We've probably all heard the term before: cancel culture. By definition, cancel culture is "a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles, either online on social media, in the real world, or both." We've all seen this happen, especially in an age where every thought we've had for years has been posted on Facebook walls, recorded on video, or shared in a Tweet. With the rise of extreme polarization in the United States, be it over issues of immigration policy, voting methods, or healthcare rights, we have seen more of this attitude towards one another than ever before.
But how can we change this narrative? How can we find ways to listen to each other, even if we don't always agree? My Neighbor's Voice, a program co-founded by Mary Anne Inglis, a member of St. John in the Wilderness, Flat Rock, is working to make these conversations possible. By facilitating roundtable discussions with a focus on listening rather than responding, My Neighbor's Voice hopes to allow people to share their thoughts without fear of judgement.
"My Neighbor's Voice is a wonderful way to bring a community together by offering hospitality and a safe place for listening to each other," Inglis said. "It is a way to encourage people to have grace for one another."
My Neighbor's Voice began in an informal setting, around a kitchen table. For many years Inglis, alongside her friend Victoria Chance, used to host gatherings, bringing people together of different opinions to share a dinner together, inspired by a passion for dialogue and discussion amongst a range of political thought. She recalls stopping by Chance's house only days after the 2016 presidential election, feeling somewhat defeated by the polarization and anger she was witnessing in the world, and Chance reminding her, "we know what to do with this!" An active member of the Greenville Interfaith Community, Chance saw an opportunity for connection and understanding amongst belief, based off of the model of Interfaith Gatherings, and thus, My Neighbor's Voice was born.
My Neighbor's Voice brings people together of different walks of life, regardless of faith, culture, race, or political party, and encourages these difficult conversations in a safe and open space. The format is simple; participants gather, either in person, or more recently, via Zoom, and take turns answering a question from a pack of Listening Cards from one of five categories: Our Society, Civic Rights and Responsibilities, Environment and Health, Political Thought, and Hello Neighbor. When the three minute response time is up, the next person answers a question, and so on. The other participants are tasked with actively listening, without responding, to the responses of their peers.
"As we practice listening to our neighbor it's amazing how many walls start coming down," Inglis said. "You realize your neighbor is not so different than yourself even if they have different ways of approaching things, and that most of us want the same thing at the end of the day."
The format of the program is designed to promote listening rather than response, as each question answered is different, thus eliminating the desire to comment on another's answer. However, at the end of each session, the floor is opened up to 10 minutes of communal discussion time. Inglis notes that it is here that she notices many of the connections are made, as participants reflect and recognize that perhaps they hold many values in common after all.
"I remember our first meeting was at Victoria's home, and one of the older gentlemen there wanted to answer every single one of the questions," Inglis said. "So I reminded him that at the end we would have a time to talk. We had a diverse group that night, we had a father and son from Iraq, we had a gay couple, we had men and women of many ages. By the end, the man from Iraq said, 'I wish I'd had the question about what fuels terrorism,' and we gave him time to respond. When he was finished, the 70-year-old man said, 'Well, I've just learned that we have more in common than we ever knew.'"
By bringing together diverse groups of participants, many of the questions prompted by the Listening Cards hold space for a variety of responses. Inglis recalls one moment when a woman was presented with a Pro-Choice question, and the immediate tightening of the group in anticipation of how the question would be answered. However, in response, the woman discussed the mask-wearing.
"I was surprised at first, but then I thought, 'This is so interesting,'" Inglis said. "She addressed what is traditionally known in correlation but then took the discussion elsewhere, and made some interesting points. At the end when we had discussion time, one of the other participants said, 'You know, when you got that Pro-Choice question it made my skin crawl, because that's one of those things we don't talk about, but as soon as you started answering my skin stopped crawling. It was so nice to know that all I had to do was listen.'"
Going forward, My Neighbor's Voice is working to develop their curriculum for Sunday School Classes, Seasonal Sessions, and more. They host a monthly forum, open to all, on Thursday nights, where all who are interested in listening and learning are welcome.
"It's comforting to know that it's ok to have some grey areas in life," Inglis said. "We want to bring people off of Facebook walls and come together as community to say, 'We're all people!'"
To learn more about the work of My Neighbor's Voice or register for an upcoming event, please visit https://www.myneighborsvoice.org/
Click here to purchase your own set of Listening Cards online.
Questions for discussion:
What is your experience with poverty? How do you think poverty impacts our community? (Our Society)
What does "liberty and justice for all" mean to you? (Political Thought)
What is your experience with our veteran population and their needs and expectations? What are your thoughts? (Health and Environment)
How do you value free speech as described in and protected by our Constitution? (Civic Rights and Responsibilities)