by Dan Garrity

The sun and the wind were having an argument about which of them was more powerful. “Look down there,” said the wind. “See that man wearing the overcoat? I’ll bet I can get that coat off him before you can.” The wind blew and blew and blew but the man only clung more tightly to his overcoat. “My turn,” said the sun. And he beamed gentle rays of warmth down on the man who decided on his own to remove his overcoat. ~paraphrased from Aesop’s Fables

There are increasing numbers of people today who appear to be adopting the wind’s strategy, at least when it comes to political dialogue. Challenged to devise an experiment to address our country’s deteriorating state of civil discourse, the sun/wind parable and a Heineken commercial provided inspiration.

As a college professor who loves to conduct experiments with Broadcast Studies majors at Gonzaga University, carrying out the research usually takes the form of television shows. Students believe in the power of storytelling to bring about social change, which is why when asked to deliver a session at an International Conference on Hate Studies, the group chose to make it a gameshow. The hypothesis: student produced entertainment programming can prove that people on opposite sides of divisive issues could willingly, even joyfully, find common ground.

The show, Common Ground, was a collective attempt by the group to follow-up on a viral Heineken video produced years ago (Tinyurl.com/HeinekenAd). It proved that entertaining content delivered via social media can get people to pay attention to issues they otherwise might not face. Seeking to do the same with a hyper-specific test group of liberals and conservatives, teams were rewarded not for forcing their points of view on each other, but rather for exploring areas of agreement—deciding for themselves to find common ground.

The initial plan involved three teams of two participants, each pairing a liberal and conservative. Finding contestants proved more difficult than initially imagined. Surprised that neither politically-affiliated student group on campus accepted the invitation, an assumption was made that maybe their reluctance was due to the present and often toxic nature of political dialogue. It’s possible they couldn’t believe they’d be able to succeed with someone who, on paper, disagrees with them so much. Since the experiment couldn’t succeed without players, teams were limited to two, and consisted of individuals with whom there was already a relationship of trust.

The adult team was comprised of a teaching colleague and local radio host Mike Fitzsimmons, as well as Amber McKenzie—a Gonzaga alumna and publisher of Natural Awakenings magazine. Two broadcasting majors made up the student team: sophomores Jacob Dizon and Jordan Tolbert. They all agreed to come into the studio for two hours on a Saturday and be recorded while they went through a series of games, devised by student executive producer Emily Jung.

Like the Heineken video, Common Ground began with an ice-breaker designed to help the contestants get to know each other while the viewer got to know and care about them, as well. Emily’s plan had the teams sit together at a table and open a series of envelopes with conversation prompts. No areas of disagreement were to be explored in this segment; it was only meant to help each of them learn about the other’s life and approach to life.

The second segment had the teams learn a foreign language, then build a block structure using instructions in that language alone. This was meant as a team-building exercise. Since only one of the players could see the model to be built and only the other could touch the blocks, they had to get through a frustrating experience together by trusting each other and cooperating.

The first time any areas of disagreement were to be explored came in the third segment. Once the players had begun to care about each other and had a shared, stressful experience that they conquered together, the theory was they could safely share perspectives on divisive issues. Teams were first presented with a series of hot topics to discuss (immigration, professional football, the presidency, etc.) and then asked to guess their teammate’s response to each. This exercise was meant to help them recognize their own biases regarding predicting behavior based on political ideology, as well as to help them define the other’s points of view more clearly.

Finally, the teams were challenged to reveal how much they had in common regarding one of the central issues presently dividing our country: What does it mean to be an American? Teams had 30 minutes to compose a joint statement answering the question. Whereas people on the left may typically say, “The right doesn’t know what it means to be an American” and conservatives might say the same thing about liberals, this final segment hoped to prove neither statement to be true for the teams involved.

Once each show section had been produced and edited, it was time to prepare for the conference presentation. At its core, Common Ground was a class project for Gonzaga broadcasting majors. Emily led her class of eight as they transformed a seminar room at the conference into a television studio. Student host Spencer Martin stepped in front of the cameras to present the show to a live audience; the people who chose to attend the breakout session and who would become the judges for the program.

After the taping was complete, it immediately became apparent that the experiment had worked. After witnessing the show, the audience was asked for their overriding emotion. The first man to speak said, “Hope”. Others echoed that thought, thanking the students for the effort, and talking about how important it was to do something like this; to at least try to get to know someone before dismissing their perspective. It was exciting to hear that audience members wanted to take the idea and craft it into something they might use in their own communities.

The Common Ground design could easily accommodate many areas of disagreement. While politics was the first focus, sexual identity, religion or even a school board budget disagreement could be the focus. The important thing is to try.

View the Common Ground gameshow at youtube.com/watch?v=8wYXw4K0A3g. 

Dan Garrity spent a career in television news before becoming a broadcast studies professor at Gonzaga University in 2001. He’s married, with three daughters and three granddaughters and enjoys nothing more than spending time with family. Email him at Garrity@gonzaga.edu.