Episode #76 Braver Angels: building trust, empathy and decency across the political chasm
How can we rebuild trust in politics, politicians and each other? How would it feel to be free of partisan divisions? Could we heal our world in time?
Braver Angels – originally Better Angels – came into being after the divisive nightmare of the 2016 Presidential Election in the US. It began with a group of people in a barn in South Lebanon Ohio and has since spread to 20,000 people around the US, with chapters in other nations around the world. Their skill – their superpower – is to bring the social and humane technologies originally created to help bring together couples on the brink of the most acrimonious divorces. With skills in listening and a good dose of empathy, they help us to see the humanity in each other and so find the best of ourselves to bring to the table.
John Wood Jr is an Ambassador for Braver Angels and has been working in the depths of the partisan divide. In this podcast episode, he shares the experience and wisdom of his journey, and that of the Braver Angels project.
Manda: My guest this week sits squarely in the political sphere. John Wood is the ambassador for Braver Angels, a non-profit organisation in the US that used to be called Better Angels until, as you will hear, they discovered the depths of courage that were needed to engage in the ways that they are suggesting because braver angels exists to help bring people together across the political divide. So in the US, that’s Democrats and Republicans, groups of people, and they are, we have to say, self-selecting groups of people who know that they want to connect across the divides, endeavouring to heal the chasm of trust that has built up in their communities. They are using technologies that were originally designed for helping couples come together after irretrievable marital breakdown. And it does seem in the UK, in the US, across the world, as if our divides are becoming deeper and more rancorous. So this is particularly inspiring. And John is an astonishingly eloquent, brilliant, utterly inspiring advocate for what he does. So people of the podcast please welcome John Wood.
Manda: So John Wood, welcome to Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you so much for joining in from early in the morning in Los Angeles. How is it over there just now? Are you all peaceful and springlike?
John: It’s my pleasure. It is fairly peaceful and springlike. So, you know, we are grateful for the weather over here, typically speaking. So it is what compensates for the traffic.
Manda: Yes, absolutely. Unless you’re in the middle of a drought and having fires, which fortunately, it’s not that time of year yet. So you’re an ambassador for Braver Angels, which I have to say sounds really, really lovely, and I’m really impressed with that. Can you tell us a little bit about what Braver Angels is, and how it arose, and then particularly how you became an ambassador for it? What led you here? What motivated you and what was the logistics of getting there?
John: Sure. So Braver Angels is the largest grassroots bipartisan organisation in the United States dedicated to the work of political depolarisation. And by that, what I really mean is we are dedicated to the work of leveraging the bonds of civic trust between the American people as a means of stabilising our democracy, and restoring the integrity of our of our democratic and institutional society. You can say that Braver Angels began in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. The original co-founders of the organisation, David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty and David Lapp, brought together about a dozen or so individuals who recently voted for Donald Trump and who recently voted for Hillary Clinton, quite literally in a barn in South Lebanon, Ohio, which is a town that had voted just about 50/50 Trump and Clinton then, was very polarised, very divided and so near the country, really. And using methods that had been innovated by Professor Doherty, and Bill Doherty, my colleague, is one of America’s foremost family therapists, but also somebody who has a history in Democratic engagement. They put together a weekend long workshop just to see if it was still possible for these folks to discover trust in common ground, even though they are coming from a place of deep seated distrust. And the workshop wound up being so successful that the people who participated in it wanted to see this continue. They wanted to recommend it to people that they knew. And so what wound up happening was that the original Better Angels team wound up getting on a bus and going up and down the the East Coast and into some southern states, I believe, basically holding workshops from town to town.
John: NPR had gotten a hold of the story, and did a special that wound up helping to spread the word fairly quickly in that early stage and with a very sort of small crew, the original team was sort of seeding workshops that themselves became the starting point for local Better Angels communities, called Better Angels at the time. And I got involved in the work as a volunteer in the, I think late summer, early fall of 2017. So this was after the after the bus tour. And I was hired as a member of staff in spring of 2018. In my story, how I got to be involved, had some twists and turns. So in 2014 I was a nominee for Congress. I was one of the youngest nominees in the state of California at that time. I was a Republican nominee for Congress running in South Central Los Angeles. I just so happened to run against Congresswoman Maxine Waters in that election cycle. Subsequently, I was elected vice chairman of the Republican Party in L.A. County. But before all of that, I had grown up very much thinking of myself as a as a liberal Democrat. And I worked for Barack Obama’s campaign on a local level in 2008. I have my own sort of story of political conversion and so forth. And the bullet points of that are that I grew up very much thinking of myself as a liberal leaning Democrat who was very much jaded by the George W. Bush years. At the age of 17, just a few days short of being old enough to vote, I found myself washing my hands of politics after George W. Bush was re-elected because I thought all my activism didn’t work, and my going to rallies and speaking out against the Iraq war and so on and so forth didn’t change the course of things. And so I had become cynical at a very early age. But then when Barack Obama showed up on the scene, I was deeply inspired. One, because just on a biographical level, I related to then Senator Obama quite a bit. I, too, am a person from a biracial household and a multicultural family. I grew up in a family that was half white, half black, half Upper-Class, half sort of middle to lower class, half rural, half urban. You know, my father’s a baby boomer, my mother was born closer to the mid 60s. And I grew up in a number of cultural intersections and sort of found myself always translating and interpreting between different cultural and philosophical camps to one degree or another. And I recognise those elements in Senator Obama’s story. And that seemed to translate to a very inclusive and humanistic philosophy of politics that he seemed to have. And so for me, the idea of hope and change had to do with creating the space for sort of in some respects, a post-racial and a post partisan kind of politics in America.
John: And that certainly was an idea with deep appeal to me, certainly at the time. And so I threw myself into working for Senator Obama’s campaign. And after he was elected, I thought that the most useful thing I could do would be to find ways of getting Republicans and conservatives involved in this sort of movement of political reconciliation, if you will, or at least social reconciliation. And so I took it upon myself to start studying conservatism in ways that more deeply than I had previously. And a few things happened that sort of conspired to make me a bit more conservative. I got married to a woman from a traditional black Baptist religious background, which is quite a bit more conservative than my own upbringing, religiously and culturally speaking. And she joined the army. We moved from Los Angeles to a military town. Suddenly all of my friends were soldiers and people of faith. But I was also reading books that I hadn’t read before, Wealth of Nations and Atlas Shrugged and other things. And I just sort of looked up one day also after having studied African-American history from a more conservative vantage point. And I went down a list of one hundred issues that I thought, you know, if I plot myself on the spectrum on all of these points, looks like I’m actually about right of centre on maybe sixty two or sixty five of them, which was a very uncomfortable revelation for me because I sort of challenged my sense of my own identity, politically speaking.
John: But the thing that remained constant for me was that I still wanted to advocate for what I believed to be the spirit of hope and change. I still felt that ultimately what we needed to progress towards was a society more deeply rooted in empathy, and a society in which empathy and the themes of non-violence as the teachings of Dr. King would animate our social discourse. And so I tried to think of ways to jump into the conversation, to have a voice in the conversation. And we were moving back to Los Angeles. I thought, well, maybe I’ll try my hand at running for office. I knew I wasn’t likely to win coming out of nowhere. But on the other hand, I was very confident that I had something to say. And I ran basically as a ‘hope and change’ Republican, if you will, in L.A., sort of building bridges between black and white, left and right, and tried to, after the campaign, bring that philosophy to the Republican Party at an institutional level. I found that to be exceedingly difficult. And then with the Trump…. yes, and well, you know, I wanted to create better relationships between Democrats and Republicans. I wound up getting all sorts of grief within the Republican Party for hanging out with the wrong, for fraternising with the wrong Republicans. Republicans hated each other so much in Los Angeles, in California that one couldn’t even get to the point of trying to establish some congeniality with anybody else.
John: And that was all before the Trump phenomenon emerged in the GOP. And when that happened, it was another sign to me that maybe I was not in the right place in terms of being in an environment that I could influence in a more empathetic and inclusive kind of direction. So I ultimately decided to launch a digital media network that was sort of akin to popular networks like the Young Turks or The Daily Wire, with the difference being that it was not meant to be either left or right, but left and right, bringing together people who disagreed about politics but who agreed about how we ought to treat one another in politics. And sort of spent about a year of my life getting that off the ground only to have been sort of hit with with a legal challenge from a multibillion dollar company that thought the name of our organisation was a bit too close to theirs, even though they were in a totally different business. And so that’s its own story. But around that time, a friend of mine turned me on to the existence of a group called Better Angels. And I looked at Better Angels’ website. One of the things I had wanted to accomplish with the digital media structure was to build up an audience, was to model a conversational culture that could jump off the screen into local communities, to build up an audience nationally, that then can participate in dialogue and organising events locally.
John: And with Better Angels, they were already doing the sorts of things locally that I thought that a digital community could sort of lead towards. But at the time they had an old website that was very pixellated, text heavy, and a Facebook page that had been sort of abandoned, it looked like, and a YouTube channel with a couple of nice clips, but nothing much going on. And so I thought, well, I’ve been working on a digital strategy that conforms to this same sort of culture and philosophy for a year now. Maybe they would be interested in the sort of media network idea I have as a complement to their on the ground work. And that wound up actually being the case. But very soon after I was brought on board to sort of help build that out, it very quickly sort of became evident that my abilities and experience in other areas, in the area of political messaging and organising, and sort of my ability to perhaps articulate the mission made me equally useful, if not more useful, as just sort of a general spokesperson and strategist for the organisation. And so, like most of us on the team, I’ve got one title, but seven different jobs. But chief amongst those is the very fun duty of getting to sort of relate the mission to the outside world in conversations like this. And so that is roughly the the story my journey to Better Angels, now Braver Angels.
Manda: Brilliant. And here we are. We’ll talk in a minute about the the name change. But reading your website, which I have to say is not pixellated and text heavy anymore, so somebody had an input on that, it’s really good. Obviously in the US, red is to the right and blues to the left. In Britain, it’s the opposite, which occasionally does my head in. But as I understand it in your organisation itself, which is relatively small, but it’s not tiny, you’re endeavouring to balance red and blue across the board. How do you personally identify now?
John: Well, you know, I still think of myself as conservative. Essentially, it’s probably fair to say that my conservatism is a little bit difficult to pin down. One, perhaps because it’s influenced by so many different strains of the black freedom tradition. I mean, from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X and certainly Martin Luther King Jr.. And on the other hand, it’s probably conservatism that in some respects, this may be a positive or negative for you, but my conservatism probably sort of is a little bit more reminiscent of Edmund Burke than Ted Cruz, I would imagine. I have sort of a conservatism that is more focussed on, I think, preserving what is working in the social and institutional structures that undergird society, as opposed to necessarily aggressively advancing sort of a sweeping sort of cultural or economic programme that may serve certain constituencies better or worse, you know, in real life application.
But, you know, I do ultimately think of myself as somebody who is concerned with preserving what must be preserved in American society. And part of what I think has to be preserved, even to facilitate a society that strives more effectively towards justice for all people, is a norm in which we are willing to enter into civic dialogue and civic debate from a posture of good faith, recognising the fact that there’s something extraordinary about living in a country that for all of its founding contradictions was instantiated in the belief that you have these rights to liberty and justice and equality for all people, that the purpose of society is to be able to safeguard these rights so as to create the context for mutual human flourishing, the pursuit of happiness, in Thomas Jefferson’s words. And that while there is always a tension between equality and liberty and some of the different social goods, we want to hold up a certain sort of axiomatic commitment to liberty, I think it’s necessary to creating the space for that human flourishing, even as it is also the case that sound statecraft requires us to be attentive to the ways in which the liberties of one group or one person could potentially infringe upon the liberties or the opportunity or the rights of another. So there’s a consistent balance that has to take place. But what I resist is, I think, the impulse to more or less sort of overturn the system, if you will, or to sort of overturn long standing norms of free speech and intellectual enquiry and other things in society for the sake of sprinting towards the finish line of perfect justice when that is rarely really an option.
John: But these are these are age old sorts of tensions in societies like ours. And I think that you do.. you know, another aspect of my conservatism is that part of what I believe is that human society unfolds in dialectic in some sense, you need a healthy sort of conversation and dialogue between conservative and liberal impulses in a society, because one side is always going to be more sensitive to certain aspects of the truth than the other side. And ideally, we would compensate for each other’s inability to see certain things, because different individuals in different groups have different sets of immediate interests. But the larger interest is always the interest of the whole, I think, and it takes the whole to be able to see and comprehend that. But we can only do that if we’re in a constructive sort of communication and earnest community, I think, with one another. So that’s a little bit of an overview of my broad kind of political philosophy.
Manda: Yeah, this is so interesting, John. I can feel myself wanting to drag us down rabbit holes that were not part of my original sketch at all. So let’s go down one rabbit hole, because we have we have got the time to come back to Braver Angels in a moment. But the larger interest is the interest of the whole. And it seems to me that at this moment where we’re facing the existential crisis of climate change, and the sixth mass extinction, and ecological breakdown, that it should apply globally. And I’m wondering if you personally, or within Braver Angels, are you seeing any move at all within the international community to see the larger interests as the interests of the whole, rather than this retreat into narrow nationalistic boundaries? Is that something that comes up in your conversations with people at all?
John: Well, my work at Braver Angels is fairly focussed on the internal sort of dynamics of polarisation in the United States. I will say that within the United States, the issue of climate change specifically has been a largely left leaning issue. But our organisation and some of our local chapters, most specifically, I think our community in Austin, which is very conservative, which is a more conservative area, certainly Texas is a very conservative state. But we have had interactions with an organisation called the Citizens Climate Lobby, which is a bipartisan organisation pushing towards, well, pushing towards more market oriented, but still a consensus build based solutions to climate change. And in that context, we have.. and we would do this for other advocacy organisations to be certain and are going to, but we’ve provided workshop models to sort of show how it is that folks who are interested in more broadly communicating the need to engage climate change can do so in a way that is sympathetic, that brings in the lived experiences of folks who have scepticism about that issue, and that is aimed towards building an environment of genuine listening, from which genuine consensus and collaboration can emerge. And so within the United States, I think you can look in different places. And in Braver Angels’ organisational experience, we can testify to the fact that on this particular issue, there does seem to be a perhaps a slow but a real diversification of interest in engaging the subject of climate change. And so that is perhaps a positive development from within the United States. One thing I can say about the sort of international climate as we’re able to observe it in the context of our work here, and again, it’s not our primary focus as an organisation, but we do find ourselves, And I find myself in some dialogue with the international community, also on podcasts like these, is that certainly the issue of polarisation, generally speaking, is a problem around the globe.
John: And we do have, I mean, from Spain to Latin America to the U.K. and I think probably in France as well, we’ve had folks reach out to us for input, people asking about whether or not Braver Angels could potentially have a presence in their own countries of origin. And I think that’s simply because people around the globe recognise the fact that for all the structural issues you can identify as being problematic for human societies and for the species as a whole, there’s no deeper structural impasse than the social impasse that keeps us from being able to communicate in a communal way with one another across the various divides that are maybe unique from country to country, but also similar from country to country. So I do think that there’s a little bit of an international kind of awakening that you can see sprouting in the direction of realising that there’s something deeply broken about our sort of factional impulse in democratic societies, such that we need to sort of dig a level deeper to be able to restore our ability to connect in a humanistic sort of frame, something that transcends the partisanship and the tribalism. And without that, it’s hard to imagine how we can effectively confront an issue like climate change, which would seem to require sort of the mass of humanity to be invested in collaborating together in order to confront. So, you know, these issues are certainly related on that level. And without that kind of a strategy for establishing that kind of unity, it’s hard to see how we make sufficient progress.
Manda: Ok, so let’s have a talk about the strategies, because in some of your podcasts, you discuss some of the workshop models that you have used. Can you tell us what they are, and particularly if you have any examples of how they have managed to bring people together? Specific, if you’re allowed to share examples of people who started out polarised, and have have managed to begin to see each other’s perspectives differently.
John: Sure. Well, in that very first workshop I mentioned, and I’ll tell you the basic structure of that. So we have a workshop that it’s not typically a weekend long affair, but it sort of descends from that original weekend workshop that kind of began our efforts. It’s called a Red Blue workshop. And yes, for your listeners in the UK, red indicates conservative in the United States, and blue indicates liberal leaning, although it wasn’t always that way. As a matter of fact, that’s really only a phenomenon of the last 20 years. The media networks switched the colours in the 2000 election, if I’m not mistaken, and those designations just reversed from that time on. There are many Republicans and conservatives who very much resent that actually in America, because they’re used to thinking of red as being the colour of communism and so forth, which is for some conservatives, that’s the main reason you are conservative, is because you don’t like socialistic politics, red politics. But that’s a tangent. From the original workshop, and the workshop model that’s derived from it, works in this way. You have, it’s called a Red Blue workshop. You have a small group of folks who lean conservative on one hand, and a small group of folks who lean liberal on the other hand, probably between a half a dozen and 9 or 10 or so, typically speaking. Each side gets the opportunity not to argue and debate their politics primarily, but to speak from the vantage point of their own personal and lived experience in terms of why they see politics the way that they do.
John: This workshop begins with the individuals from each colour gathered in the same place with two moderators. And after an initial round of introductions, each moderator takes one group into a different location and they commence with the first exercise, which is called a stereotypes exercise. And so what that involves is each side itemising a list of stereotypes that they see the other side as having about them. So for conservatives, for reds, almost always, this list almost always begins with the word racism. The other side thinks that we’re racist. Might also include things like, you know, they think that we hate poor people. They think that we’re antiscience. And on the blue side, on the liberal side, the list may begin with something like, oh, they think we’re unpatriotic. They think that we hate America. They think that we want to take away everybody’s rights. They think that we want to move chief of the government, etc. Each side has the opportunity to put together a list of stereotypes to present to the other side, along with a bit of an articulation as to why they think these stereotypes do not reflect who they really are. Each side is also given the opportunity to comment on the kernel of truth, however, that they may see as present in the different stereotypes.
John: And so with conservatives, you’ll very oftentimes hear a presentation that says we are not racist. Conservatism is about believing that everybody is born with equal intrinsic value, and that everybody has a right to liberty. But on the other hand, conservatives will also often sort of acknowledge that there are racists who vote with the Republicans, that there’s some racists who fly under their, travel under their banner, that they should do more to make sure these people are not comfortable in the Republican Party or in the conservative movement. And likewise, you’ll oftentimes have liberals and progressives say, we love America, we love our country, we criticise our country because we love it. But there are some of us who are so jaded or cynical about politics in the United States that maybe some of us don’t see anything good in our country at all. And that’s not a balanced way to look at things. And we should engage that. So you have this sort of discourse that takes place. Now in the first workshop, for example, one of the most symbolic examples I can give came out of that very first interaction. We had two gentlemen who have become friends of mine in times since, one named Greg Smith and the other named Kuyar Mustafshi. Greg’s an evangelical Christian who’s a small town sheriff and somebody who I think worked in construction, who had voted for Donald Trump, was a very strong supporter of Donald Trump. And Kuyar was an immigrant from Iran who is one of the leaders of the local Democratic Party and a Muslim, a liberal leaning Muslim.
John: And when Greg met Kuyar in the workshop, at a certain point where they were allowed to interact, Greg turned his attention to Kuyar and he said I’ve got a problem with Islam. He said, and I can explain it to you in four letters: I.S.I… and before he finished spelling out the word ISIS, Kuyar interrupted him and he said, stop. He said, I know what you’re going to say. He said, but let me tell you something. He said, my religion has been hijacked. And he may have asked Greg if Greg could relate to the idea of his religion being hijacked by people who don’t represent his values. And Greg, according to Greg, he heard Kuyar say that and he thought to himself, well, God dang, my religion has been hijacked too. And he thought about people who wore the garb of Christianity but who represented hatred and intolerance and values that he did not hold. And so that became the starting point for a friendship between Greg and Kuyar, which actually wound up garnering a fair amount of attention across the country, particularly in the early period of Braver, of then Better Angels. They made a commitment to each other that Kuyar would visit, would come to church with Greg and and visit with his community, and that Greg would visit Kuyar’s mosque, and get to know the Islamic community that he was a part of there in Ohio.
John: And they became fast friends and have remained sort of allies in the work of building up and spreading the word of Braver Angels’ work. But there are many such examples. I can think of another couple of folks from Graceland College in Iowa who wound up becoming college roommates and working together with Braver Angels. One was the head of the College Republicans group on campus. The other was a gay man, is a gay man, who was the head of the College Democrats on Graceland campus. And they brought their clubs together after having sort of interacted through the context of Braver Angels’ programmes, to develop a dialogue that sort of modelled what a Braver Angels or Better Angels discourse of politics, culture politics could look like on the campus level. And so we’re active across sectors and institutions, I should say. Most of our work is concentrated at the grassroots level, but we have programmes and workshops that we conduct with state legislators, with congressional staffers, with mayors and city council people. We have presence on college campuses across the country, work that we do with journalists, and some work that we do in corporations. And of course, we have our fledgling media network, Braver Angels Media, and again, presence in local communities across the country. And so there are many stories. There are many stories to tell, to be sure.
Manda: We will come back to those possibly in another podcast, I think, because we’re going to run out of time shortly. So I have a bunch of questions. We’ve been in lockdown around the world, has the format changed significantly once you must have moved from in-person connexions to Zoom connexions? How has that shifted things? Or has it at all?
John: Well, it was a significant turning point in our organisational history and something that initially brought with it a great deal of concern, because before the lockdown, we had begun to sort of tinker a little bit with web based workshops, but we really hadn’t made too much progress in that direction. And then when the lockdown took place, suddenly it became a necessity just to be able to, for our work to survive. And that was a bit of an open question, because part of what we wondered is do the experiences that we cultivate, at that point, we were Braver Angels. Do they translate online sufficiently to be able to make our work viable? Because we had almost exclusively been doing things face to face in person. And indeed, there are plenty of ways in which it’s easier to create a deeply felt connexion in person. But it ultimately wound up being the case that the transition to web based interactions was it was a boon to our efforts and not a drag on them. One thing I should mention is that Braver Angels has a debates programme, and debate is actually part of what we do. Our debate programme is designed by my brilliant colleague, April Lawson, you may be familiar with the director of Debates and public discourse at Braver Angels.
John: It’s a parliamentary debate model, so you’ll be well familiar with it in the U.K. April had experience of the Yale Student Union and that sort of model, of course, that derives from a British parliamentary model itself. And our debate model is about bringing people together from every rung of society to debate important issues, but to do so in a spirit of intellectual humility. And so you have a chairperson in the middle of the floor, or in the middle of the Zoom room in this case, you have a resolution that people will debate on either side of, ‘we should defund the police’ or something like that. People are encouraged to marshal facts and reason, of course, in their arguments, but they’re also encouraged to share personal stories and to admit their doubts, those things that they themselves may not be sure they’re 100 percent correct about, even if they think or feel them on a given issue. And people even have the opportunity and the option of switching sides in the middle of a debate if they feel their minds change. And that is something that is actually encouraged in our context.
John: So we look at it less as a win-lose zero sum competition and more as a communal pursuit of truth. That is the sort of spirit that guides Braver Angels debates. And that programme in particular wound up becoming wildly popular and very effective, once we worked out a few kinks, over Zoom. And with the breakout room function, we were able to bring together up to eight hundred or so people on a given night to participate in these sorts of events, which is really remarkable. And not only were we able to bring together more people, but we were able to do so from across greater geographical distances. And so on all those levels, the lockdown actually sort of expanded the reach of our programming and made it easier for us to bring new people into the community. So it certainly was difficult to affect some of our programmes to make that transition workable in certain cases. But the debate programme sped off very quickly. And at this point, I think all of our workshops have been replicated online in a way that would make anybody listening to this podcast potentially available for a digital version of the experience. So on the whole, it was beneficial.
Manda: And other than shifting formats and shifting on to online, have you significantly changed the nature of the social technologies that you use? Because as I understand it, Bill Doherty began this because he has experience in marriage counselling and he brought the technologies, the kind of humane technologies that we use for bringing very disrupted couples back into the room together, and began to use that in the same kind of disrupted political sense. Have you stuck with pretty much the same format, or is that evolved into something as we’ve moved on to Zoom as well?
John: Well, I think that our conceptual origins remain sort of the foundation of our approach. But we’ve developed more workshops and we’ve added tools to the kit, certainly, as we’ve gone along. So in addition to the Red Blue workshop, which is Bill Doherty’s design, and now in addition to the Braver Angels debate format, which is April Lawson’s design, we have something called a Depolarising Within workshop. And that workshop is aimed at uncovering really your own sort of inner polariser, if you will. It’s a workshop that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the attitudes that we hold about the other side, to examine them and see just how much they may be representative of a caricature of the other side, as opposed to a real sort of nuanced and and humane understanding of the lived experiences of people on the other side, and the broader contours of their beliefs. And it provides ways of challenging ourselves internally to elevate the quality of our internal dialogue, so that when we do find ourselves in conversation, or in a shared space with people who are coming from these other points of view, that psychologically speaking, we will stand on healthier ground and therefore be more effective communicators and better able to emotionally and psychologically persist in such an environment. There’s also something called a Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop, which really focuses in on just sort of sharpening our ability to communicate constructively and empathetically across the divide, through the applications of various techniques. And so one of those techniques is paraphrasing, learning how to hear somebody else’s description of their own political point of view.
John: You might have somebody say, oh, I’m very much a pro-life conservative. And if you’re a pro-choice individual, if you’re on the other side of that question, you might have had the sort of instinct previously to say, OK, so that means you don’t want women to have the right to choose what they do with their bodies. But even if that’s how you consider that opinion, that’s not likely to be the way in which a conservative, socially conservative individual is thinking about that position in their own mind. They’re going to have very different language, and a very different emotional and moral rationale for their perspective. And so if you can communicate their perspective back to them in terms that say, OK, you are pro-life because you believe that unborn life is sacred and needs to be protected, and this is where you’re coming from in your point of view, that can show that other individual that you are listening to them and that you hear the authenticity of their point of view. It doesn’t mean that you were persuaded by them or that they’re persuaded by you, but you will have put them in a frame of listening because you will have established the basis for their having some trust in your own intentions, because you will have presented yourself as somebody who was not seeking to misrepresent who they are and misrepresent their position and their character in the context of the exchange. And so that suggests humility. That suggests goodwill.
John: And those things become the foundation for trust, which in turn becomes the foundation for communication. And so we dive into those sorts of techniques, specifically in our Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop. We have workshops specifically tailored for families that are engaged and perhaps suffering through divisive political conversations. We have workshops designed specifically for reds in a blue environment, or blues in a red environment. We even have a one to one conversational model that is focussed on facilitating conversations across the racial divide between white and black Americans, and one to one conversational models or one to one conversational model to facilitate race oriented conversations between white people who may fall on different ends of the political spectrum in the country. And so, yes, our toolkit has expanded fairly dramatically since the earliest days. And it’s because we’re doing our best to be responsive to the various different sorts of circumstantial and fault lines and sort of the nuanced kind of fault lines that present themselves on ssome of the different issues of let’s say, you know, race, for instance, that require sort of specific attention in the context of design, as we think about how to facilitate conversations across some of these divides. And so I think that we will likely continue to expand our repertoire, if you will, because the divides that we face have some general features to them that they share in common. But there’s a great deal of complexity, and it’s important for us to be able to address that.
Manda: Yeah, and I would really be interested in coming back to discuss some of those one-to-one technologies and how you use them. But in the time we have left, I’m really interested in where you see this going. Suppose Braver Angels were to achieve its grandest, biggest dream. How would America look at the next election?
John: Well, I think that with everything that I just described to you that we are doing, we are on top of that simultaneously seeking to tell a story to the American people. And this is a great deal of what I focus on in my own work in the media as a messenger for the organisation, or seeking to tell a story for the American people that illustrates the United States of America as a country that in order for it to achieve its greater promise, has to be able to uplift the diversity of the lived experiences and moral foundations that make up the body politic in this country, such that we are able to deeply sort of understand and empathise with one another’s struggles while also striving together towards the common good and towards a greater goal. And in order to do this, we have to grow beyond our desire to excommunicate one another from the American family. And so I think that my great hope is that between now and the next election, not only will we have built up and scaled upward our community of practise, which already extends across the country, I mean, we have close to about twenty thousand dues paid members or so, close to about one hundred local Braver Angels bipartisan alliances. But could we increase that by an order of magnitude? I think it’s possible. And if we did, could we tell a story that captures the attention, captures the imagination of the American people such that we may begin to disenthral folks from the polarising narratives which really do exist, I think, to sort of serve the power and the material and the profits sort of interests of media companies, of political parties, of individual politicians and so forth.
John: And this is how things go with major interests in society, but that do not necessarily reflect who we really are as Americans to each other. I mean, I am a person who has a mother who was a black Democrat who voted for Joe Biden, and a father who’s a white Republican who voted for Donald Trump, each of whom are wonderful people who love their family, who have contributed to society and who have deeper values in common, even if the cultural and the social and political conflicts that exist between them and people like them are very much real. And so is it not just for us to try and strive towards what Dr. King described as the beloved community? For us to try and unearth the humanity in one another so that we can begin to communicate with each other along that wavelength, for the purposes of discovering the ways in which we might move forward together and for the purposes of being able to persuade one another through love and goodwill of where we stand on the issues, and to allow the currents of goodwill to carry us forward. I think that an America that begins to fall in love with love as a vehicle for social progress is really the dream of Braver Angels, and the goal. And it is to that end that we that we apply ourselves.
Manda: That is so lovely. I am tempted to end there. But I would, one final question, because I’m trying to imagine this happening. And I’m wondering, given the realities of the world, given that at the moment social media is acting as a disinformation machine and the attention economy is what it is. Can you imagine Braver Angels’ greater community, not necessarily you yourselves, but people who are, let’s say, alumni of your training, setting up a party that is different, that offers a different fare than the constant division of the tribalism of the opposing parties just now? Would that work at all in the political system? Or would it require a totally changed the political system to work?
John: Well, there are all sorts of structural reasons why third party politics are very difficult to build momentum around in the United States. Our system has evolved to be a two party system, which isn’t to say that couldn’t change. I think that what I hope for, and what you mentioned is certainly hypothetically, it’s possible. I think it’s possible we could see a third party that became competitive eventually. But what I hope for more in the short term is that significant factions within each of the major parties wind up adopting these values and these perspectives, so that we can influence the parties that currently predominate in society towards shifting their approach. I’ll also answer a question very quickly that I know that you intended to ask about the name change, just to tie it in here at the very end. And it’s a longer, more complicated story. But I’ll say that on a substantive level, we began as Better Angels, quoting, harkening back to Abraham Lincoln, the quote, ‘the better angels of our nature’, which was a line from his, I think was in his first inaugural address when the United States was on the brink of civil war. And he was beckoning us towards a mutual respect that could allow us to avoid violence.
John: Of course, that didn’t quite work out. But in our own time, the work of bridge building has leaned heavily upon empathy as a value. And we actually have a phrase that we use for Braver Angels called patriotic empathy, where we say that our love of our country is signalled by our concern for our fellow Americans. But one thing we realised is that empathy alone is unguarded in a sense, because when you take the time to relate to the humanity of your opponent, you not only risk being vilified by the person who distrusts you on the basis of your political differences, but you also risk being targeted in some cases by otherwise friends and comrades who may share your politics, but who may look at your willingness to humanise the opposition as a sign of either weakness or having sold out. And so courage in that context becomes a vital virtue. One has to be able to stand in one’s convictions and willingness to be able to acknowledge and to emphasise the dignity of those with whom one disagrees. That brings with it a certain amount of risk and therefore requires a certain amount of bravery to be able to effectively commit to. Hence the name Braver Angels.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. That’s a very wonderful place to stop. So John Wood, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
John: Thank you, Manda. It’s been a pleasure.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to John for his capacity to take complex, deep, detailed ideas and render them so obvious that I can’t think why we haven’t been doing this all along. If he succeeds, if he is able to get 200000 people who have really engaged with the other side and then go back to their tribes and begin to express that capacity for creating a politics based on empathy and compassion and trust, then the world will definitely be different. And we can do that wherever we are in the world, we can do it in the U.K., you can do it in your country, wherever that is, all we need is to find people who want to engage. And Braver Angels has the social technologies. They are working out how to do this in any country, in any language. This can be done. So if this makes your heart sing, then get in touch with the Braver Angels and ask what you can do in your communities. Ask not what your world can do for you, ask what you can do for your world. And on that cliche, we will leave it for this week. We will be back next week with another conversation.
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