Healing Our Divide

Better Angels holds Red-Blue workshops to mend differences

By Cecily Hastings
April 2019

Last fall we ran an article about Marisa Bogdanoff and Steve Sphar, local volunteers who are working to foster civil political discussion by leading Sacramento’s chapter of Better Angels.

Better Angels is the national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes. The idea for the group was in the works before the polarizing 2016 presidential election.

Soon afterward, Better Angels sprang into action, traveling across the country to set up Red-Blue workshops in which an equal number of conservative and progressive adults came together to talk about their differences within a structured format.

My husband and I attended their October event at Trinity Cathedral. Attendees saw an example of how Red-Blue workshops are structured. A local media panel discussed the effect of media on political debates. We were intrigued and offered to host a Red-Blue workshop in our home this coming May.

I recently read a new book called “Love Your Enemies” by New York Times best-selling author and social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. I found his previous book, “The Conservative Heart,” terrific.

Given my personal mission to foster closer connections between members of our community, I am deeply troubled by what has been called the “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American.

Brooks explains that one in six Americans has stopped talking to close friends and family members over politics. And millions are organizing their social lives and curating news and information to avoid hearing viewpoints different from their own. Ideological polarization is at higher levels than at any time since the Civil War.

Even worse, I’ve found almost everything has become political. Whether it’s our weather, schools, churches, comedy, entertainment, food, family life and even sports—politics has oozed up to divide us. I’ve especially felt deep polarization from neighbors in debating local land use and civic projects.

According to Brooks, “America has developed a ‘culture of contempt’—a habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect or misguided, but as worthless. Maybe you dislike it—more than nine out of 10 Americans say they are tired of how divided we have become as a country.”

Brooks’ prescriptions are counterintuitive. To bring America together, he argues, we shouldn’t try to agree more. Civility and tolerance shouldn’t be our goals, he says, because they are hopelessly low standards. And our feelings toward our foes are irrelevant; what matters is how we choose to act.

“Love Your Enemies” offers a clear strategy for people eager for a new era of American progress. And most of all, it is a roadmap to arrive at the happiness that comes when we choose to love one another, despite our differences.

Brooks says that contempt, the noxious brew of anger and disgust, for those we disagree with is the root of this divide. And it is beyond just contempt for differing ideas—it is contempt for those who hold them. Contempt fuels much of the cable news shows and the social media machine. It affirms our worst assumptions about those with whom we disagree.

I agree with Brooks that disagreement in itself isn’t bad. It is good because the heart of our democracy is competing political ideas. (I worry that both our city and state policy discussions are often one-sided.) So we need to not agree, but to disagree better.

This requires that we commit to never treat others with contempt because, as Brooks says, “No one has ever been hated into agreement.”

I’m not happy with myself for times when I’ve had harsh words or been dismissive of others. Trying to make amends can set you free, so Brooks advises us that we all need to try using more humor, good heartedness and magnanimity. Others may not always accept it, but we ourselves can feel happier in the process.

The challenge for Bogdanoff and Sphar is finding more conservatives willing to come forward for workshops, especially in Blue-dominated Sacramento. “They’re out there,” Bogdanoff says. “We just have to find them.”

Nonetheless, the group gives conservatives a chance to voice views in a setting where they will be treated respectfully. I’m hopeful I can be successful in recruiting our own workshop participants from both sides. After all, conservatives are supposed to be concerned with local civic life and efforts to “conserve” civilized forums and debates!

For more information, visit betterangelssacramento.org. To participate in or host workshops or other local events, contact Marisa Bogdanoff at marisangottuso@yahoo.com. On Wednesday, May 15, a Better Angels documentary will be shown at Clunie Community Center from 6 to 8 p.m.

Cecily Hastings can be reached at publisher@insidepublications.com

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