Finding our Inner Ukrainian

As we watch Ukrainians defend their country from a brutal onslaught, many of us are seeking ways to engage. We’re donating money, lighting buildings with blue and yellow, analyzing President’s Zelensky’s inspiring leadership.

And there’s another way we can engage in this moment. We can protect and strengthen our own democracy in a time when relationships are straining and behaviors deteriorating.

A recent study, evaluating societies around the world and across the centuries, showed that those most able to keep the peace were ones that had norms and values that were peaceful, not war-promoting. They also had visionary peace-focused leaders. Norms and leaders were more important even than economic ties.

The 2022 midterm elections will be a flashpoint. Violence quells democratic expression. People don’t speak their minds or turn up to vote when they’re afraid of violence. To protect our peaceful democracy, how can each of us help surface those leaders and reinforce those norms and values?

We can start by thinking about our own behavior, including not posting inflammatory material on social media. This is how we uphold – or tear down – norms of peaceful democratic behavior. We all enjoy liking a tweet or post that expresses how we see the situation, and often the stronger the terms the better. But we need to be alert to confirmation bias – our built-in tendency to accept information that confirms how we already see the world and ignore challenging information. This hardwiring often prompts us to spread dramatic soundbites or even disinformation — worsening the situation. What can we express that norms democratic behavior?

We can also think about how we interact in our communities. A great way to do this is to seek out groups that are diverse, where we can build relationships that get us away from stereotyped visions of “the other” and create a more nuanced understanding. Relatedly, we can create space for civic dialogue. Talking across divides is difficult but necessary. Mayors, church leaders, universities, and others can convene public discussions around community issues with respected speakers from different sides of a conflict – ideally with experienced facilitators keeping the conversation constructive. We need to normalize talking across our divides, and elect leaders who help us do so.

Finally, we can use our democratic institutions. These are the ultimate form of nonviolent conflict resolution. This means registering voters, making voting safe and accessible, and protecting peaceful protest. It could even mean participating in the running of our institutions, such as by becoming a poll worker. Fewer poll workers mean fewer polling places, and/or polling places that run more slowly. It definitely means protecting election workers, many of whom are volunteers struggling with threats to their personal safety, a deluge of misinformation about voting, and even partisan pressure to corrupt the system. Our system is based on norms of respect for law and other citizens. By using our system, we uphold the democratic norms on which it was created.

This isn’t always easy, but Ukrainians are showing us that the right thing isn’t always easy. Fortunately, the U.S. has its own strong civic spirit. We are permeated with the belief that citizens can and should play a substantive role in our democracy. As Ukrainians fight for their democracy, we can fight for ours as well.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.