“How do we vigorously disagree with political positions and destructive actions while refraining from dehumanization and self-righteousness?….
The harm of mutually destructive simplifications reminds us to monitor our own steady stream of judging and dividing, a far more productive investment than trying to change others.”
–Paula Green, founder of Hands Across the Valley
“If feelings about our political adversaries can be represented on a spectrum, our objective is to move Americans from hatred or disdain to respect & appreciation.”
–from Braver Angels website
“…today’s crises demand that we aim for what King called “positive peace,” with justice for all, rather than civility, which is sometimes used as a cudgel to uphold an unjust status quo”
–Joseph Bubman, founder of Urban Rural Action
I’ve been a meditation teacher since the mid 1970’s and a licensed therapist since 1985. I think of myself as skilled in communication and resolving conflicts. I have worked with people to resolve conflicts within themselves and in their personal relationships. But I have to admit to being a slow learner in being able to talk with people who disagree with me politically, especially if they are conservative or right-wing.
A helpful teaching for me is that we are not our ideas. I am not my beliefs and therefore neither is anyone else. People are far more than any particular idea that they happen to believe. This is especially true of political thinking involving abstractions, complex sets of ideas that often have little to do with the deeper values and intentions that move a person through life.
But we are living in a world where political beliefs have become a rigid form of identification of who we are. Beliefs about people with differing views tend to be placed in boxes labeled with stereotypes that ignore the many facets and dimensions of the individual. This polarization plays a major role in tearing the country apart and is an obstacle to any efforts to actually solve the many problems we face including racial and gender justice, the needs of refugees, poverty, and the ecological crises.
So I’ve been looking into groups that are seeking to help de-polarize the culture. I gave a talk about one very successful effort, Braver Angels, which you can view at https://youtu.be/PhSPDyFnEfo.
Another group with a similar focus, Hands Across the Valley, has been bringing liberals from Western Mass together with conservatives from Kentucky for deep encounters and human bridge-building. As Paula Green, who founded the Hands group states, “What can we progressives learn from how we are perceived by others that is worthy of self-examination and potentially modifying our views? How do we vigorously disagree with political positions and destructive actions while refraining from dehumanization and self-righteousness? In my work as a peace builder overseas, I learned to recognize dignity as fundamental to human well-being and its absence as a contributing cause to social ills ranging from self-rejection to hatred and war. Since dignity is not self-appointed but is confirmed and upheld by others, a harmonious society requires we grant it to one another…..
“Our challenge is to understand this dynamic and to take responsibility for our role in the dance. The harm of mutually destructive simplifications reminds us to monitor our own steady stream of judging and dividing, a far more productive investment than trying to change others.”
This last sentence is especially worth noting as it calls attention to the importance of the psychological and spiritual work we need to do on ourselves, to free ourselves from our own destructive impulses.
An interesting challenge to the idea that all we need is civility between the polarized groups appears in an article in YES! Magazine, “Building Bridges Without A Foundation for Peace Won’t Work”
Joseph Bubman, who founded Urban Rural Action, , writes, “We bridge-builders often identify civility as the goal—polarization is the problem, incivility is the diagnosis, and civil dialogue is the solution. If we just bring everyone to the table, the thinking goes, then we can unify. We can heal by accepting a “negative peace,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described the absence of tension in an unjust society.
“But today’s crises demand that we aim for what King called “positive peace,” with justice for all, rather than civility, which is sometimes used as a cudgel to uphold an unjust status quo.
“We must recognize that we ourselves are actors within the conflict context—what we say and do (and don’t say or do) affects the context. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can or should be “neutral.” When violent extremists desecrate our democracy and we demur lest we face criticism for appearing biased, we are not being neutral—we are normalizing political violence. Instead, we should champion American values of peaceful expression and democratic participation.
“At worst, our bridge-building efforts champion superficial civility, celebrate false unity, and uphold an unjust status quo. But at our best, we can expand movements to advance peace, justice, and democracy. Indeed, the future of America depends on it.”
Among other things, Bubman was reacting to a “debate” held by Braver Angels where one side was arguing that the election was stolen, a view he sees as untrue and destructive. But how to address the millions of people who disagree? So there is conflict about how to resolve conflict. No surprise. I recommend reading and learning more about Braver Angels, Hands Across the Valley and Bubman’s Urban Rural Action.
At another point, Bubman does says, “Better conversations alone won’t address complex societal problems, but complex societal problems can’t be addressed without better conversations.” Who can argue with that?
The groups mentioned here all attempt in somewhat different ways to foster better conversations and I do think we all very much need to learn the skills for doing that. You are invited to join me this next Monday in my webinar series Staying Sane While Making the World Better. We’ll focus on all this there. Hope to see you Monday, April 26, 7:30 PM EDT. https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81129871531?pwd=YWl1QVlPd0twWHV4a3VGN3d3MDNmZz09
Another important key I’ve been working with is to remember that the intention of conversation is not to persuade but to understand.
If you want to begin or further your understanding of “the other side,” some recommendations are:
The Flip Side https://www.theflipside.io/
(sends daily summaries of the news from both sides):
All Sides – https://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news
More in Common – https://www.moreincommon.com/