Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal. We toss around labels insisting that WE know the truth about the other side. In his timely and forthcoming documentary, Joe McGovern listens with eloquence and is able to truly and deeply connect with The Other Side.
“Joe is a progressive liberal democrat who has always been interested in politics, but who recently grew tired of the extreme political partisanship in America today. he created The Other Side: a liberal democrat explores conservative America to see if he could find another way-a better way-to talk to those he disagrees with. 20,000 miles, 5 months, 35 states and 82 interviews later, Joe and his team are editing the footage of his journey into a 75 minute documentary they hope will bring the two sides together and create a more efficient way to do politics and government in America” (The Other Side Website).
Joe McGovern has successfully raised over $50,000 for his film and is in the final editing stages. I had an opportunity to see a rough cut of this important film and recently spoke with McGovern for this interview.
Your documentary focuses on listening to the other side. When thinking about Donald Trump or other politicians, is there ever a time when hate speech should not be listened to?
Trump, or anyone, who uses hate speech should be, in no uncertain terms, criticized and condemned. However, I urge us on the left to take it a step further. After we condemn hate speech we should ask, “Why?” Why is something that occurs to me like hate speech so appealing to the other side? And we should ask that openly and honestly. I find that we on the left are good at asking “Why?” but we ask that question thinking we already know the answer. For example, if we ask, “Why do poor people vote republican?” we say they’re uneducated or duped by Fox News. If we already know the answer, then we’re not really asking the question. In my film I tried to ask those questions without an answer or agenda already in mind, and what I found is that I was surprised by the answers. There’s all this interesting nuance and complexity underneath conservatism that I never knew was there before.
What advice can you give young people who would like to listen to the other side?
Change your goal. If you want the same old arguments with people on the other side where both of you leave the conversation pissed off, then keep trying to convince the other side that you’re right and they’re wrong. But if you want to create a productive political conversation, give up trying to win and instead try to learn something. Look for values that you agree with underneath the other side’s policies that you disagree with. Look for nuance and complexity in the issues – and be willing to acknowledge nuance and complexity that might be inconvenient for your own beliefs. Don’t worry about “losing a point for the team.” For example, if you’re on the left, be willing to talk about the unintended incentives in welfare programs that may be doing more harm than good. And if you’re on the right be willing to talk about how an increasing wage gap between the rich and the poor might not be healthy for a thriving economy. If you do that, you’ll be having a conversation that can lead somewhere. One that’s exciting rather than the boring same old, same old.
How much of the political polarization in the United States is a result of large television news companies looking for ratings and money?
Oh I don’t know. Some, I guess? But I think the better question is, what’s causing those big ratings for the polarizing content their showing? It’s us watching that polarizing content. I think it’s time we stop blaming the media and the politicians and start to take some responsibility ourselves for the extremely partisan and polarized political environment we find ourselves in. That was the idea behind my documentary. What if I’m responsible for the extreme polarization in American politics? What if I have an overly generalized and exaggerated picture of who the other side is and I haven’t taken the time to really listen to them and try to understand them and where they’re coming from? And what if I drove around the country and talked to them so I could get a more accurate picture of who they are?
Do you feel that positive entities like the Foundation for Independent Voter Education and your film can help spur a grassroots media movement towards less partisan politics? What does that look like?
Yes. The Foundation for Independent Voter Education runs a dialogue platform called the Independent Voter Network (ivn.us) where authors from both sides write articles about the issues. There is a code of conduct that requires the dialogue to remain respectful, which doesn’t work perfectly (read the comments sections on the articles and you’ll see much of the typical political ranting) but it’s a good start. As for my film, yes, I think my film can help spur a grassroots movement towards less partisan politics. I found a way to speak to the other side that was not only fun, but connective and even intimate. I just had to create a new goal for the conversation. I had to give up “trying to win an argument” and replace it with “trying to gain a better understanding.”
What is one thing that you learned from filming that changed you permanently?
This might sound overly psychological, but I learned how to deal with anger. The conservatives I interviewed said a lot of stuff that sounded crazy to me, so I felt angry a lot. But I tried to replace that anger with curiosity. It wasn’t easy. Anger has a lot of energy to it and the urge to fight back was strong. But when I was successful, when I could transform my anger into curiosity – that was what allowed me to discover hidden complexity and nuance. The hidden complexity and nuance in conservatives and in the issues themselves that I never knew was there before. What’s more, knowing I have that ability now – knowing that I can create a productive conversation with anyone – that kind of makes me feel like a badass. Confident. Peaceful.
What are the future plans for the film and for you?
Once we finish the film, which should be in a month or so, we’ll look for distribution. I’d especially like to get it into schools so that young people can see how it’s possible to have productive dialogue with those we disagree with. They’ll be the ones dealing with the extreme polarization if we don’t. As for me, I’d love to continue this kind of work. At a fundraiser for the film an African American man said, “Please do one on the black experience in America next.” I’d love to do that. The Other Side II: a white suburban kid explores black America. Also, I’m fascinated by religion. Maybe there’s a The Other Side III: an atheist explores Christian America. I have about a dozen other ideas. Maybe a The Other Side the series? That would be incredible.
-To learn more about The Other Side and watch the trailer, please visit: