Perspectives: Fixing America’s growing polarization, my Better Angels experience

OPINION — When my friend Eric Moutsos reached out to me last week and asked if I’d be interested in joining him at a Better Angels workshop being held in Salt Lake City, I hesitated.

I wasn’t really interested in spending a precious Saturday receiving sensitivity training.

After thinking about it, I contacted Eric and agreed to attend the workshop. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I will forever be grateful for having participated.

This was the first I’d heard of these unique workshops, which bring together a small number of individuals with deeply held conservative and progressive views for a day of conversation. The prime directive of these meetings is very simple: We’re not here to change each other’s views.

This means no debating or ideological flexing but plenty of room for honest conversation.

We were evenly divided into our “Red” and “Blue” teams and asked to introduce ourselves and why we were there. A couple people made it clear from the start that they were skeptical that we’d all be dancing arm in arm in the streets of Salt Lake City any time soon.

The first exercise was to gather with our group and to identify 5 stereotypes that are commonly applied to us. This was easier than any of us expected.

Our conservative stereotypes included being portrayed as racist, bigoted, uncaring, uneducated gun nuts. Our counterparts used stereotypes of progressives being elitist, socialist, hostile to God and family and destructive to America.

We were then asked to describe why these stereotypes weren’t accurate while also identifying the kernel of truth behind each of them. It was fascinating to simply listen to one another describe how we think we are perceived. I know several of us found that, initially, we were still mentally trying to debunk what the other side was saying. It took conscious effort not to want to debate, even within our minds.

Next, we were asked to discuss, as groups, why our policies are good for America and which parts of our side’s thinking we don’t support.

A very valuable lesson came from this.

We discovered that neither side was monolithic in their thinking. Labels are notorious for allowing us to create one-dimensional caricatures of each other but they leave out many essential details.

There is plenty of nuance in how each of us sees the world around us. That’s easy to forget when we’re trying to pigeonhole one another so we don’t have to try to understand.

Eric and I found ourselves eating lunch with a transgender individual named Tisha Olsen who put the lie to several more stereotypes. Tisha describes herself as a “militant Constitutionalist” and served honorably in the Marines for more than 20 years before leaving the military and transitioning to a female identity.

Learning her story was equal parts surreal and inspiring.

It was a perfect reminder to me that the divisions most of us perceive are hard to maintain when we are willing to simply talk with someone face to face – with no expectation of changing their mind.

I think both Eric and I were mildly surprised at the end of the day to realize that we had more in common with Tisha than with many of the other participants.

Each group was also given the chance to formulate four questions for the other side with the stipulation that these could not be a sermon in the form of a question. Also we were asked to refrain from asking “gotcha” questions.

The goal was to find real insight into why those on the other side think the way they do.

To this end, one of the most valuable questions that came up asked the participants to share a story or an experience they’d had that shaped their worldview. The answers revealed that most of their stances were born out of instances of authentic pain and injustice they had encountered.

This understanding makes it nearly impossible to dismiss another’s viewpoint as the product of evil desires or stupidity. It also was a powerful lesson in how we each can add to another’s pain – often without meaning to.

I don’t believe anyone ended up changing his or her mind as a result of this workshop, but I’m certain that most of us experienced a positive change of heart for having taken part. Whatever doubts I might have had going into the workshop were quickly erased and replaced with genuine hope that there might be a workable solution to our growing polarization.

Speaking only for myself, I came away from this gathering with my principles intact and with a greater love for all of the individuals who made the time to be there. If you’re tired of trading insults online and looking for a way to make a difference, this may be well worth your while.

The Better Angels organization is legitimately working to bridge the growing divide amongst the American populace.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events and liberty viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

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