Better Angels:  Clarifying the Commitment

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Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

What have you committed to?  What will define a good or great year when you look back on December 31?

Better Angels Illinois chapter leaders held a potluck brunch today.  Over a mouthwatering international selection of food, we reviewed activities and growth in 2019, and set our sights on 2020 with enthusiasm and camaraderie.  We found encouragement, inspiration, and connection in one another on a remarkably mild January day in Evanston.

We spent a long time today discussing negative media coverage about BA (read in the Washington Post here and the New York Times here).  Basically they say the work is futile at best, and harmful to a progressive agenda at worst.  We queried ourselves for how these articles make us feel, where we think they’re coming from, and how we might approach and respond, both individually and collectively.  I felt so gratified when we agreed that probably we should call forth the communication skills we teach in our workshops:  stay curious and respectful, acknowledge our detractors’ valid points, and stand in our core values, our WHY for doing this work.  I shared my two most recent posts on why I committed to Better Angels and my Fierce Optimism about the value we add to the greater political conversation.

I’m also gratified to read this long article in The Atlantic by Andrew Ferguson.  He attended BA workshops and interviewed the organization’s leaders, took the time to really understand BA’s Why and How, and then summarized it eloquently.  He addressed Julie Kohler’s objections in the WaPo article with respect, humor, and almost defiant hope.  If you’re up for reading another couple thousand words after this, check it out; I highly recommend it.

Finally, I share with you below a letter to members from John Wood Jr., Director of Public Outreach for Better Angels.  I’m satisfied, for now, to let his words speak for me (especially the parts I bolded).

Onward, friends.  We will always be in this together, and I pledge to continue figuring out a better way forward.

***

January 5th, 2020

A Call to Courage

Dear Catherine,

Better Angels began with a kernel of faith.

After the election in 2016 was over, you wouldn’t have found many people who would have told you that it would be easy to bring together 20 or so Clinton and Trump supporters to spend a weekend together discovering their “better angels” when the wounds of the election were so raw. This happened though, and our belief that it could was the beginning of what became an enterprise of goodwill that spread across America. Here at the start of 2020, Better Angels finds itself at the center of a small, but nationwide, movement of Americans from across the divide to reestablish charitable understanding as the foundation of our national conversation.

But our work is deeper than that. And it needs to go deeper.

(I sought to cast a vision of what it looks like to go deeper than ‘merely’ empathy in reforming the fraught social culture of our country in an address to the Visionaries Summit, a gathering of New Age social entrepreneurs, last autumn in California. See it here: Social Transformation Through Self-Transformation: John Wood, Jr. at Visionaries🙂

Building understanding between Americans is not something that we do merely because it feels good.

It does feel good. That is true. There are so many amazing moments in the work that we do that we could never count them.

It does not feel good, however, to have people attack you (from your own ‘side’ no less) for “fraternizing with the enemy.” It does not feel good to put yourself in the line of fire of someone whom you are trying to show kindness to, only to receive contempt from them in return.

We do not do this work simply because it feels good. The work we do is hard. Sometimes, it even hurts.

We do it because the future of the United States of America depends on it.

America’s future rests not first and foremost necessarily on who the president of the United States is or who controls the houses of congress. The future of our nation depends on our own willingness, and our own ability, to maintain the bonds of civic friendship that allow us to behave honorably towards each other as a people.

We do not oppose the two party system at Better Angels. Indeed, we are Republicans and Democrats, alongside Independents and members of third parties, striving together in a working alliance for a deeper good in this country. We seek in essence what you might call Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” or the “more perfect union” set forth as the aspiration of the Constitution of the United States.

Yet while not challenging the legitimacy of our political parties, we recognize that much in the way of the incentives that are guiding our major political and politically affiliated institutions, including and beyond the parties, are predicated on a willingness to divide the American people for short-sighted political gain.

The means by which some forces in politics, the media, and elsewhere do so often times include intellectual dishonesty – and a striking lack of humility and empathy.

Perhaps one side is more guilty of this than the other. Most of our members, leaders and volunteers feel this way, even if we disagree on which side that actually is. The true balance of error in our politics between the two parties matters. It is a subject that is fit for debate.

Yet, as Republicans and Democrats (and all others) here is what we say matters more:

What matters more is that we set an example for how Americans ought to treat one another – both for the ‘other side’ but more importantly for our own.

What matters more is that we discover and rediscover the power of those ideals that transcend and salvage our politics – the ideals that make us one American people – beyond race, religion or party.

What matters more is that we create the structures, the environment and the resources that allow Americans to engage, to organize and to rebuild community around these ideals – and in opposition to the ways of thinking that would prevent this.

The bases for this work are patriotism and empathy.  But it is also courage.

We believe in the decency of the American people. We believe in the decency of you. We also believe in the bravery of the American people.

We believe you have the courage to meet dishonesty with integrity. We believe you have the courage to meet demagoguery with dignity. We believe you have the bravery to return love for hatred and the tenacity to return understanding for fear.

That is the stand we take in 2020. We are sending out a call to courage. We are grateful that you have the courage to stand with us.

Much, much more to come. Just as America faces a great test this year, our organization and our movement must rise to the challenge of the preserving the heart of our civic conscience. Together, we are equal to the task.

-John Wood, Jr.

National leader & Director of Public Outreach

Better Angels

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We Must Go Together

Christmas Wish card

How will you celebrate this week, friends?

What do you leave behind, and what do you look forward to?

The sentiments on the front of this Christmas card, created in 2017, align with my core values and my Why:  to cultivate the most meaningful, heart-connected relationships between all people.  The last four years have taught me much on this journey—about American political geography, economic and tribal dynamics, and my personal trigger patterns.  2020 feels daunting and high risk to me; I approach it with caution, and also with Fierce Optimism.

I feel prepared and trained for whatever lies ahead, as I know I have my strong social and emotional ties to lean on.  They may prove tested and strained in the months ahead, and I feel confident they will hold.  Because in the end, however divergent our political or economic leanings, I firmly believe that what unites us infinitely outweighs what divides us.  I keep coming back to our shared humanity—that we all love our children, wish to hand down to them a world in peace; that we all want all of us to live in happiness and security.  This belief is what keeps me going, what makes me continue to reach out and attempt to connect.

We have much work to do my friends, many frayed patches of social fabric to mend.  And I honestly believe we can only do it—we can do anything—if we go together.  Just think of that time when you thought something was impossible—and somehow you pulled it out.  I bet you had help, no?

The road will be long and arduous.  We will stumble and fall, we will argue.  We will fight.  We will also share breathtakingly beautiful vistas, and numerous moments of sublime love and communion.  Let us meditate on the latter—on all that is good—let us seek it and acknowledge it in one another with eyes, hearts, and voices wide open and out loud.  Let us harness that energy and put it in front, guiding our attitudes, words and actions, toward ourselves and all those we encounter.

May this holiday season, this time of reflection and preparation, reconnect us with the whole human family.  Connect on every plain, every mountain, every island; in every school, (church), and statehouse; in every city, village, community, and home of our little blue planet.

May we do better in 2020 and beyond.

November 16:  Loving Subversion Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Friends, do you already follow Seth Godin’s blog?  His post from Thursday stirred something a little irreverent in me.  It was about ‘allies and accomplices’:

To be an ally means that you won’t get in the way, and, if you are able to, you’ll try to help.

To become an accomplice, though, means that you’ve risked something, sacrificed something and put yourself on the hook as well.

We need more allies, in all the work we do. Allies can open doors and help us feel a lot less alone.

But finding an accomplice–that’s an extraordinary leap forward.

I thought immediately about my fellow Better Angels volunteers.  We have all committed time, talent, and treasure to the depolarizing of America.  We do it in public, in front of audiences and cameras, to reporters and members of our communities.  We openly challenge the prevailing culture of ad hominem, oversimplification, and overgeneralization.  We all come to it from our own internal optimism and hope.  But in the face of entrenched polarization and a culture of self-protection above all, we could never make any headway as individuals.  It is only together—as mutual accomplices—that we can truly claim and exercise our collective agency.

I feel even more buoyed by Ozan’s latest post.  He describes a series of well-known studies showing that people will organize themselves into in-groups and out-groups with remarkable loyalty, even around random and arbitrary distinctions like taste in abstract art.  This, of course, carries grave and important implications for prejudice and discrimination.  Ozan then points to two exemplars of the opposite, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama.  In their most famous orations (see links), these remarkable leaders speak directly to what unites us as the foundation for solving our problems, rather than what divides us.

MLK:  The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Obama:  The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.  We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

I get goosebumps just reading the words.

It really feels like a loving subversion—of cynicism, scarcity, antagonism, and fear.

Who’s not better for that?

 

 

 

November 12:  Edits and Revisions MMB–Fierce Optimism 2.0

 

NaBloPoMo 2019

24 hour learnings:

  1. Unfocused thoughts lead to unfocused writing
  2. I tend toward word vomit when I’m excited

Note:  Hereafter, I will use “MMB” as the abbreviation for “Make(s) Me Better” if the title gets too long.

My deepest gratitude to lovingly honest friends whose feedback on last night’s post inspired me to attempt it again!  Let’s see how this goes—

***

Last Saturday, as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop, I thought of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational words:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by consistently walking our talk.

Preparing for the presentation, I thought about friends who express hopelessness at any possibility for connection between opposing political sides, that we can actually work together to get anything done.  Some might even say that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.

Then I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted a friend, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal was to take every experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that bring true meaning and connection to the skills.

Google Dictionary defines fierce:  “showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity”; and optimism: “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.”

Yes, and:

Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

All important social movements occur (and continue) over generations.  Confrontation and revolution are necessary sometimes, but they are not enough.  It’s consistent, slow, grass roots change on the local level that sustains progress.  Fierce optimism gives me faith that even the smallest actions I make in service of my cause have impact.  I can set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  I can feel empowered and liberated at the same time, confident in my individual agency.

Patient urgency also allows me to look up every once in a while, notice my surroundings, and adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  The bulldozer of impatient words and heavy dogma plows through the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely, had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Fierce optimism roots itself in core values, and also allows for learning and adaptation.  It confers the confidence to challenge our own beliefs and values, perhaps reinforcing them, grounding us in and strengthening our own personal truth.  But this confidence also helps us hear others’ stories, which broadens our perspective.  Standing in our core values while reaching out in curiosity, we learn about each other, and curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.

Bruce Lee’s life philosophy included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the great oak may break irrevocably.  The bamboo bends; it maintains its integrity, standing straight and strong again after the storm.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed is strength.  It makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

Our assumptions matter.  They show up in our presence.  Let us check our attitudes toward the ‘other’.  Assuming and speaking only to their presumed selfishness and malevolence, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly the narrow minded and prejudiced enemy we deride.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  This encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility, and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every person.  Extending this grace to others in no way undermines my own cause.  It opens my heart to attract allies from everywhere.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny; I want no part of that.

Fierce optimism choreographs an intimate dance between agitation and peace.  It holds tension without anxiety, potential and kinetic energy.

When I live in Fierce Optimism, I can hang on that arc and bend it like a badass.

November 11:  Fierce Optimism Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

On Ozan’s Inner Circle forum today, another member posted about his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reminded me of a favorite MLK quote, which came to mind on Saturday as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by acting visibly in accordance with our core values, and by consistently walking the talk.

I texted my friend the morning of the workshop: “I’m 90% excited, 10% nervous…Maybe 15%…”  Then I thought about the people I know who like the idea(l) of Better Angels, but don’t want to participate.  I thought about my friends who express hopelessness at any possibility that people on opposing political sides can ever connect, that we can actually work together across our differences to get things done.  I thought about the pushback I might get, that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.  I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted my friend again, spontaneously, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal that day was to take every example and experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that brings the skills to bear in the most meaningful ways.

This idea marinated for a couple of hours while I pictured the venue, reviewed the workshop content, made notes about delivery.  I thought again about my friends who feel like our world is crumbling around us, that so much progress made the last century is being eroded.  I completely empathize with this perspective, and I understand how it makes us feel we have to fight, to be aggressive and confrontational, to come at the opposition full force, like a bullet train.  Do they think listening and speaking skills focused on curiosity and openness too passive and ineffective?  Does optimism, the hopefulness and confidence that things will be okay, make me lazy about the issues that matter to me?

Below are the words I texted my friend to describe what I mean by ‘Fierce Optimism’.  Normally I would not share such nascent ideas on the blog, but whatever, it’s all an experiment, who knows what better ideas may come from this early sharing?

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Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

Or should it read, “Urgency without Impatience”?  What I mean here is simply that most things worth doing take a very long time.  All important social movements occurred (and continue) over generations.  At times confrontation and revolution are necessary.  But they are not enough.  Consistent, slow, organic, grass roots change on the local level is what sustains consistent progress, keeps it from regressing.  The acute urgency I feel to address my deep concerns (for instance, the profound rifts in our relationships) drives me to action.  But when that action is directed at another person, I must attune.  I have to set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  It also allows me to look up every once in a while and adjust to my surroundings, adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  If I’m bulldozing with strong words and heavy dogma, I am more likely to plow over and through any crack in the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Better Angels does not seek to make everybody—anybody—a moderate.  Rather, the goal is to hold our positions firmly and with principle, and practice seeing why someone else may hold a different position with equally strong principle.  In doing so, two things often happen:  First, by challenging our own beliefs and values, we can reinforce them.  Telling stories about the experiences that led us to our core values reconnects us with their origins, grounds us in and strengthens our own personal truth.  Second, hearing others’ stories helps us broaden our perspective.  Most of the time we only see things from our own point of view—this is our default setting.  But when we share personal experiences, really learn about each other, the curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.  So while I may still hold my goals and objectives firmly, I can more easily release the rigidity of my method, tolerate setbacks with less suffering.  Earlier this year I listened to The Warrior Within by John Little.  He describes Bruce Lee’s life philosophy, which included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the oak may break while the bamboo simply bends, sometimes to the ground, but without breaking.  Both stay rooted where they are planted, but one is more resilient.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed in some ways, while holding steadfast to my core values, makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and, I think, more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

This is about the assumptions we make.  Too often we cast ‘the other’ in abstract as sinister, evil, less than.  We hold up the most extreme members of the opposing group as representative of a dull and dumb monolith.  We oversimplify and overgeneralize, and then approach any individual we identify as belonging to that group as an assembly line package, a completely known entity.  We think we know all about them already, even if we have never met them, just because they identify today as “Red” or “Blue.”  In so doing, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly as narrow minded and prejudiced as the folks we accuse on the other side.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  In my mind this encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every other person, regardless of their political, religious, racial, cultural, or any other persuasion.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny, for individuals as well as organizations and governments.

*sigh*

Well, like I said, these ideas were just born two days ago.  Have I expressed them at all coherently?  Have I shown you intuitively apprehensible paradoxes?  Can you feel the dynamic balance of agitation and peace?  Tension without anxiety?  Potential and kinetic energy?  If not, that’s okay.  I’ll keep working on it.  That’s the essential outcome of Fierce Optimism, after all—we keep working, steadily, to bend that arc.

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November 2: Reading Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Today I share a Facebook comment series I wrote in response to a prompt from a progressive friend, in its original form.  His post made me look up and read 7 additional articles, all of which I linked in my comments.  In the end I became more aware of my own biases, and recommitted to finding common ground with people who think differently from me.  So I think reading makes me better.  What think you?

wsj divided nation 2019

Friend’s post:  (Cathy):  I’d be interested in your perspective on this article in terms of your work to bridge divides and create civil conversations.   [Wall Street Journal slide deck describing the economic basis of party divisions in the US—it’s a fast click through which I recommend.]

My comments:

Thanks for sharing, (Friend)! Okay, I will take the time to make a long comment thread, as this is really interesting to me. Thank you for asking the question you did–I’ll get to it eventually! First: The information presented in this slide show is consistent with what I have read before. The facts presented are real. And they are incomplete. It looks at differences between districts, which is the best way to highlight division. I think this is a direct consequence of gerrymandering, which is designed exactly to create districts that will reliably vote one way or another. And we have all seen the US map showing blue clustered around big cities and red everywhere else. AND, this report ignores the glaring truth that despite the economic divisions by district and income, a much larger proportion of the top 1% is either declared or leans Republican than Democrat (though not necessarily more conservative):  https://news.gallup.com/poll/151310/u.s.-republican-not-conservative.aspx

Gallup 1% 2011

Second: The suburbs are where Reds/Blues live amongst one another, and this report ignores them, pretty much. That said, even without gerrymandering, we Americans have sorted ourselves ideologically. Bill Bishop wrote a fascinating book that details the economic and social evolution, _The Big Sort_ (listened to the whole book a year ago, I highly recommend it): http://www.thebigsort.com/home.php

I think suburbs are where work like Better Angels has the most potential to spark civil discourse, except that people are hesitant to engage, for fear of upsetting the tenuous and silent politeness that constrains their ability to talk openly about politics. That cultural noose is hard to untie.

Dem demographic 2019

[Below are a] couple of other links that have additional demographic information that gives context and texture to the WSJ slide deck. The point of all of this is that when we I read articles that start out with nihilistic, Vader-like proclamations of “America’s political polarization is almost complete,” I see an implicit agenda to actively contribute to that polarization for the good of the publisher. Brené Brown reminds us to beware of those who tell us things are absolute, either/or. Reality is almost never this dichotomous, and whenever we hear it is, we should look for who benefits from us thinking it is. Economic demographics of Democrats: https://www.debt.org/…/economic-demographics-democrats/

Economic demographics of Republicans: https://www.debt.org/…/economic-demographics-democrats/

Okay finally, to answer your question, on my “perspective on this article in terms of (my) work to bridge divides and create civil conversations”: My favorite visual is this table from the first article I linked to. In some ways we are ‘almost completely’ divided, as the Vader article posits. In other ways, we are not. I think of the surveys showing a majority of Americans being in favor of background checks for gun ownership, in agreement that abortion is generally not something we want happening all the time. I think of all of the conversations I have with pretty much any other human, and how we are all 90% more alike than different. But this article and 90% of the articles we see highlight the other 10% of differences, and worse, the most vehement and violent expressions of those differences. So my perspective on this article is that it contributes significantly, if not blatantly, to the division it reports. And it does not serve us in any way. And, I hope I would have the same response if it were published by the New York Times. 😉

top 1% demographics 2011

HANG ON. I just saw that this favorite article I cited is from 2011. I have found a couple of more recent ones; will review and continue the thread….

vox welthy dems 2016

Okay, here is an article from 2016 by a poli-sci expert who, [Bill Bishop-style], explains well the progressive evolution of the top 4%. Very interesting:  https://www.vox.com/…/6/3/11843780/democrats-wealthy-party

And hey, here is one from Forbes this year, which quotes the author of the Vox article, highlighting how a sizable number of Republicans actually align ideologically with Democratic policies:

“The fact that lower-income Republicans, largely known as the ‘basket of deplorables,’ support more social spending and taxing the rich was a key takeaway from this year’s report, says Lee Drutman, senior fellow on the political reform program at New America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank… ‘It is pretty striking that about a fifth of Republicans had views closer to the median Democrat than their own party,’ he says. ‘A lot of them actually want a sizeable social welfare state. It’s a little bit of a puzzle why they don’t vote for the Democratic Party, other than long-standing cultural ties maybe and other ballot issues. What we have here is just one of the two parties stands out to have a bunch of its supporters in opposition to some of the party’s economic platforms but still gives them their vote.’” https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2019/06/24/how-democrats-and-republicans-differ-on-matters-of-wealth–equality/#13e06ab8702f

More from the Forbes article:

“But when looked at closer, a plurality of voters (72%) across the spectrum said the government should provide tax credits for low-income workers. Some 60% are in favor of raising the minimum wage, and 58% were in favor of raising taxes for those families earning over $200,000 a year.

“Across party lines, Democrats were the ones who were most interested in a higher tax burden for the wealthy, though it is unclear if they considered themselves to be part of the income group that would be hit with higher taxation in a more progressive tax structure.

“An overwhelming majority (79%) of Democrats earning under $40,000 a year wanted to tax the rich more. Democratic Party voters earning over $80,000 were 83% on board with taxing higher incomes at higher rates. For Republicans earning under $40,000, 45% were in favor of taxing the rich. Republicans who earned over $80,000 didn’t like the idea. Only 23% were in favor.”

[In conclusion:]  Complexity does not make for headlines, sadly, and we should take this into account when we read and share. Thanks for posting on my page and asking the question, [Friend], you have made me think and thus made me better! 😀

Better Angels:  Why I Have Committed

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Friends, what is your WHY?  Mine is to cultivate the best relationships between all people, (here comes my spiel [I prefer to call it a mantra—winking emoji]), “because our relationships kill us or save us, and relationships themselves live and die by communication.”

How are you affected by the current political climate?  Are you separated from friends?  Do you feel restricted in your conversations?  Do you self-edit more than before?  Or are you emboldened to speak your mind, finally freed from the social muzzles of more repressed times?  How have politics in the 21st Century affected your relationships?

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I first learned of Better Angels when I read David Blankenhorn’s article, “The 7 Habits of Highly Depolarizing People,” written before the 2016 election.  I was intrigued by the organization but could not figure out how to get involved.  Last year I asked my Facebook friends which charity they thought I should fundraise for—I support so many causes in theory, but could not decide where to focus my efforts.  One insightful friend suggested Better Angels.  I did not end up fundraising for anyone, but I started following Angels on Facebook and signed up for the newsletters.  This May I participated in a skills workshop and wrote about it.  The objective in these workshops is for attendees to learn and practice listening and speaking skills, to facilitate mutual understanding and connection between liberals (Blues) and conservatives (Reds).  The workshops are brilliantly structured to make engagement safe and productive.  I decided I wanted to be part of this solution.

In August I attended my second workshop, “Depolarizing from Within,” aimed at helping us help our own ‘side’ combat the 4 Horsemen of Polarization that we unleash on the other side:  Stereoptyping, Dismissing, Ridiculing, and Contempt.  I took notes on the moderator’s methods this time, as I had committed to training to become a moderator.  Like in teaching, he had to set clear expectations and ground rules.  He had to control the session and politely but firmly interrupt people’s monologues and keep us on task.  This was harder than I expected—many of us wanted to depolarize from the other side rather than our own—self-scrutiny and –regulation is hard.  Going against group think and calling out our peers feels scary and vulnerable.  But we can do it if we have the skills and motivation.  It is essential if we want to reconnect with our loved ones ‘on the other side.’

I read the moderator training materials and watched the videos over the summer.  When I found myself feeling triggered watching a Red/Blue workshop online, I wondered if I’m really up for facilitating such an event.  Moderators, after all, must exude sincere neutrality and make all attendees feel welcome.  We are the leaders in the room; we set the tone.  For the sake of the work, we cannot afford to get emotionally agitated by anything any attendee says.  That means not only in our words, but our body language, facial expressions—people must feel us being professional at all times.  So to test myself, I registered for the next Red/Blue workshop in my area as a participant.

The event was almost cancelled because not enough Reds had registered.  Chicago and Evanston are very Blue cities, and I’m learning how ostracized and unwelcome my Red peers feel among us progressives.  So I’m so grateful for Red folks who came at our organizer’s behest—her friends who did it as a favor to her.  More than once during the morning, we heard how apprehensive some of them felt, not knowing what to expect, and not used to feeling free to express their views.  This makes me so sad, and I feel strongly that we Blues have to own our part in it.  Regardless of how badly we feel our conservative counterparts anywhere behave, it does not excuse our own ad hominem.

About a week before the workshop, we found out Van Jones and his crew would come to film the whole thing and then interview some of us afterward.  With very mixed feelings, I agreed to wear a microphone and appear on camera.  He told us at the beginning that of the 4 hour event, 4 minutes would be aired.  So we could relax.

Not only was I relaxed; I felt positively uplifted and encouraged.  Throughout another set of wisely structured exercises, Red and Blues explored not only our strengths, but our flaws—both ideological and behavioral.  The stage was set for safe self-reflection, and the vulnerability required to practice it.  How often in your conversations, even with people you love, do you feel safe to acknowledge the weaknesses of your ‘side’ and where your group could act better, without someone pouncing on you?  Has it been so long that it doesn’t even occur to you to consider it?  At the end I exchanged contact information with two Reds and another Blue, and I really hope we can continue the conversation.  I will invite them to the skills workshop I will co-moderate next month, my first attempt.

The Better Angels segment aired on the Van Jones Show last night.  It’s about 9 minutes.  I thought the show did an excellent job of highlighting the objective of the organization, and showing perspectives from both sides, as well as an observer, whose notes are worth pausing on and reading, at about 7 minutes.  Please take a look and share your reactions (civilly) in the comments.

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In preparation for Thanksgiving, Better Angels is holding skills workshops across the country in the next weeks.  Find one near you and bring a friend or loved one!  And check out the blog and podcast to read and hear civil, respectful, even friendly Red and Blue perspectives and discourse on issues like gun control and education.

We have so much work to do, my friends.  It feels exhausting and discouraging at times, but not during Better Angels events.  Here the goals and vibe are openness, curiosity, learning, understanding, and above all, connection.  It’s the perfect place for me and my WHY.  So I’m going to stay a while.  I’ got something to contribute here.