Can a documentary restore America’s civility?
It’s every reality TV show contestant’s mantra — like a sacred psalm for “Survivor”: “I’m not here to make friends.”
But Jeff Avery and Donna Lawson were on a different kind of reality show.
Avery, a 51-year-old liberal from Sandwich, and Lawson, a 49-year-old conservative from Taunton, were among 12 Massachusetts residents — six Trump voters and six, uh, extremely not Trump voters — who spent a weekend last September filming the first three episodes of “Divided We Fall,” a documentary series currently in production and sponsored by the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse.
Now, despite their differences, Avery and Lawson are friends.
I’ve written before about the folks at the civility institute. They’ve spent years crisscrossing the country, undertaking various efforts — meetings, pledges, websites — to tone down the toxic rhetoric that has overtaken our public square. And just when I begin to wonder whether the civility people are broken and huddled politely behind a fern in some hotel conference room somewhere, they reemerge with a new plot to get us to be more respectful toward each other, online and IRL.
This time it involves forcing a dozen strangers with strong and conflicting opinions to discuss politics with each other on camera.
This is the scenario I expect to encounter on my first day in hell. But polls show that Americans across the political spectrum are eager to be able to talk with and understand one another, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the institute’s executive director emerita. That’s not the same as the vague, centrist, feel-good notion of Americans “coming together” and “setting aside our differences.”
It’s sort of the opposite: It’s about actually exploring those differences.
“We can’t keep treating each other as enemies because of these differences,” Lukensmeyer said.
I mean, we obviously can keep treating each other that way. We almost certainly will. But with some notable exceptions — white supremacists, certain pharmaceutical salesmen, the Fyre Festival guy — we probably shouldn’t.
The producers haven’t locked in a distribution deal yet but are looking at big streaming platforms that reach a lot of people. Whether a TV show can effect that particular change in our national tone and tenor is . . . well, given the current state of things, it’s hard to picture.
As Avery, Lawson, and I ate breakfast at a Brockton diner, the House Judiciary Committee was holding a hearing on the rise of white nationalism. On YouTube, where the hearing was streaming live, the user comments were so full of racist invective that they were eventually turned off.
Lawson, a real estate agent who also runs a cleaning company, and Avery, who works as a chef for Chevron, preparing food for crews on monthslong voyages, ended up on the show by first answering a casting call. They completed questionnaires and interviews before finally being chosen to participate in the weekend-long experiment on a farm in Ashfield.
The participants were from different walks of life and held drastically different political views, but they were all Gen Xers — and all white.
“When we all sat down for the first time, it was very clear that there were no people of color in the group,” Avery recalled. “I said a couple of times, ‘There’s a problem here.’ ”
Lukensmeyer said that was by design.
“There’s a very specific reason we did that,” Lukensmeyer said. Polling data post-election showed “the biggest differences on Trump were among white people. We did some testing, that if we brought people of color, the conversation always went to race, and the white people got off the hook.” Instead, the setting was designed to force the participants to interrogate their political differences with no place to hide.
This makes some sense: It was white folks — and not just those suffering from “economic anxiety” — who elected Trump. Still, in the early versions of episodes shared with the Globe, it’s a little hard to stomach watching participants bring up the Michael Brown shooting or national anthem protests in an all-white setting. Lukensmeyer said three subsequent episodes, filmed in Chicago with a different group of participants, feature millennials from different ethnicities explicitly discussing race: “What you’ll see there is that the conversation went deeper on race than I’ve ever seen before.”
One other thing the Massachusetts participants had in common, Avery said: “We were all hungry to have a real conversation. Maybe even an understanding.”
“For me, the weekend was about how to engage with people to make it a better discussion,” Avery said. “Because I’m not changing Donna’s mind. Donna’s not going to change my mind. But we can now talk about stuff and at least maybe come to a different viewpoint.”
But if you’re not changing anybody’s mind, then why bother? Why on earth would I be interested in having a polite, restrained conversation about whether chain-link holding cells are or are not technically “cages?” Treating everything as some sort of intellectual exercise also has the effect of artificially lowering the stakes.
When real people are suffering, being civil about something like the Trump administration’s family separation policy, which the president is reportedly seeking to revive, can feel an awful lot like enabling it.
Lukensmeyer said the opportunity to change people’s minds — even just slightly, or on a particular issue — is part of the point, too. And she saw some of those changes happen during the course of the show.
“What did change is their openness to facts on the issues that they previously did not know,” Lukensmeyer said. “In Chicago, it was about gun control and race. In Massachusetts, it was more about education and immigration.”
Lawson and Avery both acknowledged that the weekend has changed their behavior, particularly online, where they’d both spent time in the trenches, fighting the Facebook wars.
“That weekend kind of made us look at the big picture,” Lawson said. “I am doing it in a different way when I do, and responding to other people’s posts differently.”
Avery, whose list of nicknames for the president is mostly unprintable, said he has toned down his sarcasm.
This requires a certain level of maturity and good-faith effort that is increasingly rare, particularly online. But will some people, seeing themselves in Jeff or in Donna while watching the series, resolve to dial it down a few notches? That’s the idea, Lukensmeyer said.
“If I watch that television program and I identify emotionally with someone on the program, it’s possible for me to go through that same attitude change,” Lukensmeyer said, “and even translate that into behavior change.”
That’s a lot to ask of any TV show. But if Avery and Lawson can discuss their differences, instead of setting them aside, maybe the rest of us can follow their lead.