Here’s an idea for spending a lovely autumn Saturday: take a group of people with different political persuasions, lock them together in a room all day, and make them talk about politics. Sounds awful, right?
Well, that’s (almost) exactly what we did last weekend, during a Braver Angels workshop co-hosted by Wright Memorial Public Library and the Oakwood Inclusion Coalition. Braver Angels is a national organization that was founded in South Lebanon, OH in 2017. Its mission: Bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic. That’s a tall order and we were both a little skeptical going in.
The format of the workshop requires an equal number of conservative- and liberal-leaning participants, who participate in moderated discussions. Each participant was given a name tag that identified them as “Red” (Randy) or “Blue” (Madeline), so there was no guessing where anyone was ideologically. With clear ground rules about respectful listening and speaking, which everyone followed, we discussed common stereotypes and where the truth actually lies.
Being in a group where everyone is forced to listen and not allowed to immediately respond reminded Randy of an important principle: before you disagree with someone, you should understand their position well enough that you are able to state their position so clearly that they agree with you. Only then is it fair to challenge them. When we took the time to listen to each other and understand our different perspectives, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was much more that we agreed on than disagreed about. Many of the conservatives were surprised to hear some of the liberals saying how important personal liberty and fiscal discipline were to them. Many of the liberals were surprised to hear how much compassion the conservatives had for the poor.
Once we realized that we all held a common goal of trying to make the country better, it was much easier for us to objectively look at our positions and discuss them. In many cases we found that we are trying to do much the same thing but that we are just drawing the lines in different places for where control should be applied. For example, we all agree that the poor should be helped, we just disagree on who should be most responsible.
After taking the time to listen with the intention of understanding, what we found by the end of the day was that we were able to discuss difficult topics with people with whom we disagreed. At the same time, we were able to see each other as fellow citizens trying to make the country better instead of as an opposition to be nullified. The workshop participants left the room genuinely positively impacted by the experience.
While having a moderator and ground rules was clearly helpful, we can all take the time to listen more, assume the best in others, and do what we can to help bring our country back together. Even if our neighbors vote differently than us on a particular issue or candidate, they are probably still great people. Individually we may not be able to change the divisiveness of our nation, but we can each change how we talk to the people on our street. If enough of us change our street, that will change our community. If enough communities change, that will change the country. In a world increasingly fraught with conflict and division, the strength of our country is needed now more than ever.
Madeline Iseli, Chair of the Oakwood Inclusion Coalition
Randy Honaker, President of the Board of Trustees, Wright Memorial Public Library