Bridging the divide

Less than a year since the midterm election and more than a year before the presidential election, the brief-blip hiatus in our perpetual political pressure cooker is a distant memory. Polarization is again gearing up to set friends, relatives and neighbors on edge anew.

Clearly, this isn't what "the United States" was supposed to be about. Thankfully, nonpartisan, antipartisan organizations like Better Angels is working to help this nation try to heal, even as other foreign and domestic forces actively seek to drive wedges. A locally based Community Conversations group held its second Better Angels exercise in Greenfield recently, drawing eight conservative and eight liberal volunteers to the table for a day of "bridging" exercises.

The exercises, developed by Better Angels -- a national organization created in 2016 -- provide a strict format to get the two groups talking, and more importantly, listening, to one another during a day-long moderated workshop.

This was my second workshop as an observer, which I was able to contrast with a looser, more in-depth "Hands Across the Hills" approach used in an ongoing conversation between Leverett, Mass. and Letcher County, Ky. residents. That model was developed locally by facilitator Paula Green, who's adapted it from international reconciliation work developed to help heal conflict zones like Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Israel-Palestine, and in the Conflict Transformations Across Cultures (CONTACT) program she developed at the School for International Training.

Better Angels begins by getting each "team" -- so-called "reds" and "blues," seated alternately with one another -- to think about stereotypes they believe are used by the others, and then to list why each presumed stereotype is wrong as well as reasons it may contain a germ of truth. The groups come together and share those, examining also what they've learned from that exercise.

A second exercise has each side seated in small circle, with the "opposite" group encircling them as observers as those in the middle discuss essentially why their point of view is best for the nation, and also what's a problem with their liberal or conservative values. The teams switch and then come together to discuss what they've learned.

Ultimately, each group goes off to develop four questions for the others -- with a moderator helping assure they're genuine questions of curiosity rather than loaded "gotcha" attempts at intimidating the others. The sides come together to answer the questions, and then analyze what they've learned from this exercise as well.

It was an enlightening and sometimes grueling day -- although not without levity, self-depricating humor and numerous points of interaction, especially during a lunch and other breaks when "reds" and "blues" are encouraged to mingle and socialize. And by the day's end, there are clearly signs that some attitudes have shifted, even if nobody has necessarily changed their political philosophophies. After all, that's not the point.

And yet these are clearly baby steps in moving us in the right direction. A daylong workshop points, at the end, to a need for continued dialogue, interactions, explorations toward rebuilding a society that's become seriously fractured in a world that needs loving and healing.

Clearly, there are some issues here that need thinking deeply about.

Although there clearly needs to be a starting point, it seems a little counterproductive to begin by affixing "red" and "blue" designations, underscoring the very polarizing labels we're trying to dispel. And then, to make it worse, ask people on the overgeneralized "team" to which you've you've assigned them to come up with stereotypes they believe that others are pinning on them. Some of the "red" team members pinned labels on themselves including "fascist," "racist," "homophobe" even though nearly all of them denied that they themselves were, but that some extreme "reds" are.

Likewise, the "blues" imagined that the stereotypes "tree huggers," "elitist, arrogant" and "too soft on crime" were how they were viewed, and called these overgeneralizations that might apply to some liberals, but not themselves. Both groups argued why the "others" were wrongheaded to lump them all together, even though they had been lumped together under banners that clearly underscored that sweeping labels are erroneous.

The eight participants homed in on how the sharp contrasts between positions under these umbrella labels left them disagreeing among themselves and pointing fingers at the other group rather than empathizing with the common problems of stumbling under overgeneralizations. A few of them did express empathy as they reflected on what they'd felt after a few hours working together: "I'm struck by the sincerity and capacity the (blues/reds) have. You're good, caring people."

"I focus on the individual and personal responsibility. I have to also respect the idea of responsibility to groups. That's new to me. That's a good thing to learn."

In "spectrum exercises I'd seen used in the Hands Across the Hills, CONTACT and other groups, people are asked to line up along an imaginary line to express how they felt about, say, gun control. These, it seemed to me, gave a truer picture of the actual range of people's feelings on issues. Participants asked to explain why they've chosen to stand in a particular spot along the continuum, typically others move as they reconsider their own figurative and physical positions.

In that slower Hands Across the Hils model, the emphasis is on finding commonalities between different cultures, different viewpoints, without repeatedly waving the "red" or "blue" flag.

It takes time to discover empathy. That's something the Better Angels participants weren't afforded, especially given the subtleties of language nuance betwen one position and another, and the way that the sloppiness of labels works against that. It's much easier to point to gross differences than to see the similarities between positions, and especially common values that we share no matter our party label or the slogans shouted by our team captains.

Especially given today's hurried media, the impatience for nuance imposes itself, and the distillation mentality that favors loaded language and glosses over life's true complexities allows harsh, unyielding thinking to set in and isolate us from one another.

"The bottom line is we're all human beings," said one woman who'd described herself as having very extreme positions.

"This is much more interesting than watching the news," another participant observed after considering imagined stereotypes and considering their flaws and causes.

Still another concluded, "Both sides, it seems, have a lot of good heartedness and wanting things to be good for everyone, really. Both sides also have I think we have the the limitation of looking at everything through the lens of our perceived or inherited worldview or framework without questioning it enough. That's where I think this process is a good step towards ... really questioning one's own assumptions."

I was pinching myself at times as I heard extreme characterizations of the other group.

"I don't know what's their goal. I don't know where they're pushing us," one participant told others in his group.

Yet I also heard people with whom I largely agree questioning their own values and clearly expressing uncertainty about where their positions -- theirs and mine as well -- would ultimately lead.

Despite the extremes, the great commonality appears well-intentioned. There's always a need for greater depth of understanding, always a need to not get tripped up in words, labels, positioning, judging.

The more of ourselves we devote to staking out our territory, defending our positions against attacks real or perceived, labeling each idea 'ours' or 'theirs', 'good' or 'evil,' then the less genuine listening we're doing to others, and to our own hearts.

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