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In a Country That Can't Agree, What Happens Next? 

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Saint Louis University Associate Clinical Professor Shannon Cooper-Sadlo. - COURTESY SHANNON COOPER-SADLO
  • Saint Louis University Associate Clinical Professor Shannon Cooper-Sadlo.

Shannon Cooper-Sadlo says one problem with social media is that anyone can find information that supports their beliefs. An associate clinical professor of social work at Saint Louis University and therapist at Foundations for Change, Cooper-Sadlo has seen the impact social media has had on interpersonal relationships.

She says the collective trauma the country has experienced puts everyone on edge. "When you talk about trauma of any kind, you're talking about people being in a constant state of fight or flight," she says. Everyone constantly feels like they are being attacked by others, she adds. For some, this can lead to aggressiveness. For others, it causes isolation that leads to depression.

Washington University Assistant Professor of Political Science Taylor Carlson offers some better ways to go about taking in political information on social media. Carlson studies the way people digest politics and how the information is spread. She says determining the best way to navigate political information is "a million-dollar question," because everyone's routine is different. But there are ways to make your internet news diet more productive for you and everyone else.

First, Carlson says, be cautious about the source of the information. Think about the possible biases and the credibility. The next step is to question our own biases as the consumer, she adds. Our evaluation of information can be shaped by our ideological viewpoints.

Washington University Assistant Professor Taylor Carlson. - COURTESY TAYLOR CARLSON
  • Washington University Assistant Professor Taylor Carlson.

Cooper-Sadlo offers a different social media strategy to her therapy patients, one that she has adopted herself: Turn it off, she says. The only reason she gets on Facebook or Instagram is to look at pictures of puppies and cats. If that is not an option, just take a break from it every once in a while, she suggests.

Cooper-Sadlo says she believes we will be able to move past the election talk going into 2021. The next question, she says, is how we work to restore relationships that have crumbled after a long year of increasing polarization.

"Rather than continuing to divide, I think we have to come to the table with empathy and compassion," Cooper-Sadlo says.

In Wallis' case, some relationships are worth saving, such as the one with his sister. Others, though, may be permanently damaged. Wallis says he has an aunt who does not believe in equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and Wallis is gay.

He told his family he was gay in October, two years after coming out as bisexual. This was not an easy task for someone who grew up religious, which he says caused him to have internalized homophobia for a long time. That did not stop him from opening up about his sexuality.

For Wallis, the relationship with his aunt comes down to a discussion he is not willing to have — whether he has the right to exist as an equal with the rest of society.

John Doggette sees a problem with the way people go about their disagreements in today's world.

The longtime mediator has listened to thousands of people's stories, and he has learned that most people don't actually listen when others are speaking.

He is reminded of this over and over again. Doggette decided to dedicate his life more than two decades ago to helping others through community mediation. He moved to St. Louis thirteen years ago from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he had worked in conflict resolution since the mid-1990s. In Missouri, he began as a volunteer for the Mennonite Peace Center and has since founded the Conflict Resolution Center and Community Mediation Services of St. Louis.

Now 80 years old, he speaks to the Riverfront Times over the phone as he sits in a recliner in his home. Doggette is an unusual person by his own estimation. When he is done with the interview, he will note it in a log he keeps of every person he talks to. Most of the work he has done during his years in St. Louis has been as a volunteer. That includes his attempts to broker understanding in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

Leaders of the city signed a Department of Justice consent decree after Brown's death that called for citizens and police to resolve their conflicts through a mediation service. Doggette was at the head of the efforts, attending more than a hundred meetings directly following the killing.

His attempt to help conflicting sides understand each other was cut short in 2016 when he says no one in the city of Ferguson or the police department responded to a plan to use his services to continue mediation efforts between residents and police. A major issue post-Ferguson was that people did not want to understand where others were coming from, according to Doggette.

Official and unofficial leaders, he says, were not ready to give up their control. He wishes mediation could have been more prominent in the process of healing wounds after 2014.

"No one ever really understood the importance of what we were trying to do and the need for bringing people together," he says.

Despite the frustrations of Ferguson, Doggette still believes in the work. He stresses the importance of active listening. There is not always a need to form a counter argument, he says. Recognizing you do not always need to defend your point of view can help to understand someone else.

"Bite your tongue until it bleeds," Doggette advises.

Coming to a consensus on differing viewpoints has not always been the path Wallis has taken in his family relationships. He says he is not willing to compromise on his beliefs regarding social justice, even if that means cutting off family members for good.

But that isn't what Wallis likes to focus on. He holds onto the relationships he has kept and the ones that could have a brighter future. Despite their hostilities, Wallis believes he and his sister will work toward a better understanding.

One thing that bonds Wallis and his sister is their shared view on equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It's something that makes them more alike than different and may be a way to bring them together in the future.

Wallis admits he is sometimes closed minded and that having the discussions with family is difficult. Doggette sees situations like these as an opportunity for people to listen. Maybe not to agree, but to simply understand.

At the end of a twenty-minute interview with the RFT, he suggests that is the essence of it all.

"That's the important part of your story, right?" Doggette says. "Having good conversations with people and keep them joyous."

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