Cynthia M. Allen

Tired of unrest and political vitriol? Here’s how you can help

Signs for Beto O’Rourke can be found in different areas around Fort Worth, including this one in front of a home in the Bluebonnet Place neighborhood near Texas Christian University.
Signs for Beto O’Rourke can be found in different areas around Fort Worth, including this one in front of a home in the Bluebonnet Place neighborhood near Texas Christian University. The Texas Tribune

The promise of cooler weather has sent people outside in the evenings on jogs, bike rides and strolls.

In my “front porch” community, that creates an opportunity to reconnect with neighbors missed during the busy, hot summer when most of us were voluntarily sequestered in the air-conditioning.

The conversations shared on driveways and lawns, on the sidewalk and the street, are sometimes brief catch-ups about kids, work and summer vacation.

Their levity suggests nothing of their inherent value. They help us to develop a rapport with our neighbors and build a foundation for future conversations. Indeed, these interactions are incredibly important and, studies show, increasingly rare.

According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of adult Americans know most of their neighbors. That means only about 43 percent of people can address by name the person across the street collecting their morning paper or call hello to the person across the apartment complex courtyard.

Of those who do know their neighbors, only about half talk to them face to face on a weekly basis.

City dwellers are even worse. Despite higher population density, they are even less likely to know and trust the people around them than those who live in rural areas. That could be because few people, urbanites especially, think their neighbors share their political views.

In a podcast I recently reprised on a neighborhood walk, social scientist Marc Dunkelman likened our personal interactions to the rings of Saturn. The inner rings (the most important) include family and close friends, the middle ones include neighbors and people in our community, and the outer rings consist of relationships formed through common interests.

In generations past, people used to invest lots of time and effort in those middle rings, whether they shared their worldview or not. Today, not so much.

Technology and social media have a lot to do with that. We can now connect instantly, without even leaving our homes, with lots of people who share our hobbies and reinforce our beliefs.

But these self-selective interactions come at a price. They consume the time we might otherwise spend interacting with and investing in people in our community, at say a PTA gathering, a city council meeting, even a walk down the block.

Perhaps more importantly, they limit our exposure to different ideas, experiences and political viewpoints and to the people in our communities, perhaps living next door, who hold them.

Having a substantive conversation with someone who does not share our point of view has a palpable effect on the way we view politics, says Dunkelman.

It makes us appreciate their humanity and see them as a reasonable person who thinks differently than we do. It might even combat the growing sense of isolation, social unrest and political vitriol that has come to define our times. Imagine that.

Dunkelman suggests better education, national service and a reprise of Jeffersonian Dinners as other solutions to fight “un-neighborliness.”

We might begin by getting outside, ignoring the political signs in our respective yards and making the effort to know our neighbors.

The campaign tour for Sen. Ted Cruz stopped in Dallas on Saturday, July 28, 2018, and Cruz, who faces Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke in November, spoke with Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy in a Facebook Live.

Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke comments on the news that President Trump will come to Texas to campaign for O'Rourke's opponent, incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, during a campaign stop Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in El Paso.

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