I'll be on the road an hour from now, heading from my home in Raleigh, NC to Blacksburg, VA, for my first Better Angels workshop. My rose-colored glasses are perched on my nose, but hey, they're sitting low. I have a clear gaze above them. I'd been observing Better Angels from a distance for months when for some reason I suddenly had to get involved. They didn't have a North Carolina workshop set until March, so I signed up for this one, despite the four-hour drive.
My sense is the exercises are designed with some simplicity in mind, providing opportunities to listen quietly and learn why folks on the other side personally, individually, hold their political views. I can do that. (Right?) I'll also get to state my own views to a political opponent without being interrupted or derided. Wonder what that feels like...
So, with a fair amount of apprehension, I'm going in. I have to. I think we're getting it really, really wrong in the country right now, and I'm trying to at least get a handle on why. I know one thing; we have begun to casually - or at least routinely - reject the possibility that reasonable people of good will can hold views we find detestable. Now, I have friends who would say that given the outright injustice of some positions, it is right to reject the notion that a well-meaning person could hold them. I really get that. It can be confounding.
But what if we start at a place that separates the actions and rhetoric of policy-makers and other public figures from the beliefs and opinions of individuals who don't hold power. Don't we then have a narrower problem to grapple with; one that shouldn't be tossed aside with the wave of a hand? We all get to our political views in part by way of emotion and personal experience. By the time they are fully formed, our opinions are deeply rooted. Mine are. You cannot tell me that my views on certain issues aren't based on objective moral truths. About them I am perfectly comfortable saying, "I am right." But if I feel only contempt for those with opposing views and default to a self-righteous scorn, I am no longer right. And you would not be either. You could argue that the integrity of your beliefs is so solid you have good reason - even an obligation - to denounce those who disagree, but I'll still say doing so is wrong. Because while evaluations of right and wrong can entail questions of morality and humanity, they can also examine whether something is constructive or destructive; realistic or myopic; effective or impotent. Your convictions may be right, but the condemnation is wrong, either morally, depending on your philosophical bent, or because it Just. Won't. Help.
My being guided by these principles doesn't mean I live up to them. It certainly doesn't make more appealing the prospect of listening to someone who thinks gay people shouldn't marry or that poor people just aren't trying hard enough. I can write about it but interpersonally it's much harder. I recently had an experience white people sometimes have, when another white person assumes you'll be able to connect on a racist level. "Black men don't take care of their children," she says to me. I didn't feel inquisitive, or kindly. I didn't want to break it down in civil terms and help her understand what she was getting wrong. I wanted her out of my sight. I made that happen, abruptly, and made changes in my situation to keep it that way.
I have no idea if that's the sort of thing I can expect to hear at this workshop. I have no idea how I will react if I do. I hope not to walk away. I hope to be able to sit with it, and I'm not sure why. My gut tells me there will be a value in going to this thing, but my gut is also twisted in knots.
From what I've read, and picked up from their videos, Better Angels does not design exercises with the intent of any one participant converting another. The intent doesn't even appear to be about learning to respect the validity of a given argument. Good thing. Because I wouldn't want to go, and because I can't imagine it is uncommon to leave one of these cordial, day-long events still wondering, “How on earth can those people believe that crap??!” But from what I can tell, something happens. Some sort of humanizing, some sort of calming, some sort of renewing of hope... I don't know.
My cynical friends (mwah) like to dub me the chick in the title of this post. And absolutely: I'm idealistic and optimistic. But I hope they'll credit me for embarking on something I won't be able to float through on a cloud of peace. I'm having to override the fear of being repelled by what I see in others, and maybe what I will see in myself. But y’all. If we really mourn the loss of the loyal-opposition model of governing and discourse, and recognize it ain't gonna stage a comeback on its own, what's the alternative? Fury won't change anything. Hand-wringing won't. Resignation won't. Shrouding ourselves in cynicism, however well-earned, won't change anything. The only alternative to going at it with this sort of work is to outnumber and overpower the other side. I know that feels like the right goal to some, who see the divide as intractable, who see real people getting hurt, and who authentically believe it's time to repudiate compromise and force a new paradigm. But if that's your goal, please stop crying about the toxic tone of our discourse, stop accusing others of power mongering, and remember that ultimately, a forced paradigm is a bloody strategy, and what you end up with is not be democracy.
I'll stress again that as invisible as my humility and self-doubt may be in a lot of what I write, it is there. Yes, I'm proud to be taking this step, consigning myself to sit tomorrow and hear out people whose views, in my estimation, reflect misinformation, prejudice, fear, and callousness. And yes, I'm aware that I'm shamelessly issuing challenges to everyone in earshot to follow my lead. But I mean to describe ideals here, not accomplishments. I'm trying to hold myself accountable as much as anyone else. I mean it when I say I'm worried I'll bolt halfway through the workshop, tossing my rosy shades in the trash, muttering, "There are no better angels here." It's also just nerve-racking not knowing if your head is going to explode and make a mess in front of all those people.
My plan is to attend a couple of workshops as a participant and weigh a deeper involvement. Despite my doubts, I know there's every chance I will want to become a Better Angels volunteer. I'm so curious.