Jersey and admitted that the thought of owning a gun scared her. She pointed to the various mass shootings across the country and about the incidents of children accidentally shooting their siblings as reasons she’d never want a gun in her home.

Seger contended that as a former Boy Scout he was taught the correct ways to handle and store a gun, lessons he now passes on to current Scouts.

Soon the National Rifle Association, of which Seger is a member, was mentioned.

“Do you ever write to the NRA about legislative issues? Winokur asked.

Seger said he often does because he believes the NRA has a responsibility to its members but also to the public to make sure that only people who should own guns get their hands on them.

Winokur reminded the students that as more and more politicians refuse to take the lead in fostering legitimate political that it was incumbent upon them to never forget that talking and listening were essential to the health of American democracy.

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