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Being a Better Angel starts with some ground rules. Don’t interrupt, and don’t try to change anyone’s mind. In Wimberley, Texas, a town that’s as close to 50-50 politically as you can get, two dozen people with opposing views recently got together with facilitators to talk.
“We’re not trying to paper over disagreements or get people to necessarily moderate their opinions,” says Ciaran O’Connor of Better Angels, a national organization with local leadership that’s intentionally divided equally between liberals and conservatives. “We’re trying to get people to build a little bit of trust and understanding.” Their workshop exercises include “red” and “blue” groups discussing stereotypes held by the other: “Ignorant” and “intolerant,” the reds concluded in Wimberley; “socialist” and “unpatriotic,” the blues said.
In an academic setting, teachers like Jill DeTemple use techniques such as “reflective structured dialogues” to build empathy and train students to listen and converse with more respect. Ideally, these interactions will become a lifelong habit. “They feel like they can speak and be heard better,” says Dr. DeTemple, “[though] it doesn’t turn out that they agree.”
The summer heat here scorches Republicans and Democrats with equal ferocity. Jacob’s Well and Blue Hole, two of the best natural swimming holes in the state, are thus fitting landmarks for this small city.
When temperatures and emotions run high, Wimberley, Texas, is where people come to cool off.
Wimberley’s location also reflects its political balance. A short drive from both the rapidly urbanizing Interstate 35 corridor and the rural Hill Country, Wimberley, population 3,000, is as close to 50-50 politically as you can get in America these days, residents say.
But like much of the rest of the country, polarization has seeped into political debates here.
The week before Thanksgiving, two dozen locals gathered at a church for a workshop organized by Better Angels Central Texas, a local chapter of a national organization working to depolarize America and promote civil discourse.
“We’re not trying to paper over disagreements or get people to necessarily moderate their opinions,” says Ciaran O’Connor, a spokesperson for Better Angels. “We’re trying to get people to build a little bit of trust and understanding.”
Better Angels is one of a number of similar initiatives underway across the country. But a glance at the current state of polarization in the U.S. illustrates the scale of the task ahead:
- A 2016 Pew poll found that 47% of Republicans viewed Democrats as more “immoral” than other Americans, while 35% of Democrats held the same view of Republicans.
- Thanksgiving dinners have gotten shorter since the 2016 election, one 2018 study found, with 34 million hours of crosspartisan discourse lost that year.
- 53% of Americans found it “stressful and frustrating” to have political conversations with people they disagree with, a 2018 Pew survey reported, up from 46% in 2016.
Jill DeTemple, a professor in the Religious Studies department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has been trying to do similar work in her classroom, using “reflective structured dialogues” (RSDs) to build empathy and curiosity in how students discuss contentious issues.
But while such dialogues can work well in isolation, it is still unclear whether they can work in the unstructured chaos of the outside world, or the anonymous echo chambers of social media.
“Students know they have dysfunctional discourse all the time in those settings,” says Dr. DeTemple, but “if we could maybe back off that immediate reactivity, we could learn more about people who don’t share our views.”
The 2016 effect
The Better Angels workshop in Wimberley began with ground rules such as not interrupting others to explain one's own views and not trying to change others' minds. Moderators guided preselected “red” and “blue” groups to list stereotypes they thought the other group had of them and what kernels of truth the stereotypes held. (“Ignorant” and “intolerant,” the reds concluded; “socialist” and “unpatriotic,” the blues concluded.) The whole group then reconvened to discuss.
A “fishbowl” exercise followed, with one group talking in a circle while the others listened, answering questions like why they think their side’s values and policies are good for the country, and what reservations they have about their side. At the end of the three-hour session, they talked about what they learned.
“There’s just a lot of fear, a lot of mistrust, on both sides,” said Mike McNeil, a red Wimberley resident.
“I didn’t realize y’all are afraid too,” added blue local Mindy Webber.
Better Angels, like many programs aimed at promoting civil discourse, launched in the wake of the 2016 election.
OpenMind, a psychology-based program begun at the New York University Stern School of Business, spun out this year into an independent nonprofit that uses “evidence-based research to create more open, ethical, and inclusive cultures and societies.” The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley is in the midst of a two-year “bridging differences” initiative aimed at highlighting “the skills and social conditions that are critical to reducing polarization and promoting more constructive dialogue.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Essential Partners, meanwhile, developed RSDs in the early 1990s following the murders of two women outside local abortion clinics. RSD, according to the group’s website, relies on “preparation, structure, questions, facilitation, and reflection to enable people to harness their capacity to have the conversations they need to have.”
Dr. DeTemple uses RSD in her class sporadically in what she calls “dialogic classrooms” – a catch-all academic phrase for training students to listen and converse with more respect. Ideally, how students interact in dialogic classrooms will become a lifelong habit.
“They feel like they can speak and be heard better, [though] it doesn’t turn out that they agree,” she adds. “It’s an ecosystem.”
“We’re getting fed up”
Nancy Dyer, from Medina, Texas, said she felt “positive” after the Wimberley workshop. But could she have similar discussions in a less structured setting? Without moderators or clear ground rules?
“I am definitely not ready,” she answers. “I learned some skills. But I actually have to practice it quite a few times before it's [a reflex]. I feel like I'm a kindergartner right now.”
Active in all 50 states, and with close to 8,500 members, Better Angels wants to continue to grow, says Mr. O’Connor. But there are some issues to try to resolve before then, he acknowledges, including a self-selection bias.
“The ones who are coming to workshops are coming because they’re at least a little bit interested in talking with the other side,” he says.
In Central Texas, the local Better Angels chapter – active for just over a year – is not worried about attracting people from outside that self-selecting group. (Though the group is worried about diversifying beyond the uniformly white, older group that showed up in Wimberley.)
“For the first half of this year [we thought] we haven’t succeeded until we’ve reached those people” who are unwilling to participate, says Mike Seay, a liberal from Austin who also co-founded the Central Texas chapter. “But I think we’ve shifted that.”
“These are a self-selected group of individuals … but I think there are a lot more of those than you would think,” says Steve Saltwick, a chapter co-founder and conservative from Austin.
After the workshop in Wimberley, Ms. Dyer put a different spin on those scale concerns.
“8,500 people is pretty good, but it ain't that good,” she says. “But I do think that we're getting fed up. I mean, it's 8,500 more than we had two years ago.”