You’re driving to the grocery store and you see a bumper sticker on another car that makes you think to
yourself, “What a misinformed idiot! He’s so brainwashed!”
While dragging your trash can out to thecurb you see your neighbor and wave, but do not engage in conversation because you know her to be a passionate member of the party opposite yours and hey, why should you bother talking to her?
We all feel the increasing political polarization in our country, and that deep down that it’s not healthy, but that the magnetic pull to one side or the other is too strong to resist. Let’s face it, we feel safer sticking with people who think like we do. It’s easy to feel that justice and righteousness are on your side when everyone you know agrees with you.
In 2020 a poll found that one in three Republicans and Democrats felt that violence would be justified to advance their political goals (Diamond, et al.). A Braver Angels poll from about the same time found that 70% of respondents across party lines felt that the country would “not recover” if their party did not hold sway in the coming election. We are becoming ever more fearful and mistrustful, and the pandemic has only served to push us deeper into our ideological silos. Social media and television content are no longer subject to fact-checking, and shrill rhetoric continuously reinforces what we already believe to be true.
Why should we even bother to engage with the ‘other side’? The most glaring, obvious reason is that we all share responsibility as citizens for our country. We elect officials to make laws and keep things running, but it’s our country, and ultimately we the voters are responsible for protecting it. Dr. Bill Doherty, a founder of Braver Angels and a family therapist, said that just as divorced parents share responsibility for their child, so Democrats and Republicans share the job of caring for the country, even though the divorce is increasingly acrimonious. Just as a divided country cannot stand, we cannot pass meaningful, productive legislation if we refuse to see any value in what the other side is proposing. It is incumbent on us to find our way back to civil discourse.
The nonprofit organization Braver Angels came into being in 2016 to address this polarization by giving individuals tools with which to talk, listen and understand one another. By bringing together ‘blues’ and ‘reds’ with clear guidance on how to engage in respectful, civil conversation on contentious issues, participants come away seeing those holding opposing views as human beings rather than enemies. Braver Angels offers national debates, Red/Blue workshops (which require an equal number of conservative-leaning and progressive-leaning voters), hosts a podcast, and recently established Braver Politics to bring politicians from opposing sides together to practice civil discourse and identify common goals.
A careful conversation in what is termed a six-hour Red/Blue workshop begins with each participant answering two questions: “What values, policies and beliefs that your side has do you think are good for the country?” and, “What reservations or concerns do you have about your own side?” The process requires structured sharing, with “wide” guardrails on content and “tight” guardrails on process, involving active and respectful listening. Content can and does include tough issues, such as gun rights, abortion and immigration. After going through extended conversations together, participants are asked, “What did you learn about how the other side sees themselves?” and, “Did you see anything in common?” Surprising revelations come out of this work.
Prescott currently has four BA moderators who offer three skills classes at Yavapai College through the OLLI program, each about 3-1/2 hours long. These three classes can be taken singly, sequentially or in any order, each stands alone.
The first class, Depolarizing Within, involves discovering our own assumptions, how in our own thoughts we so quickly demonize and stereotype others. This is hard and humbling work, looking inside your own mind. You have to search for ways to engage with others that are not based on an us-vs.-them thought pattern. This involves practice, and can be done, for example, while watching television and observing your own reaction to media content. In the second class, Bridging the Divide, participants begin to develop the skills of respectful listening and constructive conversation with someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The third class deals with Family and Politics, and looks at different roles family members sometimes play in hard conversations, and how to recognize and work through these differences. After taking these three classes, individual work continues.
“You don’t come out complete. It’s a practice and takes time,” shared Lori Dekker, Braver Angels moderator and current president of Prescott’s Frontier Rotary Club. “The less you work out of fear, the more you can work out of warmth.” Voting decisions these days often seem based mostly on fear-based judgments rather than proposed policies. Judgment and curiosity are mutually exclusive, points out Monica Guzman, Braver Angels Senior Fellow for Public Practice and author of the bestselling book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. “The reason curiosity is so powerful is that we can direct it at what we don’t know.”
Lori shares moderating the Braver Angels classes at OLLI with Nancy Van der Voort, Carol Russell and Barbara Swain Estes. They expressed gratitude that Yavapai College welcomed the Braver Angels classes into their OLLI program. Yavapai College has been working actively to ameliorate racial and political tension on campus, and has developed the Respect Campaign, which includes working with campus police, professional staff and faculty. It was no surprise that YC was so receptive to Braver Angels offering classes through OLLI .
One issue that the Braver Angels moderators are facing is difficulty finding conservative-leaning participants. People assume that engaging in conversation with someone from the other side means each will try to persuade the other to change, but a core principal of BA that all participants agree to is that they are not there to change anyone’s mind, or even to agree on facts. Nor does the work seek compromise, because recognizing differences and respectful debate are part of what makes a strong nation. “Reasonable people can disagree, and a respectful debate reminds us of what active democracy looks like,” said one ‘red’ participant. Among some key findings in reviewing work completed by Braver Angels is that afterward 82% of BA participants feel more comfortable with people on the opposite political side, 86% feel they understand the other side better, and 71% feel better understood by the other side.
The necessity for communicating across the political divide has never been clearer. While the campaign signs are now coming down after the election, the fear and mistrust will remain. To learn more about Braver Angels, go to braverangels.org or www.YC.edu/prescottolli.
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” — Abraham Lincoln