Sixteen people from both sides of the ideological aisle gathered Saturday for an unlikely experiment: learning how to speak civilly and trying to understand each other.
Better Angels, a nonprofit organization, hosted its 25th workshop, this time in a McLean, Va., church, aimed at bridging the divide between red and blue America in an increasingly tense political era.
“After the presidential election of 2016, it seemed to me at least, and I think some of the others, that the rancor in our public life that has always been there was going to get worse. Three weeks after the election, we had the first one of these meetings in Southern Ohio,” David Blankenhorn, one of the co-founders of Better Angels, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The group has since taken off, traversing America and hosting numerous city workshops in an effort not to push conservatives and liberals to rethink their beliefs, but rather to get them to re-examine long held stereotypes they hold. Those gathered Saturday came from throughout the country and ranged from college students to older retirees.
Organizers Blankenhorn and Dr. William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor who created the workshop exercises, led the group through three main exercises aimed at helping participants, labeled as either blue or red according to their political leaning, to better understand each other. The first exercise consisted of reducing stereotypes, the second had participants listing reservations they had about their party and the third allowed each side to question the other about their beliefs.
Too often people think in terms of debating and trying to argue their side of the issue, Blankenhorn told TheDCNF. Doherty created his program specifically to change that desire in people and cause them to focus on hearing the other side rather than debating them. One major exercise focused on combating the stereotypes of each group: each side came up with the five biggest stereotypes about themselves, wrote examples that combated them and also searched to see if there was any truth behind the statements.
“We’re trying to get people to find one another as fellow citizens and to have respect for one another despite disagreements over politics. All of our exercises are intended to achieve that goal. We’re trying to get them to humanize the other side, so to speak,” Blankenhorn explained to the DCNF.
For the most part, participants seemed to find the program helpful in learning how to engage with the other side. One participant, Sam Applefield, said the experience at the workshop led him to become more reflective on why he holds the beliefs that he does.
“It definitely gives me hope to talk to people. I was very impressed that we had a day-long session of very calm and thoughtful conversation between people with very different ideas on what to do about things in this country. So that gives me a lot of hope,” Rob Lee, a participant told TheDCNF. “I feel like there’s a lot more to be done. In one sense, I was hoping that more would come out of it and that we would really kind of get into some issues.”
Better Angels keeps growing; by 2017, the group plans to have at least 100 volunteers working for them. Ultimately, they want the group to become a huge force of change in America, influencing the way policy makers and politicians themselves interact with each other.
“We would like to be strong enough, smart enough and strategic enough to have an influence at the national policy level,” Blankenhorn told TheDCNF.
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