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The Curious Reemergence of Little Platoons

“What does your part of the country think about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now?” a man in his mid sixties read aloud from a sheet of paper to the group of six Republicans and six Democrats.

I had just arrived at the small, split-level home in a wooded neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana—miffed by the uncommon, light-to-medium traffic that had delayed my arrival from Indianapolis—and hurriedly joined a group of twelve seated in a circle. This was a Better Angels workshop, one of hundreds of such gatherings happening in communities across the country, which aims to unify a deeply divided nation.

The organization’s name derives from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address, delivered while our country was on the precipice of a civil war, where he implored Americans to prevent difference from “break[ing] our bonds of affection,” and to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

Like Lincoln, Better Angels seeks to heal a broken America by improving our public discourse. The volunteer-led workshops teach skills of human connection— paraphrasing, listening, asking questions of understanding, and how to offer a critique of ones own political position—not of persuasion. The intent is not to minimize differences or to convert. It is to humanize others who think differently—ultimately, to make us less inclined to demonize others and more inclined to peacefully coexist.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents in a recent study from Vanderbilt University rated their political opponents as “less-evolved” than members of their own party. This propensity to dehumanize, which history shows us tends to go hand in hand with targeted violence, is alarming and underscores the urgent need for groups to promote person-to-person interaction.

Beyond humanizing people with whom one disagrees, Better Angels also shows attendees that there are other people in their community of good-will who also recognize the importance of civil tête-à-têtes to a thriving republic.

Partisanship is at a record high, and trust in traditional media institutions—those that historically have set the tone of public discourse— at record low. Americans are dissatisfied by the apocalyptic consequentialism of cable news and talk radio. Fast, loud, combative, outrage-inducing, these forums play on people’s baser instincts and have driven many to seek reprieve through in-person dialogue—even with complete strangers.

Better Angels is one of a swath of organizations addressing the problem of a broken public discourse:  Slate Star Codex Rationalist meet-ups that seek truth in group settings, Benjamin Franklin Circles that collectively pursue virtue, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation that assembles “innovators” to problem-solve, and countless other national, state-wide, and local initiatives, do the same.

These entities recognize that the test of true tolerance is how one respects those who are different from oneself, and are committed to practicing a civil exchange of ideas across ideological lines. The basis of truly civil dialogue is choosing to see the dignity of the person on the other side of the aisle or computer screen, and reflecting on the basic respect they are owed in light of that dignity.

Groups like these also improve the anonymity problem of online forums—from Twitter trolls to the comments section of online news sites—which has contributed to such toxicity in our political environment. It is a truism that people are more likely to be cruel or make death threats virtually than when staring another person in the eye, which both attaches their identity to their opinion and forces them to confront the humanity of their interlocker.

These many disparate groups are an example of the American ethos of civic-mindedness, of ordinary citizens taking initiative and seeing a problem and working to fix it. These groups are the lifeblood of American society, and they are productive not only for the overt work they do—teaching skills, sharpening arguments, and all that—but, perhaps more importantly, for simply existing.

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind,” Edmund Burke once observed. These re-emerging platoons embody the encouraging reality that Americans are capable of working together—even if their elected representatives cannot.

“I am here,” one gentleman of our group in Bloomington shared, “because someone’s politics is not sufficient reason for me to cut them off.”

If America’s is to heal, it must start with more of us living out that truth.

 

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She lives in the American Midwest and is writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

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46 Comments

  1. E. Olson says

    Such efforts are commendable, but I have my doubts about their effectiveness. Jonathan Haidt’s research finds that those on the political right already have a pretty accurate understanding of the left’s positions on various issues, but the opposite is not true as the left tends to believe that people from the right are all racists, sexists, –phobic, etc. Haidt’s findings nicely support the famous comment by the late great Charles Krauthammer: “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil”, because to judge something stupid requires an understanding of the position, while judging someone evil makes it “legitimate” to actively stop the opposition from speaking. Thus it is only the left that tries to stop conservatives from speaking on college campuses, and it is only the left that buses in and pays masked bullies to violently shut down gatherings of the right. Clearly the people that need this type of peaceful dialog with the opposition are the extremists of the left, but research suggest that these are also the people least likely to participate in such “peace-making” efforts.

    • Clearly if you are on the right, you don’t understand the left. You conflate “the left” with the “the far left” just as they conflate conservativism with “the far right.” Yet both the far left/right are more alike than not, both being authoritarian, thinking government control is how you solve what we used to call liberty.

      • E. Olson says

        Anyone that thinks government control is the answer is not on the right. Yes I know Nazis get labeled as “far right”, but the label originates and is kept alive by leftists who don’t like how similar Hitler’s big government tactics and policies are to their beloved Communism/Socialism.

        • > “Anyone that thinks government control is the answer is not on the right. ”

          Help me understand this. Right-wing policies seem full of examples of increased government control, from stricter immigration control, tariffs on economic activity, overseas military activity.

          Am I confusing because the actions of so-called right-wing politicians do not match true right-wing positions? Or what?

          • mnemos says

            Interesting point, but I think I see a distinction: Conservatives believe that one function of the federal government is enforcement of the laws – that includes things like immigration law. That is why we have laws on the books. So conservatives do not see enforcement of current immigration laws as an expansion of government control. Liberals see enforcement of current laws they don’t agree with as an expansion of government control. If you actually look at what liberals are complaining about in immigration, pretty much all of it is laws that were already on the books.

            Likewise, liberals believe that gun control laws would be good, so writing new laws to institute gun controls is not an expansion of government, regardless of what laws are on the books now. This is why my friends consider me conservative – because I make distinctions about what actual laws exist, what laws are actually enforced, and what the effect of a new law can be expected – rather than accepting a philosophical argument about what SHOULD be as if it were in fact the case.

            I’ve seen variations on this theme a few times which made me pause and think about what I mean and I think that captures a good bit of it. If you look at some of your examples you can see it “…war on drugs… crackdown on crime… ” things that are already on the books. I’m not saying the war on drugs is good or bad (it has lots of both), but it is not an INCREASE in government control.

      • misterdamage says

        “Clearly if you are on the right, you don’t understand the left”

        Haidt, Graham and Nosek studied exactly this question in 2012. Published as “The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives: Exaggeration of Differences across the Political Spectrum”

        They gave a questionnaire to people who self identified variously as conservative, moderate and as liberal. First they asked them to complete the questionnaire, then they asked them to complete the questionnaire as they would were they a typical conservative and then as a typical liberal.

        Their findings were that:
        3a. Conservatives were most accurate about the individual-focused moral concerns of either side, and liberals were least accurate

        3b. Moderates were most accurate about the group-focused moral concerns of either side, and liberals were least accurate.

        3c. Liberals exaggerate moral differences the most.

    • SkipTown says

      “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Please be advised that, particularly since the election of Trump, liberals are certain conservatives are profoundly stupid.

      • mr1492 says

        Sounds like someone needs to attend a session in listening and understanding!

    • Jason Hill says

      If u are here to help and are going to make a claim based on “research” you should sight the research, (I have been guilty of ignoring this advice too). Also, I don’t think most liberals believe most of conservatives are evil, just gullible. I hope this group can help show me that both of these assumptions are false. But if u still get your “news” from Fox, its going to be a looong slog for both of us.

    • Laura OConnor says

      i think you should consider participating. I did and can say that, regardless of whether we identified as “red” or “blue” we all walked away with a better understanding of what our party was doing well and where we were failing. We ALL admitted that we held stereotypes about the other side and we were able to break those down. To help add some perspective to your arguments, I believe if you do some research you will find that there are groups from both sides busing in counter-protestors. I know armed men and women that identified as “red” were bused in from California to Whitefish, Montana and groups that identify as “red” also often come from Vancouver and are bused in to downtown Portland. They are armed on both sides. None of it is productive or helpful. I’m not challenging your point of view. I simply want you to understand that as strongly as you feel that it is the left that is violent and bullies and opposed to peace-building, there are others just like you (probably neighbors or co-workers that you really like) who have the exact same fears about people on the right. Speaking from experience, taking the time to participate in a Better Angels session could help you break out of that cycle of judging an entire group and also help you break away from the fear and anger. It is good for your health!

  2. Circuses and Bread says

    Good article and I of course favor dialogue over brickbats. Unfortunately I don’t think these efforts will prove particularly successful as they operate under the false premise that beneficial ends come from politics.

    What we need is not kinder and gentler engagement within politics. What we need is much less politicization within society and a very strong societal skepticism towards the utility of politics.

    You don’t deal with a cancer by making nice with it. You deal with it by excising it and eradicating it.

    • Laura OConnor says

      I think you should consider trying participation before you judge. Our group (7 “reds” and 7 “blues”, most with strong party identification) all walked away confident that it was beneficial to each and every one of us. It wasn’t about politics, it was a learning opportunity to help us each identify ways we can help de-polarize our society.

  3. Adjunct-Filth says

    Such meetings are inherently biased in a Progressive (= Destroy the West) direction because the background understanding is that everybody just has to be cuddly and understanding and all on the same level (on the cuddle-floor) and not worry about God and the Eternal Forms and then everything will be nice. Note how SlateStarCodex’s recent “adversarial collaborations” all accepted the “Utilitarian” premise that drives its holders inexorably toward all-out war against Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

    • Laura OConnor says

      Your interpretation of what the meeting would be like is not at all what I experienced as a participant. The format ensures that both “right” and “left” had opportunities to be heard and understood but I wouldn’t define our time there as a “cuddle-fest” on any level. There was plenty of room in the conversation for those that held religious beliefs to talk about how that plays into their political beliefs. I do suppose that some “reds” and “blues” did give each other hugs at the end of the day but that was because they connected on some level outside of their political affiliation but I hardly think that warrants a label for the day as “biased” LOL. You should see if there is one in your area, I think you would enjoy having the opportunity to have your opinions heard by those on the other side of the fence.

  4. StrawberryGirl says

    The problem is that it isn’t just online anymore. People are getting beaten up. A Facebook partisan food fight ends with death threats, an attempted murder, and burning down someone’s house. Family members don’t talk to each other anymore and long-standing friendships have been destroyed. Activists, with the blessings of the media and politicians, find it acceptable to harass, intimidate, and threaten people they disagree with anywhere they could be found. Members of Congress have been doxxed, threatened, and even shot. There’s no one putting the brakes on this kind of behavior.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @strawberrygirl

      What you’re describing aren’t bugs, they’re features of politics. You’d think that after 10,000 years of civilization we’d figure out a better way to arrange our affairs.

      So what’s the fix? In my opinion, the way to fix this is to do what we can over time to bring about a cultural aversion to politics. While we can’t change the nature of politics, it is possible to shift the culture. And if we are successful, maybe our grandchildren will live in a world where politics has been relegated to the shadows.

      • lazypadawan says

        I agree the problem is we’ve made government, and therefore politics, too important in our lives.

      • Bernard Hill says

        …perhaps then C&B, we should be accepting of AI and its big data occupying the foreground instead, so that good public policy compromises are not chased off by ideal ones.

      • mr1492 says

        To me, the problem stems from EVERYTHING being a political issue versus a community/social issue. Once we started believing that all problems had to be solved through politics or the courts, then everything became a zero sum game. For me to “win” you have to “lose.” Gone was the ability to compromise within community organizations to solve problems and resolve differences. Now that virtually every aspect of life is subject to a law, regulation, or government oversight body, people can’t compromise or even show a willingness to compromise. It’s very sad, actually.

    • Laura OConnor says

      I participated in a Better Angels workshop and realized that, while what we hear in the news is everything you noted above, on an individual level, there are a LOT more people out there seeking ways to connect across party lines instead of looking for ways to threaten and harm. We are focusing on the far right and far left and the minority of extremists in our society instead of recognizing that the people we interact with all day come from all walks of life and obviously wish us no harm. By participating each person at Better Angels was taking the first step to understand our own bias, assumptions, fears and faults. Gaining that level of understanding is the first step toward depolarizing our country.

  5. Only 53% of adults now identify as either Republicans or Democrats (latest Gallup poll), so why are the 44% of Americans who identify as independents being left out of the ‘Better Angels’ conversation? I think we know why: the people who organized these get togethers are traditional Democrats and Republicans, and they are clueless about what’s really going on in the country and why. Here’s that reality: we’ve had a class war and the wealthy won, and they control the political system and the ‘respectable’ media, resulting in a complete breakdown of trust.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @fairleft

      Maybe “independents” are left out because they have less of a need to be included in these group sessions. When dealing with hyper partisan or hyper political people, I’ve noticed that you don’t really need the skills of logic or rhetoric. What you need instead are the skills of a cult deprogrammer.

    • Just Me says

      Maybe because independents are not the problem.

      Independents are by definition open-minded, pragmatic moderates who evaluate issues on their own merit rather than along ideological lines, and do not engage in the kind of partisanship destroying the US.

      Being an independent means being stuck between the two warring factions and getting attacked by both sides, but resisting the urge to get pulled into joining one side or the other.

      (I am not American, but would be an independent if I were.)

    • Laura OConnor says

      Better Angels offers workshops that ask for people who identify as “red” or “blue” there were probably 4 of the 14 participants that were independents that lean one way or the other when it comes time to vote. I am one of those. The group doesn’t exclude anyone but I do think it was most valuable to those that identify strongly as “blue” or “red” because they were able to sort through what they believed walking in the door and find a more balanced way to view the world when they walked out. Bridging those gaps is the first step to depolarization. There was one person of 14 that wasn’t sure how he felt by the end of the day but everyone else reported a feeling of hope and a sense that it isn’t as bad as we are being told. We can make a difference as individuals if we work on ourselves and learn methods to respect those with opinions different from our own.

    • As both an organizer and a participant in two Red-Blue Workshops, I have to say that on each “side” there are probably more leaning towards “purple” than at the outer extremes. The Better Angels concept is to be inclusive, not exclusive. As a lifelong independent whose career has dealt with various levels of conflict (military, law enforcement, mediation), I am finding Better Angels and the Red-Blue Workshops to have great potential for one day turning the tide on the politically-driven distrust, discord, fear, hate and conflict that the media is only too happy to exacerbate and distort to the extremes for the sake of ratings. As reporter/author Charlie LeDuff put it in his book title, “Sh*tshow – the country’s collapsing and our ratings are great!”

  6. Just Me says

    Oh dear.

    Right off the bat we are told:

    “The organization’s name derives from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, delivered while our country was on the precipice of a civil war, where he implored Americans to prevent difference from “break[ing] our bonds of affection,” and to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

    And how did that turn out?

    • Laura OConnor says

      Ever heard of learning by looking at history and trying to find ways to do things differently the second time around? You should try participation to see if you think their approach is effective before you knock it. I did and, along with the other 13 “red and “blue” participants, we walked out feeling better and with a sense of purpose. We left with respect for each other. Pretty good for one day. http://www.better-angels.org

  7. We have the perfect solution built into our system of government already, it’s called Federalism!
    We just need to put it back into use the way it was before the federal government became uber centralized after the civil war.
    Take away as much power from the executive branch as possible, leave only foreign policy and the minimal amount of bureaucracy needed for interstate issues. Put the power back in the legislative branch and the states.
    We have 50 states that are almost like their own countries (aka California, Texas for instance) let people run their own experiments in the states.

    • You are, of course, correct with respect to curing our national political paralysis. But something tells me that these virtue circles are not about debating policy as much they are about letting people see that the other side aren’t devils.

      Honestly, I’ve never thought that.

      They’re power-mad opportunists, maybe. They think that their sense of fair play and benevolence should be self-evident to everyone else who can be made to pay for it, and that anyone else who values civil order or social norms are racist, fascist, patriarchal, xenophobes. They seem poorly educated or patently duplicitous about concepts like “republic”, “democracy”, “federalism”, or even what it means to possess “individual rights” as opposed to plural ones. They’re hypocritical in absolving their “allies” of political excess while condemning anyone who disagrees even a little as the worst possible caricatures of authoritarian evil. They’ve been taught that almost every human interaction is a zero-sum power game that can only be won through ferocious orthodoxy. Words alone provoke them to hysteria and they get their news from comedians.

      Other than that, some of my best friends are social empaths. They surely know their beers!

      • Laura OConnor says

        Wow, there are so many sweeping assumptions in your comment it is hard to break them all down. Instead, I’ll just suggest you visit http://www.better-angels.org and see if there is a session in your area coming up soon. I think you would be a good participant. I participated and found it valuable.

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  9. Chris Martin says

    Engaging in a civil war is not what I call “heal[ing] a broken America.”

  10. Chris says

    The truly sad thing about this article is that someone who tries to write as a centrist, a better Angel, with a ‘can’t we all just get along’ message doesn’t even hear the implications of her own words.

    Almost at the start, in paragraph four, we hear from the author:

    “The intent is not to minimize differences or to convert.
    It is to humanize others who think differently.”

    A moment’s reflection allows you to remember that it is not the right who consider that the left need humanizing, but always the left who accuse those ‘others’ of inhumanity.

    I’m sure the author truly believes her position is consensual, constructive and centrist. I don’t know how she votes, but its clear that she’s a member of a population so thoroughly indoctrinated that she’s unable to think of anyone politically to her right without thinking that corrective action is needed. Such as humanizing by minimizing differences or conversion, presumably.

    Had she also mentioned corrective action on the left we might look up in hope, but rolling back a little of the progressive legislation of the last couple of generations, or introducing political diversity in tertiary education from the 90:10 bias it now suffers from might be too much of an ask.

    The reaction to electing a supreme court that might be prepared to allow such changes should be considered an answer. Unless the left starts to hear voices from beyond their echo chamber we may expect worse than the much maligned Trump.

    • Laura OConnor says

      I think you are inserting personal bias into the author’s work. I was a Better Angels participant. There were 7 people that identified as “red” and 7 that identified as “blue”. We talked about our experiences at the end and it was beneficial to help us, as individuals, depolarize and gain respect for the people on the other side. You should consider participation. http://www.better-angels.org

  11. This sounds sort of Quaker. I was brung up Quaker. But I learned as a kid that you had to defend your rights. No way I would participate in this kind of ‘healing circle’. The intent of the organisers is to ‘open the minds’ of the ‘other’. Don’t care which side is the ‘other’. Just stay away from ‘we’re all brothers/sisters’ on principle.

    • Laura OConnor says

      I was a participant. The day is broken up into a number of different modules. The “circle” portion is actually one small piece and it had nothing to deal with “healing” but was about being heard. And we were never asked to think of each other as “brothers and sisters” or any other sort of goal that we all have to agree. If you want a better perspective on what they are working to accomplish in terms of depolarization visit http://www.better-angels.org

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  13. To Chris, who laments the left “humanizing” others: I hear your concern, and I actually believe the author’s intent is in line with your point. Because, I understand the verb “to humanize” to mean “to see the other as human” rather than to demonize (see them as evil). It don’t think it means “to make the other into a human” but rather to appreciate them as the human they already are. I see from your concern that it’s problematic to use the term “humanize” because it does sound like its action is intended for the other rather than for the self.

  14. Paulo says

    I do believe that the Right has a more realistic notion about the human nature, unfortunately in a very narrow way; and the Left has a completely twisted and patently false notion of human nature (in fact, they don’t believe in ‘human nature’s).
    I also think some (many?) things leftist sociology believe are, at some level, true, and I maintain one can come to the same conclusions if one takes seriously a) humans are animals, b) understanding evolutionary biology and sociobiology (yes, the fact that we are a social species is a biological fact, something often bypassed).
    The problem, for neo-marxist-postmodernists, is that this leads to other conclusions that they won’t accept because of their ideology, for instance: that many things about humans, although modulated by culture, are biological phenomena; that there are sexual and gender (and that there’s a link between sex and gender) differences, intelligence differences, etc etc etc. They deny science because it won’t fit their ideological agenda.

    • Laura OConnor says

      I was a Better Angel participant. We learned how to break down the sort of broad generalizations that you posted. We didn’t do it for them, we did it for ourselves. We left feeling less hopeless, helpless and judgmental. Check out http://www.better-angels.org you may find that you would enjoy participation as well.

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