Putting civility back into civil discourse
The woman sitting at the end of the carefully arranged tables looks as though she would rather be someplace else — maybe at her real estate agency, maybe just with people she knows, people who see the world the way she does. But a friend asked her to come here, and she agreed, and she will carry out her role.
“It’s not my notion of a family,” she says firmly, her chin set as she explains the burden of holding conservative views in a liberal town. “It’s my truth of a family. I don’t want my views to be considered hate speech. But I don’t want to celebrate things that I don’t celebrate.”
At least half the people sitting around the table disagree with her. But none of them show it, not by a snort, or an impassioned interruption, or even a rolled eyeball.
It’s almost as if she’s in a place, and a moment, where people actually talk to each other — and listen to each other.
She, and the other people in the room, are in a workshop of Better Angels, a growing movement built around the idea that red and blue Americans can meet and talk for a day without name-calling or Twitter-blasting one another — and that the custom could spread. In a church activities center in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, seven people from each side of the ever-widening divide — all of them white, most of them old enough to remember the time before the internet ate politics — get together, work through a set of carefully arranged exercises, and discover that they can talk politics without sounding like a cable news network.
Since its inception in 2016, Better Angels has held hundreds of workshops around the United States, from daylong events to 2½-hour training sessions, to help people cultivate the vanishing skill of listening.
This morning in Oregon, people start out wary about the venture, so wary that a visiting writer is instructed not to quote anyone by name. Wearing red- or blue-rimmed name tags and sitting in alternating red and blue seats, participants offer opening statements that sound discouraged yet determinedly hopeful. Their concerns cross party lines.
“I’m really worried about our country, about the way we’re separated more and more,” says someone wearing a red tag.
“A lot of my friends are really quick to cut off anyone who objects to them,” admits a blue sitting nearby.
“I’m really tired of the vitriol,” says a neighbor, sounding indeed tired of it. “Something is terribly wrong in this country.”
In the course of the day, they will talk, separately and together, about the stereotypes each side holds about the other — and how those stereotypes might contain a kernel of truth. They will devise questions to ask the other side, and answer the questions from across the line.
From the front of the room, one of the moderators, Linda Scher, assures the group that nobody is there to persuade anyone else, and cautions that participants should be careful with body language. It seems that these days Americans have trouble not only talking to each other, but even sitting near each other inoffensively.
The hope, explains Dan Sockle, the other moderator, is to end with “more introspection, more humility.”
Sockle got here partly by way of Rotary; he’s a member of the Rotary Club of Three Creeks Vancouver, Washington. He thinks the idea of Better Angels fits rather neatly with The Four-Way Test.
Sockle spent 22 years in the military, bouncing around Germany, Italy, Korea, and southwest Asia. He came back to the United States for a government job in Washington state, but left again to work with a military program in Iraq, partly because his son was stationed there.
Sockle noticed that Iraqi politics had some similarities to what he had seen back in the United States. “If everybody’s screaming, who’s listening?” he asks in a speech he often gives.
Returning stateside, he came to rest — although “rest” isn’t really a word that comes to mind where Dan Sockle is concerned — back in Washington state, just across the Columbia River from Portland. He joined the Three Creeks Rotary club as a charter member and became active in Peacebuilders, an effort of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace, speaking to clubs in the West and Hawaii.
In the spring of 2018, he came across Better Angels, a project dedicated to producing less screaming and more listening. The name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, when, looking at an onrushing civil war, the president expressed his faith that “the better angels of our nature” would one day bring Americans together again. After four years of war and massive casualties, they did.
Sockle is a man of lengthy answers and big enthusiasms who sweeps other people up in them. For this session of Better Angels, his fourth, he has invited the president of his Rotary club; a former district governor; and his own son. The week after this event, he’ll drive 200 miles to a Better Angels training event in Grants Pass, a southern Oregon town situated, geographically and politically, at the other end of the state.
Expressing his enthusiasm for Better Angels, Sockle points to his eye, which is swollen for medical reasons but does look a bit like the result of a heated discussion about the proper definition of family.
“Here’s what you’re getting if you stay polarized,” he declares with mock warning.
In the day’s first Better Angels exercise, the reds and blues separate, which helps reassure those uneasy about interacting with people whose outlook is so clearly wrong. The goal is to think about stereotypes, and one stereotype is already reinforced: The blue team is almost all women, the red side heavily male.
Asked what image the other side has of them, and what might be its kernel of truth, the blue team members quickly fill up their whiteboard. They think that reds believe blues are unpatriotic, have anti-family values, are obsessed with political correctness, and are driven to tax, spend, overregulate, and grab everyone’s guns. But the blues see themselves as believing in inclusion and respectful language, and don’t think that America is necessarily better than anyplace else.
The reds have some trouble choosing from all the negative images they think blues have of them. While they see themselves as just more practical and cautious, they eventually agree that the other side considers them racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, intolerant, and anti-environment. Somehow, they go back out to talk to the blues anyway.
The contrast might explain why, especially in Portland, it can be harder to recruit reds than blues for Better Angels events.
“The stereotypes about reds are so much more harmful,” says Scher, who works as a family mediator. While blues may be considered as too soft or as wanting to throw money at problems, she says, “the red stereotype is that you’re a terrible person.”
On the other hand, Sockle reports that in ruby-red Grants Pass, “blues are a little more reluctant” than reds to come to a Better Angels event. In general, when invited to encounter the other side, “people fear an ambush.”
In the second exercise, the Fishbowl, the two sides take turns sitting in the center of the room while surrounded by the other side. After agreeing that the media exaggerates differences and emphasizes extremes — even today, no political difference is so wide that it can’t be bridged by dislike of the media — both sides voice their beliefs and fears, and now have less anticipation of being attacked.
“I have a son who won’t have a family because of concerns about the environment,” says one of the women on the blue side.
Explains a man from the other side: “It’s good to be skeptical about policies and change. Republicans put more emphasis on who we are and how we got here.”
Gradually, the two groups get comfortable enough to admit to some discomfort with their own side.
“The Democratic Party has moved away from what it should be,” confesses one of its adherents.
A red then concedes that his Republicans have moved away from Abraham Lincoln, from the Dwight Eisenhower who created the interstate highways, from Teddy Roosevelt and conservation.
By the last exercise, when people from the two sides come together in small groups to ask each other questions, certainty on both sides seems a lot wobblier than it was in the morning.
“A lot of liberals equate conservatism with racism and sexism, and that’s not OK,” admits a blue participant. “We keep ourselves so isolated.” Another notes, “I live in a completely blue bubble.”
A red tells a cluster of blues: “There are no easy answers to any of these things. Even when I phrase my positions, they sound so lame.”
For the program, it’s a gain when each side says such things. And another gain when the other side listens.
At the Better Angels workshop, Nelson Holmberg wears a red-rimmed ID tag. He’s representing the Republican side, but he’s also representing something else.
“Applying The Four-Way Test to the idea of having a civil conversation is really appropriate,” he explains. “Being able to be part of both Rotary and Better Angels is incredibly valuable.”
Holmberg is president of the Rotary Club of Three Creeks — which, he notes proudly, has completed more than 25 service projects in only 2½ years of existence. Sockle, the club’s Peacebuilders chairman, has brought Holmberg today, but it doesn’t appear that Holmberg took a lot of persuading.
“I’m super-excited that there is this organization to address our politics,” says Holmberg. He was particularly taken with the first part of the daylong Better Angels program, identifying stereotypes and finding the kernel of truth. “The Four-Way Test really speaks to the idea that we all need to do what we did in that exercise.”
The same idea is bubbling up through other Rotary clubs. In November 2017, after reading an article about the work that Better Angels was doing, the Rotary Club of St. Paul Sunrise got in touch with Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a co-founder of the new organization.
The club invited Doherty to speak about Better Angels at its annual Community Forum in 2018, stirring such enthusiasm that the District 5960 Ethics Team, in conjunction with Better Angels, hosted three skills training sessions for other clubs in the district, training 100 Rotarians. One of the other clubs reported that “members couldn’t stop talking about it,” says Ellen Luepker, a St. Paul Sunrise member and co-chair of the Community Forum organizing committee.
“Doherty kept pointing to The Four-Way Test, saying, ‘This is in your DNA,’” recalls St. Paul Sunrise member Ed Marek, who will be governor of District 5960 (parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin) in 2020-21. “It comes down to being respectful.”
The impact wasn’t just political, reports Luepker: “One person says she feels better in family conversations.”
Such communications gains might also be recognizable to someone sitting in on the Oregon session.
“I’m loving what I’m hearing,” says Mike Caruso, a past governor of District 5100 (parts of Oregon and Washington), after listening to the Oregon reds and blues exchange stereotypes. “I’m very excited about what this could be.”
At the end of the long day’s exercises in Oregon, reds and blues regather in the big central room to talk about what they might do next. The coordinators write down the participants’ “action plans” on big white sheets of paper, to be sent back to national Better Angels headquarters. Compared with the attitudes they brought in this morning, the participants now sound more open, less resistant.
The new plans may sound modest, but seven hours earlier, they might not have been heard at all.
“I make a commitment to you guys that when my fellow Republicans say Democrats are socialists who want to take our guns, I will say that’s not true,” declares the woman who had been firm about the behaviors she didn’t want to celebrate.
A blue woman promises, “I will challenge my more liberal friends.”
Many of the ideas are about everyday life, a sign that the experience can get very personal.
“I’m looking forward to talking to my brother,” says a participant. “We’ll see what happens.”
One blue vows, on the topic of avoiding occasions of anger and misinformation, “I’m going to stay off Facebook, except for kitten and puppy posts.”
Another pledges, “I’m going to be writing handwritten notes to my representatives about education, the environment, and civil discourse.”
Nobody seems to consider it a wasted day. “The program sells itself,” says Sockle — who’s working hard to sell it, especially to fellow Rotarians — “once you get people in the door.”
And nobody has to be persuaded about the stakes involved.
“I’m taking away a faith that we can promote civil discourse,” says a participant, “as if our country depended on it.”
• David Sarasohn, a longtime columnist for The Oregonian in Portland, has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post. He has published three books including Waiting for Lewis and Clark: The Bicentennial and the Changing West. Read more stories from The Rotarian.