Blake Phillips
Aaron Kofford, back far right, participates in the March 31 Red/Blue Workshop hosted by Better Angels in Oakton, Virginia.

Living in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., it is difficult to avoid the divisive political rhetoric that has permeated our country. But an organization called Better Angels is trying to bring people with opposite political views together in an attempt to bridge this divide.

Better Angels is a citizens organization founded in 2016 with an innovative approach to the political polarization problem: “Instead of asking people to change their minds about issues, we give Americans a chance to better understand each other, to absorb the values and experiences that inform our political philosophies, and to ultimately recognize our common humanity.”

Better Angels strives to be a balanced organization with equal numbers of right- and left-leaning members. I lean right in a county where 65 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, so I was recruited to attend a workshop. I was one of seven right-leaning "reds" participating with seven left-leaning "blues." It was clear from the onset that this was a group of people passionate about their views but also tired of the mindless arguments and name-calling.

We began the day by discussing hurtful and misleading stereotypes such as “bigot,” “anti-religious,” “evil” and “socialist." Blues identified stereotypes they have been called in the past by the reds and vice versa. While it may be easy to use these labels to add emotional emphasis to a ranting social media post, the words didn’t sound clever or witty when discussing the stereotypes with the workshop participants, who expressed sadness from unfair accusations. One blue voiced empathy toward the reds, noting that it sounded as if we were feeling attacked and coming from “a place of hurt.”

We were all given opportunities to express the substance of our views without interruption or debate, as well as express concerns with the opinions or positions of “our side.” The reality is that our opinions are limited by our own experiences or our flawed view of the experiences of others. To hear expressions of self-doubt, along with the sincere hope of being on the correct path, broke down the ridiculous facade and enabled meaningful discussion.

One conservative woman exclaimed, “I’m struck by the humanity I’ve discovered in the 'blues!’” While the comment was met with laughter, I believe it is a very telling remark. First, it implies that with our current political polarization, we have dehumanized those who disagree with us. If we perceive our neighbors as inhuman, it incorrectly justifies verbal maltreatment and even violence. Unfortunately, I fear many of our current politicians and political activists understand and intentionally use the rallying power of demonizing the opposition.

Second, it suggests the antidote to this vilification is found somewhere in the activities sponsored by organizations such as Better Angels. I think the remedy is to simply listen. Listening with patience can help us see the humanity in others and understand their motivations, even if we strongly disagree with their opinions. Besides, most people will not listen to you until they are completely worn out from talking, so I find it helpful to listen first.

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Extreme political polarization, while recently on the rise, is not new to America. The name “Better Angels” comes from the first inaugural speech given by Abraham Lincoln in March 1861, one month before the outbreak of the Civil War. It is meant to remind us, I think, of the sobering consequences of a nation divided. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I also think back on the religious persecution of early Mormons. The harassment, violence and murders and the infamous Missouri extermination order of 1844 are inexcusable. However, it is worth noting that their neighbors likely felt threatened by tightly knit LDS communities and feared their political and economic influence.

No one left our Better Angels workshop with a changed mind, but I believe we all left with a better understanding of each other and more hope that we can live peaceably and even respectfully with our differences.