The Better Arguments Project is a new national civic initiative created to help bridge ideological divides – not by papering over those divides but by teaching Americans how to have better arguments. We believe the more we can equip communities to have arguments rooted both in this history and in best practices of constructive communication, the healthier our country will be. The Better Arguments Project is a partnership between the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, Facing History and Ourselves, and The Allstate Corporation. This blog series is intended to highlight voices of our partners who are effectively working to equip Americans with skills and tools to engage across difference.
Political polarization has reached new highs, evident in the inflammatory headlines that flood our Facebook feeds and the shouting matches between partisan rivals on cable news. But perhaps even more worrisome is the unwillingness to engage with the “other side” in our lives.
A 2016 Pew Research study found that half of Republicans and Democrats are actually scared of the opposing party. What are we so afraid of?
In our recent TED Talk, we discussed the different ways we’re working to bridge this divide through our respective organizations. Living Room Conversations provides a simple structure for having thoughtful conversation with people who hold differing views, and AllSides provides multiple perspectives on the issues we’re facing so that readers get the full picture, not just one slant.
In other words, we’re trying to pop filter bubbles — the echo chambers that form when we’re only exposed to ideas that we agree with.
It’s no wonder that the current political landscape is marred by intense fracture and division. News networks rely on fanning the flames of discord to cultivate a loyal partisan customer base. Social media algorithms tailor the content we see so that we never have to come across a news article that we might find offensive.
After speaking at TEDWomen in December, we heard from people who had not felt comfortable sharing their views publicly or speaking with people they knew disagreed with them ideologically. Too many of us are estranged from family members, friends, and neighbors. So instead of focusing on what divides us, why not focus on our shared values and discover where we have common ground? We call it a domestic peace initiative. Whether you identify as red, blue, purple, or anything in between, you can likely agree that peace is worthy of the country’s full support. And we think that’s a pretty good starting point.
We do not have to agree on the issues. In fact, disagreement can be good, at least when we truly listen to understand the merits of the arguments and the people with them.
We can agree that we are all in this together. So then when we do agree on an issue, we can work together. Often it is easy to agree on the goal, like better education and a stronger democracy, even if we disagree on how to get there. That is also a great starting point.
At the heart of it, we want to inspire people to connect across differences so that we can understand each other, care about each other, and work together where we actually agree. We believe the health and maybe even survival of our democracy requires this. Many folks that are highly engaged on the right and left have come to a point where they have decided that people on the other side are ignorant, bigoted, evil, or stupid. Another large number of citizens have decided that they do not want to engage in politics altogether. We are looking for means to shift these dynamics back toward healthy engagement.
One of the key ways we hope to achieve this is through conversation, deep listening, and using both AllSides and Living Room Conversations as vehicles for change. Take AllSides for Schools, an initiative that endeavors to teach respectful engagement, increase media literacy, and pop filter bubbles in schools across the country. Another primary resource is Mismatch, which matches students with peers from across the country who have diverse political beliefs so that they can respectfully talk and come to better understand “the other.” More than 99 percent of participants thus far have said it was a valuable experience.
Living Room Conversations are a first step to increase understanding of issues, build relationships, and pave the way for collaborative and inclusive problem-solving. Our vision is a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and background work together with respect – and even joy – to realize the vibrant future we all desire.
Almost no one changes their mind on any particular issue after one conversation, but if we learn anything, it’s that we care about each other. This was perhaps what surprised the audience most at TEDWomen — that a lifelong progressive and conservative could not only join forces in business, but that we could also form a close friendship. In today’s political climate, that sounds like nothing short of a miracle. But if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that these types of relationships are extremely valuable. Taking a small step to bridge the divide in your own community can go a long way, even if it’s just seeking out a thoughtful conversation with someone that might disagree with you. It’s a powerful — and fun — way for citizens to begin to reweave the fabric of our democracy.
Joan Blades is a co-founder of LivingRoomConversations.org an open source effort to rebuild respectful discourse across ideological, cultural and party lines while embracing our core-shared values. When we care about each other we work to find ways to meet each other’s core needs. She is also a co-founder of MomsRising.org and MoveOn.org She is a co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace, winner of a Nautilus book award in 2011 and The Motherhood Manifesto, which won the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize in 2007. A mediator (attorney) by training and inclination, she is a nature lover, artist and true believer in the power of citizens and our need to rebuild respectful civil discourse while embracing our core shared values.
John Gable is CEO and co-founder of AllSides.com and AllSidesForSchools.org. John has 25 years of technology experience where he was the product manager, team or division lead for a number of iconic products including Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Office, and Checkpoint ZoneAlarm. He co-founded Kavi Corp (web-based collaboration, later sold to High Logic) and previously was a professional political campaigner and executive director in the 1980s working for Bush ’41, Mitch McConnell and the Republican National Committee.