Count Higher Than Two

NaBloPoMo 2020 — Today’s Lesson

I’m starting to hear echoes of 2016, when a friend posted, “Well, now we know where the dumb people live.”  To some, if you voted this year to re-elect the president you are wholly and irrevocably:  stupid, ignorant, racist, misogynist, monstrous, evil—and more.  You are judged and defined solely by this one action.  Nothing else need be known about you; you are garbage. 

It’s us vs. them, good vs. evil, either/or, with us or against us.

This profound yet effortless oversimplification, this refusal to acknowledge, let alone explore, the inherent complexity of any given individual, poisons us all too easily.  It is the venomous root of polarization.  David Blankenhorn, co-founder of Braver Angels, describes it so well in his 2016 essay, “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People”.  He asserts that “binary thinking—the tendency to divide everything into two mutually antagonistic categories”—is the most dangerous habit of polarization.

It’s to the point where I myself feel unsafe to raise any nonconforming perspective among liberals, lest I’m attacked for upholding the toxic patriarchy I profess to oppose. How ironic that the movement of tolerance and inclusion, that claims acceptance and diversity as core values, not only cannot tolerate but violently rejects even benign and earnest internal dissent.

Can we see our political opponents as more than a malevolent monolith?  Can we allow for complex experiences we don’t understand?  Can we withhold judgment long enough to recognize and honor our shared humanity, before we respectfully condemn each other’s wrong-headed ideas?

Can we ‘count higher than two’ in our attitudes and interactions?  Our mutual survival may depend on it, and I know so few people willing to try.

Our voting choice was binary.  Our thoughts, emotions, speech, actions, and relationships should not be.

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.

 

Debate Prep

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Debate Prep

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Families gathering for Thanksgiving present a perfect opportunity to practice some excellent communication skills.  How we each show up—generous, combative, kind, resentful, curious, or judgmental—will determine our experience and that of those around us.

For this post, I refer to a short, accessible list of tips for conducting ourselves optimally among friends and family with whom we disagree.  It’s from The American Interest in February 2016, “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People” by David Blankenhorn.  I recently joined an organization he founded, Better Angels, “a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation.”  I list here his 7 habits and my interpretation thereof.

1.      Criticize from within.  “In other words, criticize the other—whether person, group, or society—on the basis of something you have in common.”  This is where DB invokes Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “the better angels of our nature” in his first Inaugural address.  Honestly I don’t know what he means here, but I have decided to take it as a recommendation to find common ground.  For instance, maybe we can all agree that our current healthcare system is deeply flawed and needs reform, and start our debate there.

2.      Look for goods in conflict.  Rather than accepting any false dichotomy of all good and right (your position) versus all bad and wrong (my position), which is the definition of polarizing, we can look for what’s good and right on both sides.  As a progressive, my opinions and positions revolve around inclusion, equality, and lifting up the oppressed.  I imagine my conservative friends’ chief concerns are individual autonomy, personal responsibility, and preservation of traditions.  If we withhold our usual default judgments of one another, we can recognize the importance of each and all of these core values.  We can also hold space for how they sometimes compete and conflict.

3.      Count higher than two.  Again, away with the false dichotomies and binary, all-or-nothing thinking.  We can do better than oversimplified arguments like single payer versus free market healthcare, or “You want a capitalist free for all” versus “You want to strangle us all with regulations.”  This point feels like a natural progression from the first two.  If we can first agree on some common perspectives, and allow that the ‘other side’ has at least one valid point of view, then we may be more likely to look together toward a more nuanced conversation/negotiation about potential solutions.

4.      Doubt.  This one is about humility.  We must practice holding space for the possibility that we don’t know everything, that we could be wrong about something, or a lot of things.  This is admitting that we each always have something to learn, and we may need to evolve and adapt our position based on some new learning.  “Doubt—the concern that my views may not be entirely correct—is the true friend of wisdom and (along with empathy, to which it’s related) the greatest enemy of polarization…  Doubt often supports true convictions based on realistic foundations, just as doubtlessness is nearly always an intellectual disability, a form of blindness.”

5.      Specify.  Avoid and shun overgeneralization.  Blankenhorn invites us to consider four ways to do this.

a.      Practice a “persistent skepticism about categories.”  Left and Right, Conservative and Liberal, even Republican and Democrat—avoid labeling as if all members of each of these categories or groups are carbon copies of all others.  “It’s… worth remembering that, in many cases, creative and categorical thinking are at odds with each other.”  Think about your friends who listen to both country and hip hop music, or those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.  Pigeonholing serves nobody.

b.      Consider each issue separately and on its own terms.  Avoid applying broad and heavy ideological frameworks to topics like healthcare, gun violence, immigration, or LGBTQ rights.  Again, this practice depends on the other habits: finding common ground, counting higher than two.

c.      Privilege the specific assertion (including the empirically valid generalization) over the general assertion.  To me this means evidence.  It means objective data; we must find facts that we agree to be demonstrably true, on which we agree to found our debate.  We are allowed to have and state our opinions, but we must acknowledge that they are opinions and not necessarily empiric truth.

d.      Rely first and foremost on inductive reasoning.  [Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific…Inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories.]  This method of thinking and speaking, I think, may be less susceptible to bias, especially if we try our best to be objective in our observations.  It is the difference between “you have a fever, severe fatigue, and body aches that started all of a sudden; you were recently in close contact with someone eventually diagnosed with influenza, and you were not vaccinated—you probably have flu” and “flu is going around, you feel sick, you must have the flu.”

In general these practices are extremely difficult, and require significant attention and effort.  In the face of relationships with emotional baggage, raised armor, and close quarters, they feel that much more challenging and impossible.

6.      Qualify (in most cases).  Allow for our statements and assertions to be less definitive, more nuanced.  This is a corollary to practicing doubt.  Prepare to hold space for exceptions, to discuss how one size of anything really does not fit all, and things are never as simple and clear-cut as we would like.  “Of course, in today’s world of dueling talking points and partisan political warfare, qualifying—in the sense modifying or limiting, often by giving exceptions—is frequently treated as a sign of insufficient zeal and perhaps even wimpiness.  But for the serious mind, the opposite is true.  To qualify is to demonstrate competence.  And for the highly depolarizing person, to err is human; to qualify, to divine.”

7.      Keep the conversation going.  Relationships live and die by communication.  Communication is complex and difficult.  If we are to save and nurture our families and democracy, we must exert the energy to speak kindly, listen for understanding, seek shared goals, and see one another as fellow worthy humans rather than abstract enemies.  Avoidance may keep things quiet, but it does not facilitate true peace.  Engagement does not necessarily mandate confrontation.  We must learn to do this better.

I return to this list often, and find myself straying from the practices in my everyday thoughts and interactions.  Right now I’m really working on not calling people names in my head, so I’m less likely to do it out loud or on social media.  This is what I expect of visitors to my Facebook page, so I feel obligated to walk the talk.  Some days I fail—the plane goes down in crimson flames of ad hominem contempt and rage.  Nobody’s perfect.  So that’s why lists are helpful.  Should we expect to uphold all seven habits equally well all the time?  No.  And our families, communities, and country will be better for our honest efforts anyway.