In a country as large and diverse as the United States, there will always be disagreement over deeply held principles. Our diversity is only a strength if we learn how to express differences without also delivering a side dish of cold contempt along with the turkey.
Numerous organizations are attempting to bring civility in disagreement back to the Thanksgiving dinner table, the office break room and to public debates at every level of government. Braver Angels is one of those groups working nationally to improve individual and community skills.
Bill Doherty was a co-founder of Braver Angels in 2016 following public meltdowns over the presidential election results. An experienced family therapist and professor from the University of Minnesota, Doherty has been applying everything he knows about family and community dynamics to designing workshops for depolarizing Americans. He described the work in a keynote speech and presented workshops at the Washington State Association of Counties leadership conference this week.
Doherty said he heard concerns from many county leaders in attendance that the “level of polarization turns everything into a hot conflict; it’s been overwhelming over the last five years.” His advice to Spokane County leaders? Consider the example of a county commissioner in Pennsylvania chairing a three-person board with two Democrats and one Republican. He decided during his term all policy decisions needed to be unanimous to reflect the entire community.
In an email from the conference, Commissioner Mary Kuney wrote, “I really appreciated Bill’s presentation. My take-aways were: Absolutes do not work. We need to truly listen. We have more in common then we think. Solutions do not have to be Blue or Red, we need to look for the community solution.”
Braver Angels isn’t bipartisan or nonpartisan, it’s nonpolitical. Members have their positions and politics, but Braver Angels does not. Its programs focus on providing a framework to contain the toxic animosity leaking out of tough conversations, using structured conversations to provide space to get past the divide.
As one of the six co-chairs of the Central-Eastern Washington Alliance, I moderated a conversation across the Cascade Curtain with Doherty and Braver Angels National Ambassador John Wood Jr. this week following the WSAC conference in Seattle. Participants asked some tough questions about dissipating anger and building trust.
Braver Angels does not duck the tough issues in the pursuit of replacing contempt with trust. Hosting a controversial debate in March 2021 on “Voter Fraud, Voter Suppression and the 2020 Election” was a test of that commitment. Wood explained the background of that decision, a hard one for Braver Angels national leadership staff. Some objected to the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud or suppression, but it wasn’t a matter of adjudicating the evidence. “In the absence of trust, having information, even accurate information, is worth nothing,” said Wood. “We’re in the trust business.”
Spokane County Commissioner Al French attended the keynote and a workshop, and was impressed by the presentations. “Anything that makes government work more efficiently and focuses on issues instead of personalities or political agendas is good,” French said. “One of the things I’m going to present to my fellow board members is a workshop to discuss how we’re going to function. I’d even be open to bringing Bill or one of his colleagues over for a session and bring in city councils and state agencies we work with.”
Rebuilding trust in government to govern will take more than leaders managing to restrain their language when faced with political differences. Doherty “does a really good job of talking about the need to return to civil dialog in terms of how do you talk with each other instead of at each other,’’ French said. “He brings good techniques for being able to discuss issues and find agreement to get the people’s work done.”
It’s a challenge for each of us individually to keep a civil tongue in our heads, whether at a dinner table or a keyboard. It doesn’t mean we have to pretend we don’t have differences, but it does require remembering all we have in common despite our differences. Call it counting your blessings before inventorying your grievances.
Contact Sue Lani Madsen at email@example.com.