#LetsTalk: Looking Back on January 6th

Written by: Aaditi Lele

On January 20, 2022, Millions of Conversations hosted Jason Dempsey, Rachel Brown, and Samar Ali in conversation to reflect on the events of January 6th, 2021, one year later. Part of our Conversationalist Series, this event brought together experts in national security, military affairs, and disinformation to hold a discussion on the “State of the Union” one year since January 6th.

Here’s what we learned.

State of the Union: A Year Later

A year ago, we watched as a rising tide of mass radicalization, misinformation, disinformation, racism, polarization, and political violence fueled an attack on the American Capitol. Today, we find ourselves reflecting on the current state of a union amidst these rising divisive forces. Millions of Conversations CEO Samar Ali came together for a conversation with Millions CSO Jason Dempsey and Over Zero Director Rachel Brown to speak truthfully about our past in order to start looking toward a shared path forwards.

Rachel Brown began by framing the discussion in a broader narrative context, explaining that we live in both a “post-conflict and pre-conflict state.” Thus, we come together to reflect not only a pre-January 6th and a post-January 6th nation, but rather a broader permissive environment – one we can examine in order to understand why and how this attack took place. To do so, it is critical to understand that January 6th was not an isolated event, but rather the product of a pattern

For more on this point, read a joint report by ACLED and Everytown that tracks, maps, and analyzes new data from hundreds of armed demonstrations across the United States following the January 6th Capitol attack here.

“We are not addressing the underlying concerns leading to the violence we saw on #January6th. To be a functioning society and democracy we need to renew our social contract about our basic truths and facts. We must speak truthfully about our past in healthy ways and consider how we move forward.” - Samar Ali, Millions CEO

As we seek to understand the root causes behind increased partisanship, renegotiating our social contract is critical to effectively restoring our democracy. That means asking questions about our norms, values, and expectations of each other as neighbors. What level of violence will we accept, as a nation? What kind of nation do we aspire to be? As Samar Ali put it, “We have to have the courage to face our truth. That will come with feelings of shame, grief, and pain but it’s worth it to build consensus around our norms and values.”

Many members of our audience pointed out, addressing our truths and violent histories will not always be comfortable or easy. “Often it seems that when we bring up past times, it only adds fuel to the fire of those who are feeling marginalized,” mentioned one participant. What can we do to combat this cycle of violence? One clear answer is to break the cycle by effectively addressing our past to understand the present. Our audience clarified this sentiment, asking “Did the initial conflict ever truly end or are we simply seeing its evolution?”

At Millions of Conversations, we’ve developed a framework for combating the cycle of hate by addressing our past, and working to build a compassionate, equitable future for ourselves and our neighbors. Read Samar Ali’s “I Commit to You” note and explore our theory of change on our website homepage.

The New Narrative of the Nation

As we drew near our event’s conclusion, Rachel Brown asked us two critical questions: What are the seeds that are being planted? Is the path we want to walk down? In essence, moving forward from the events of January 6th requires us to lay down the groundwork for a nation with new norms and values. It’s up to us to decide this path– what measures are we taking to build our better future? 

We can understand the events that unfolded on January 6th and the future we hope to create by taking a look into the prevailing narratives of the nation. For many of us, memories of January 6th are marked by our own perceptions of the people who participated in the attack. However, these perceptions aren’t always accurate. As Jason Dempsey explained, data shows that only 13% of participants at the insurrection belonged to fringe groups, and a majority came from counties that had, firstly, voted for Biden, and secondly, had experienced widespread demographic change within the last few years. This data shows us that many of the Capitol Attack participants were motivated by fears like job loss or “the great replacement.” 

Understanding these factors can help us identify warning signs of a future attack. NewAmerica‘s report analyzes online and offline early warning signs of the potential for election-related violence leading up to the Capitol attack.

So, how do we counter this “scare script”- the prevailing narrative that causes us to view each other with fear? One solution is driving conversations that shift our narratives about the nation. Per Jason Dempsey, one step towards this is de-nationalizing our conversations. This begins by avoiding the recently common characterization of our nation as one within a “civil war narrative,” because the idea of violence can beget more violence. Rather than perpetuating the idea of violent neighbors and a violent nation, we can hold productive conversations that further encourage connection and empathy.

As we seek to define a new narrative for America, what values and norms do we hope to imbue? We encourage you to hold conversations with your friends, family, and neighbors to identify this as a collective. Read on for more guidance on how to hold conversations about January 6th.

How Can I Have Conversations About January 6th?

We know it can be challenging to have conversations about politicized issues.

That’s why we created a system of tools you can use to help bridge the gap. Our Listening Guide is our research-informed guidebook on how (and why) to have difficult conversations. We also encourage you to take our #PledgeToListen, and invite those around you to take it as well.

Feel free to reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter when you do have these conversations. We believe in creating stronger communities through conversation. 

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