I recently was caught on the leading edge of a social media firestorm that ignited, ironically, out of an effort to bring people together to talk about issues that divide us as Americans.
In the first episode of my new podcast, "Uniting America with John Wood Jr.," I hosted Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher and bestselling author, to discuss what it will take to rehabilitate our societal capacity to reason together on complex issues without finding ourselves deranged by tribal politics.
In the conversation, I posed to Harris that we have lost the assets society needs to help us figure out together what we know and don't about COVID-19, voter fraud and other issues that have so divided Americans in recent years.
Harris and I had a meaningful discussion, and I hoped that it would give Harris and our audience something to think about in terms of what healthy conversations and persuasion might look like in our society.
We talked for 2 hours, but 5 minutes went viral
What happened instead was quite different. Five minutes of the two-hour episode were picked up by an activist named Alexandros Marinos, who was not satisfied with Harris’ explanation for his public falling out with evolutionary biologist, podcaster and political activist Bret Weinstein over the public health response to COVID-19.
Marinos also was troubled by a thought experiment that Harris offered in which he said that part of the challenge with our response to COVID-19 was that it had a relatively mild impact on some segments of the population but was devastating for others. So not everyone understood how important it was to counter misinformation in defense of those who were endangered.
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Harris then said that if COVID had been deadlier for children as opposed to the elderly, society would have responded more appropriately. In that sense “we got unlucky,” he said.
Marinos' clip of Harris' discussion soon went viral, provoking an avalanche of comments that claimed Harris wishes that more children had died during the pandemic. Others simply felt that Harris' thought experiment was a useless rationalization of his own mistakes in his dispute with Weinstein.
My Twitter notifications were flooded
I had a front-row seat as Sam Harris' fans and Bret Weinstein’s fans battled it out and flooded my Twitter notifications.
I tried my best to redirect the conversation to the actual focus of my dialogue with Harris – namely the need for us to maintain our relationships so that networks of trust can produce fruitful dialogue.
But that point was pretty well drowned out.
Meanwhile, Weinstein in response amplified his calls for Harris to engage him publicly, saying that soon he would “stop being nice” about it.
I do hope that they can reconnect. But what is truly needed are public conversations on controversial subjects that can unfold in a spirit of camaraderie, with a great deal of graciousness for human fallibility, in a shared pursuit of truth and for the common good of humanity.
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In the storms of people’s passions, it can be easy to forget that our indignation and frustration are likely to push those goals further away.
Polarization poisons our democracy: But I still have hope we can save it.
To the extent that my conversation with Harris stirred the unstable passions that drive us further apart, it was, I am grieved to say, a failure.
Yet, sober reflection and paths toward truth and reconciliation are often found in the aftermath of bloody collisions. And some listeners did recognize the purpose of my conversation with Harris and the need for us to restore a culture of dialogue rooted in good faith and unconcerned with recrimination.
I am still confident that Americans' appreciation for the need to reset how we interact publicly with one another is on the rise.
Perhaps we can yet come back together – and step back from darkness into light.
John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My COVID podcast blew up on Twitter, drew in Elon. It wasn't my goal.