Better Angels Speakers Promote Respectful Relationships in Midst of Political Division
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 12, 2020)
Auburn Hills, MI – In a nation where hyper-partisanship dominates policy discussions and even divides families, there is a growing movement of Americans calling for a more civil union.
Among the groups seeking respectful discourse is “Better Angels,” a nonprofit that brings even proportions of liberals and conservatives – what they call blues and reds – to do trainings on having better conversations.
On Feb. 5 Oakland University’s Center for Civic Engagement hosted two Better Angels speakers. John Wood is the former Vice-Chairman of the Los Angeles County Republican Party and 2014 GOP challenger to Maxine Waters in California’s 43rd Congressional District. And Ciaran O’Connor is a former communications staffer Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. They talked about the political division as well as ways individuals can combat it.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
There are many reasons for the pronounced divisions among people, including social media, the news media, and the parties and politicians themselves.
Social media is a big component of the great divide. “When you’re on social media, you’re mainly consuming information you already agree with,” O’Connor said. On top of that, the most dramatic headlines and memes are the ones that get shared most often on social media platforms.
Social media also tends to be dominated by those with the time and audacity to push. “The loudest, angriest voices suck up all the oxygen, and people get afraid to stick their neck out,” he said.
This trend also puts the media in a tough position. Fair and mild stories are easily lost in the mix when the dramatic ones get the most shares. “The incentive for the media is about conflict, because that’s draws eyeballs,” O’Connor said.
Within political parties, similar patterns happen. “The middle is a minefield,” he said. “People are afraid to venture into the middle often with fear of being sniped by their own side.”
The result is political discourse that focuses on the furthest right and furthest left, and little room for quality, inclusive debate. “Political debate has become a quest to dominate the other side,” O’Connor said. “It takes courage and strength to have these [inclusive] conversations.”
“I realized this problem won’t go away no matter who is elected in 2020,” said Wood, who decided to focus his time on Better Angels because “2020 is an available moment for anybody who wants to have this spirit… In the storm that’s about to hit all of us, there’s a chance we can learn a lesson…This is the time to stand up for love.”
RECOGNIZING THE DIVIDE IN YOURSELF AND OTHERS
While the speakers recognized the need for change in academia, the media, and in politics itself, they also touted the power of individuals to both make change and support those who aim higher. “The American people should set the example of how we treat each other, and not rely on the parties or the media,” Wood said.
Better Angels workshops and trainings focus on using family therapy techniques to help individuals see beyond their own biases and communicate in healthy ways. “What we do is essentially marriage therapy for people of different political sides,” Wood said.
“Political debate has become a quest to dominate the other side,” O’Connor said.
Some things to recognize and avoid are:
-When you’re listening and all you do is wait for your chance to respond.
-When you prescribe the worst qualities of the most extreme person on the other side, to the average person on the other side.
-When you ascribe the characteristics of a politician to that person.
-When you assume the other person agrees with everything that their party does.
-When you ask “gotcha questions,” hoping to trip the other person up.
-When you aim to change another person’s mind rather than aiming to understand their side.
AIMING FOR LOVE AND DEMOCRACY
Referencing slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Wood said “Dr. King defined love as something that would not defeat your opponent, but would win them over so they can become a friend.”
Wood added “love carries a deep power. Even if a person mistreats you in that moment, you can still wish the best for that person and have love for them. Your love for your country is demonstrated by your love for your fellow human being.” He wished that everyone would “re-fix our eyes on the idea of a higher allegiance.”
“I loving your opponent, you can speak to the human side of that person,” Wood said. “Even if you don’t change them, you unburden yourself.”
SITUATIONS FOR LISTENING
Better Angels workshops divide people into reds and blues. One group sits in the middle while the other group sits in a circle around them. Members of the inside group then talk to each other about why they are conservative or liberal, sharing their personal experiences that led them to their choice. Those in the outer ring may only listen and take notes. This helps them listen and process what they hear. It also helps to hear the personal stories rather than just the partisan talking points.
“Personal experiences are powerful,” O’Connor said “Personal experiences are harder to disagree with than talking points.”
The value of the word “I” is emphasized in the trainings. “When we have conversations we express our opinion as a matter of fact. But when you say ‘I think this because,” when you use the word “I” you emphasize your own humanity,” Wood said.
It also help to remove the accusations. One example was to say “I have some concerns about so-and-so’s remarks about women,” and relate that to personal experience, rather than to say “How can you vote for someone who treats women like that?”
Expectations are another pitfall of political discourse. “When you come to a conversation expecting to change someone’s mind or convincing them they are wrong, things can go wrong pretty quickly,” O’Connor said
Better Angels asks people to consider a more realistic goal. “Think of this as an opportunity to listen, to understand, and make my voice heard,” O’Connor said. “Speak from lived experience and listen to their experience. And you can build trust over time.”
One challenge is that people think their arguments make logical sense, while their opponent is operating from emotion. The reality is that people on both sides feel that way. “We all think we are logical, and if we make a rational argument, we will change minds. But we are emotional people,” Wood said.
He offered an image of a person riding on an elephant. The rider thinks they are in charge because they hold the reins, but the rider is always on top of this animal, and the animal’s power is what really moves them both forward. “Our emotions carry our reason,” he said.
Better Angels is working on improving dialogue among individuals, as well as looking at ways to improve the media, and to encourage those seeking public office to rise above the division. Local chapters can form, but they must have an equal number of blues and reds participating. Learn more at https://www.better-angels.org/