EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - There are twelve days until the 2020 presidential election, but protests, counter-protests, Facebook group arguments, and lawn signs signify a much greater divide than existed four years ago. Political tensions are broiling in communities across the US— and East Brunswick, as discussed by the East Brunswick Human Relations Council Tuesday night, is no different.

In their latest Coffee and Conversations virtual program, Is Outrage Destroying Civil Discourse, the East Brunswick Human Relations Council steered away from their COVID-19 essential business-focused series, Unity in the Community. Upon Mayor Cohen’s suggestion, Nikhil Sadaranganey, secretary of EBHRC, said the Council realized a discussion was needed about civil discourse in the coming weeks, lest any tensions within the East Brunswick community escalate.

“For that reason, we really wanted to keep the event a-political,” Sadaranganey said. “We’re going to talk about, when people are discussing different ideas, how do you listen to what you don’t necessarily agree with? How do you interact and engage with those ideas in an intellectual way?”

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The program, which featured political science professor Dr. Robert Boatright of Clark University and race and ethnic studies professor Dr. Sylvia Chan-Malik of Rutgers University, focused instead on how members of the East Brunswick community on opposite ends of the political spectrum can conduct productive conversations on the state of the nation in times of political turmoil. To Chan-Malik, it has never been more important to consider where others are coming from when doing so.

 “Empathy comes out of the fact of knowing that what we think is knowledge is subjective knowledge—it comes out of the place where we stand,” Chan-Malik said.  “And if we can just start with some self-reflection to understanding that, we can start creating conversations that work toward the greater good.”

Though real discussions, Boatright said, are sometimes more difficult than social media tirades, they breed healthier, more conductive dialogue. These days, it has never been easier to make vehement attacks from behind a smartphone.

“I think the hardest thing to teach kids, but also people, is that the person who does that is the person who’s hurting,” Boatright said. “There’s something causing them to be upset, and we should have sympathy,” Boatright said. “You may disagree with their conclusions, but you can agree with some of the things that got them upset.”

As parents, sometimes the most validating thing, both for an upset child or an upset voter, Chan-Malik and Boatright agreed, is being listened to. People, Chan-Malik said, can hide a lot beneath the surface. And when time is taken to understand them, compassion can go the distanc

In the next week and a half it has never been more important to take those steps, the professors said. While New Jersey is no longer the epicenter of the coronavirus, the potential for divisive politics to translate into violence in the coming weeks is a frightening possibility. To Hollie Cerame, a Human Relations Council Board Member, “cancel culture” has never been worse.

“You have this fear now of a personal attack,” Cerame said.  “It’s becoming a learned behavior, an acceptable behavior. Social media is where it’s really gotten the worst, because you’re not really seeing these people in-person. Because if you were, this would be a completely different story.”