Mending Democracy, One Euphemism at a Time

As women across the political spectrum share their opinions and their lives on a unique online platform, moderators weave in and out of conversations, stitching people together.

Illustration by Adriana García, Spaceship Media

When it came to discussing their monthly visitor, Aunt Flo, it was impossible to tell the Republicans from the Democrats. The women were, to put it plainly, talking about menstruation.

Aunt Irma was a code name one woman used with her husband. The name that had everybody in stitches was Shark Week, a reference to how prickly some women were during their periods. A woman past menopause gleefully called hers Gone Girl. And a woman who didn’t deal in euphemisms was inspired by those around her to get creative; she’s going to call hers Red Velvet.

The conversations were funny and serious in equal measure, as women from across the length and breadth of the United States talked about everything from how they navigated period pains to the difficulties of going through menopause while their children were going through puberty.

The easy banter suggested a level of warmth and camaraderie virtually missing from online political discussion forums, particularly those where liberals and conservatives butted heads. But this was very much a political forum, one where liberal and conservative women came together to dissect American politics and policy, conducting nuanced debates on immigration, President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Together, they delved into issues such as race, gender, gun control and pension cuts.

They were part of a closed Facebook group called The Many, where over 400 women from the left, right and center shared their views in a moderated space. The Many is an experiment in dialogue journalism by Spaceship Media, an organization that works on bridging the divide between people at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The conversation on periods was sparked by Adriana García, project director of The Many. She asked women what they called Aunt Flo, and whether their preferred name for menstruation changed through the years.

Her question begs another — why was García initiating a jovial conversation about periods on a political platform? Why didn’t she just stick to talking politics?

It’s tempting to dismiss non-political conversations on the group as space-fillers; idle chatter that takes place during the breaks between serious political discussions. But García takes funny conversations very seriously. They are, after, all a glue that binds women across the political divide.

While everyone wants to be seen as a whole human being, in this political climate there is a tendency to flatten people who hold opposing political views.

“The fun things on the group are very intentional. They help women see each other as well-rounded human beings. When we know the person behind the vote, it’s harder to hate the other side, and it’s easier for us to come to a consensus, not of solutions, but of problems that must be solved,” she says.

García points to a shared moment between two women — a white Republican and a black Democrat — who bonded over the fact that both of them sometimes smoked in the garage when their children were asleep.

“I like that they (moderators) notice places where a consensus is forming,” says Ruth Grunberg, a participant in The Many.

Another participant, Brittany Walker Pettigrew, spoke of how she often forgets the political ideology of another woman on the group, associating her, instead, with an anecdote from her life, like a story of how she took her kids for a concert.

Fun Fridays are a weekly feature in The Many where participants are encouraged to talk about subjects that are pleasantly entertaining in nature, from Halloween costumes to recipes for pies. While the weekly questions were often earlier posted by the moderators, participants, too, initiate their own Fun Friday conversations.

One such conversation talked of all the ways grandparents were secretly involved in spoiling their grandchildren against their parents’ wishes. Another spoke of fictional characters best suited to lead America. The answers included Leslie Knope, the enthusiastic government employee on the sitcom, Parks and Recreation, and the severe Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter, who was later disqualified because someone pointed out she wasn’t an American citizen.

Sherri Downie, a member of the group, says she didn’t like the fun questions at first, but later realized that they helped relate to people without political tension. “Then I looked forward to them and made sure I took time to read and reply,” she says. Another participant, Cindy Ray, thought the lighter questions were “almost time wasters” when she first joined the group. “But then I quickly came to see that the more we are able to see that other people are actually very much like us, the more we are able to listen to find out why they feel differently about political topics,” she says.

The conversations that help women bond with each other aren’t always about fun topics. A post asking women about the bridges they were happy they burned, helped them share their vulnerabilities and open up to each other.

Moderation of The Many is collaborative, and the team of moderators often work together to frame the questions they ask the group. One of the moderators, Alyxaundria Sanford, recalls the time they thought of asking women about their favorite songs. They decided, instead, to modify the question. They asked women about the songs that people would be shocked to find on their playlist. The question helped women tap into a quirkier side of themselves.

“The moderators help to create better questions, open ended and not judgmental,” says Grunberg. For instance, instead of asking women whether they believed in government intervention, a question that would have had the group split down the middle along party lines, they asked, instead, whether there was anything the state should force a person to do. The answers ranged from car-seats to vaccination.

There are some topics, like abortion, that Walker Pettigrew calls “toxic” and “nuclear” when it comes to how polarizing they are between Republicans and Democrats. García approached the subject in a novel way. She did not ask women what they thought about abortion, or whether they felt it should be allowed. She asked, instead, how women arrived at the conclusion they had on the subject. Nobody was allowed to agree, disagree or comment on each others’ posts.

The stories came tumbling out. Stories about women who learned their parents had wanted to abort them before they were born. Women who were sexual assault survivors. Teenage pregnancies and no one to turn to. Heartache and heartbeats.

Walker Pettigrew felt the thread on abortion was one of the strongest and most powerful builders of sisterhood on the group. “It showed us that people weren’t all one thing or another. People had lots of complicated reasons for the way they felt,” she says.

Walker Pettigrew feels the way posts are framed allows this multicultural, multi-ethnic group of women to understand that multiple different things can be true at the same time, and what is true for one person may not be true of another. “People who live in a community with a majority people of color may experience over-policing and police violence, whereas someone in a majority white community may feel they are being treated in a fair manner by the police, and may never experience over-policing,” she adds.

The group helped another member, Jane St. Pierre, realize that the truth looked very different through different eyes, and there were very few topics where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ could be clearly defined. She discovered that other people’s experiences shaped their views just as her experiences shaped hers.

A question on the nature of truth had women delve into the subject of whether truth was universal, or whether we each had our personal truths. As women tried to peel away the layers of the metaphorical onion, one could be forgiven for imagining this was a philosophy class, and not a political discussion forum.

As winning arguments is not one of the goals of this group, how does one measure the success of a conversation? Is the most successful conversation the one with maximum comments? A heated argument, where one person is being particularly difficult, can result in a large number of comments, but may not be indicative of a productive conversation.

That’s where Kristine Villanueva jumps in. Her job, in addition to being one of the moderators, is to track metrics and qualitatively and quantitatively analyze discussions on The Many, by hand. Her aim is to gauge how meaningful a conversation is for its participants.

Inter-party conversations are among the things she measures. She looks at the extent to which both Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a particular conversation, or whether the majority of participants on a threads all belong to the same ideology. She analyses the most popular threads and the topics of conversation that are most likely to get liberals and conservatives to talk to each other.

The quantitative data she looks at includes the number of ‘Likes’ and ‘Comments’ on a post, as well as the number of times a moderator has had to step in.

The information that Villanueva gleans is used by the team to make informed decisions about what they post and how they respond to other women’s comments. “We have a collaborative document where we draft responses and use each other’s feedback to ensure our responses are neutral,” she adds.

A participant who was new to the group and was bashful about speaking out publicly on the forum, reached out to Sanford privately as she wanted to share her story and “get it out of her system.”

As a moderator, she is mindful that she is an observer and not a participant in the conversation, which often makes her hesitant when it comes to intervening in discussions. “When I step in, I don’t want it to come off as if I’m taking sides or playing favorites with someone who may share my views,” she says.

Moderators work hard on understanding their own biases so that they are fair in the way they reach out to people.

This is particularly important when they intervene in a conversation where one woman may feel piled onto, or feel attacked by others in the group. Moderators need to intervene, even if they agree with those attacking the woman. “My role is not to agree or disagree with people, but to ensure that everyone has space to express themselves,” says Sanford.

“Sometimes I don’t notice when somebody I agree with is being awful. I have had to literally train my brain to carefully read the comments of people I agree with on a personal level so that I can ensure the comfort of the people I disagree with,” said García, who points to conversation spoilers like sarcasm and flippancy.

As a first-generation immigrant, García is sometimes personally affected by conversations around citizenship and immigration, so she avoids moderating those discussions, or has other moderators read her responses before she posts them, in order to ensure she has moderated her own perspectives.

As a black woman, Sanford had a hard time at first watching a white woman on the group talk of how most black people were fatherless and raised in single-parent homes. While she found it frustrating, she was aware that, as a moderator, she should not join the conversation.

A black participant on The Many entered into the conversation and began explaining her point of view. “We let the conversation play out as nobody was being nasty and there was no name-calling. It was an intense conversation, and particularly hard to watch one black member of the group having to defend her entire race. I reached out to her privately and said I appreciated the way she handled a tough conversation in a civil manner,” says Sanford.

Over time, moderators got to know the women on the group, and could sometimes predict when things looked like they could go awry.

And over time, the women themselves learned to speak to each other is a respectful manner. Those who were earlier quick to respond to comments began taking their time to read and understand each other’s posts so that their comments were more thoughtful. Participants edited their posts to ensure they weren’t hurtful or rude.

Women in the group told García that they applied some of the techniques of communication they learned on The Many, to real life situations.

“I joined the site because it’s so hard talking to family members and friends who are on the other side of the political divide. I wanted a way to be able to learn how to be more active in healing that divided and I think I definitely went in that direction,” says Downie.

“Many women on the group say they have learned to listen to what other people are saying, and how to ask questions rather than being defensive and shutting down a conversation,” says Sanford.

The group has been active for 10 months, and members have now adjusted to Spaceship’s way of communicating with each other. Sanford often finds women self-moderating their posts, so that moderators don’t need to step in as much.

While Denise Sellers likes the feeling that there are moderators who will interrupt or stop a conversation that gets excessively rude or hostile, she points to times when women self-policed their conversations. During a conversation that got really heated, she recalls thinking that the moderators would have to step in and pause the thread. But to her surprise, participants themselves found a way to cool down.

Women like St. Pierre say they have “typed and deleted many, many times prior to sending responses.” She feels the group has been kept civil when the moderators have stepped in, gently corrected transgressions, and offered more positive communication strategies.

“Just knowing someone is keeping an eye on us is helpful accountability. A bit like when we were little, playing with friends, and knowing Mom was sitting near us reading her book, ready to gently and firmly remind us to be kind to one another if need be,” says Wendy Toda, another woman of the group.