Sep 12, 2021
Through the Prism with Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist and the author of the new book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped—And How We Get Out.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
In my 20s, I was covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City for Time Magazine. I was spending day after day interviewing the loved ones of people who had died in those attacks. I only talked to people who really wanted to talk to us, but still, it was hard to keep going. Each of their stories was gutting. Each was unique.
At the time, I was paired with a wonderful photographer named Andre Lambertson, who had traveled all over the world and seen things I’d never seen—and had such a spirit of quiet calm about him, even in those bleak days.
After one interview, as we headed to the airport to come home, I remember saying to Andre how connected I’d felt to the woman who had just told us her story. He said he’d felt the same way. There was this current of energy that we’d all felt in the room that day.
Then I said something about how it’s a nice side benefit to the job, those moments. And Andre looked at me and he said, “You know, I think it’s not a side benefit. I’ve started to think it’s the most important thing,” he said. “That interaction is everything. Bigger than the story or anything that comes from it.”
It’s taken me a while to get there, but I now know that he’s right. That is the real magic. Those flashes of deep understanding that can happen when people are really, truly listening to one another—and they feel seen, for a moment.
Even in loss, grief and suffering, feeling heard is still something. And maybe a lot more than that.
What are you working on right now?
A really cool thing started happened after my last book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, came out a few months ago. People from all over started writing to me to tell me how they are using (and improving upon) the ideas and stories in the book to work on conflicts in their own lives. There’s a politician trying to disrupt partisan vitriol; a pastor counseling fellow ministers who are depressed or on the verge of quitting; a school superintendent trying to heal his relationship with the teacher’s union after a brutal 18 months of school closures and re-openings. Usually, I end up having long conversations with each of them, and I learn surprising, wildly pragmatic things from each one.
To try to share what I am learning, I am starting a new company called Good Conflict, alongside Hélène Biandudi Hofer, a broadcast journalist and producer whom I met through the Solutions Journalism Network. We are both trained conflict mediators who are also recovering journalists, so to speak. We’re helping newsrooms, companies, and communities respond to high-conflict problems without collapsing into dehumanization. By incorporating the practices of conflict mediation, social science, and solutions journalism, we help people surface and reckon with the underlying hidden issues driving dysfunction; to move beyond slogans and tweets to a place where people can connect—even in the midst of disagreement.
We are also experimenting with creating media content that serves people in ways traditional journalism has failed to do. Along those lines, I’ve started hosting the Slate podcast How To!, which is a really charming, unusual, evidence-informed advice podcast. And, with a couple other colleagues, we’re working on a TV show idea that is less of a talk show, more of a listening show. So lots of good work, hard problems and possibility, for which I am thankful.
What values guide your work?
I’m trying to practice low-ego journalism these days. I want to respond to what people need, not what journalists think they need. Shamil Idriss, the head of Search for Common Ground, says that all over the world people need three things: Hope, Security and Dignity. I think about those three things a lot. I want to do the kind of journalism and storytelling that help meet those needs.
How has the experience of the last year affected you and your work?
The pandemic really stripped bare our pre-existing conditions, right? The problems of loneliness, violence, distrust, corruption, conflict entrepreneurs—all the things I’d already been writing about got really supersized.
Which was really depressing, on some days, and clarifying on others. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Now, when I tell people I’m worried about escalating political violence in America, they don’t look at me like I’m crazy. (Though I should probably stop saying this at picnics…)
What’s giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Everywhere I go, I meet people who are exhausted by dysfunctional conflict. People who are hungry for another way to go through conflict, without losing what we hold dear. Another kind of politics, journalism, social media. One that allows us to be angry, without being contemptuous; one that incites curiosity instead of outrage; one that motivates lasting change, rather than endless feuds.
The demand for something else is high, and I am convinced that this country has the talent and the audacity to meet that demand.
In the meantime, I get joy from watching kids with huge backpacks walk to school again (hallelujah!!), from riding my bike along the Potomac river, from watching Ted Lasso, from those flashes of understanding I’m able to have, even with people who are very different from me, even in the midst of this turmoil, even on Zoom. Those moments give me a lot of hope.