By Randy Lioz and Paul Norris
Involvement in Better Angels can be a highly rewarding endeavor, and each of us feels an increasing pull towards the organization, taking on more and more responsibility within it over time. In addition to sharing coordinator duties within California—Paul in the north, Randy in the south—Paul is also an alliance co-chair and helps with our red engagement strategy, while Randy is a regular media contributor and social media manager, and the director of the California office, which focuses on unique initiatives for the state. And both of us regularly organize and moderate workshops.
But perhaps the most rewarding aspect for us has been the relationships we have built, particularly with those of different political stripes. That includes our own relationship; Paul is a red and Randy is a blue. So when Paul saw Bill Doherty’s guide to a structured conversation between opposite colors, we decided to jump right in and give it a shot.
The concepts used are pretty much identical to our Red-Blue workshops: we’re looking for more understanding of each other, and if we get lucky, perhaps a little commonality of thought between us.
And of course there are the rules of the road. We’re trying to understand and be understood, not to have anyone’s mind changed by the experience. And we’re there to be seen as ourselves. No assumptions or projecting of stereotypes on each other based on color. And finally, there’s the job of sticking to the script, a tricky feat without a moderator around. Maintaining the discipline to answer only the question at hand does require experience, so it’s suggested that you both be familiar with the Better Angels ethos, and be fully bought-in to the process.
With each of us fairly experienced with these principles, we were able to easily fall into the conversation structure provided. The first question posed is about why we’re even engaged in this whole affair. For us, and we imagine for many others who take this plunge, it was not just about expanding our minds, but also to strengthen our relationship with each other. As colleagues, it pays to have some trust, and this was a great way to build it.
The questions continued in a personal vein, prompting us to talk about ourselves, our experiences, and how we got to the places we are ideologically. Randy talked about influences like his progressive activist brother, and a figure who looms large for progressives of his generation, Jon Stewart, who made news and politics interesting just as he was coming of age politically.
Paul initially shared his family’s Democratic orientation, from his working class Illinois father and Tennessee mother. He went on to become a Berkeley radical and self-identified hippie. However, the time came when he felt he needed to “grow up.” He had the great good fortune to be hired by Apple in 1981, and developed a very different view of American opportunity and capitalism. The first Republican he ever voted for was Ronald Reagan. It’s likely that Paul has had a wider array of political influences in his life, and certainly more exposure to opposing views, a point reinforced by his status as a libertarian living and working among a sea of deep blues, in his home of San Francisco and his current professional world of psychotherapy.
As with a Red-Blue workshop, we were also given a chance to engage in some deep self-reflection about our general views of those who share our political identity. In fact the questions were the same as those from the Fishbowl exercise: What do you love about your side? But also, what could you stand to leave behind? And just like in a workshop, after each question we were given a chance to reflect on what we’d learned about one another, and whether we sensed some overlap.
These questions were the last of our first conversation, which gave us a chance to go off and process what we’d heard, and even to decide if we were in for another round. There was really no hesitation, though, as each of us had come away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for the thoughtfulness and openness of the other. We’d be back for Round 2.
The second session was perhaps where the meatiest material came out. For this, we were each tasked with choosing a topic of importance to us, and expounding on our viewpoint. Paul chose something that had come up during the first session, when Randy had mentioned his own understanding of a classic political dividing line: the tension between growing the overall wealth of the country versus dividing the pie more evenly between those at the top and the bottom.
Randy focused on the topic of media bias, and the very different levels of trust that conservatives and progressives seemed to place in the media.
The conversation was expansive and deep. And the result was surprising to us both. Not only had each of us gained a better understanding of the ideas on the other side, but we had developed the ability to see things from the other’s perspective, and we both ended up adopting a bit of that perspective as our own.
During our first go-around, Randy had mentioned what he saw as one of the fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals, that the former place a high priority on growing the economic pie in general, whereas the latter believe it at least as important to ensure that that pie is distributed more equitably.
Paul asked for some clarification, which proved useful, since Randy was able to dispell the notion that his impulse was punitive. Ultimately for him the idea was focused on what makes people happy.
Paul gained a new appreciation for the idea that a person’s welfare isn’t totally determined by their absolute standard of living, but rather also by their conception of how relatively well-off they are compared to those around them. After all, if a poor person today were relegated to living like a medieval king, with no clean running water, refrigeration or other technology, they would be miserable no matter how much gilded furniture or fine art they might stuff into their home, since the rest of us would be enjoying modern conveniences.
For the sake of a bit more parity in living standards, liberals are willing to give up a bit of economic growth, at least more so than conservatives. And Paul felt he saw this trade-off in a somewhat new light, questioning his more utilitarian approach to economics.
Randy approached the topic of media bias, disturbed by his recent experiences hearing conservatives dismiss mainstream media outlets wholesale, adopting the mantra “Fake news!” to write off anything one might read in a paper like the New York Times.
While he consumes a variety of media, the Times is Randy’s go-to source for straight news, due to the paper’s rigorous adherence to journalistic standards, including the way it deals with anonymous sources at a moment when these types of sources often offer the only hope of understanding what’s going on with an administration that seems determined not to talk to the press (the White House hasn’t held a press briefing in seven months now).
But Paul reframed this dynamic, arguing that, while he wasn’t in the same camp as those who assert that the Times—and papers like it, such as the Washington Post, LA Times, etc.—is printing outright lies, he does see plenty of evidence that the Times goes through a filter of ideology, based on the aggregate viewpoints of those journalists and editors who are most likely to work in its newsroom.
Journalists for these outlets are perhaps less likely to chase down leads on narratives that don’t fit their worldview, and this tendency reinforces that view over time. Obviously this is a practice that those on either side have been accusing one another of doing for a very long time, and each side is bound to believe that those who agree with their view are doing a better job of keeping this inclination in check with rigorous standards of journalistic ethics.
But Randy has come to appreciate a bit more the potential for slant based purely on association. Even reporters who are trying their best to reflect the facts are at risk of missing some key elements of context when surrounded by those who largely agree with them.
When this skew goes unchecked, it leads to narratives that play more to a partisan audience. We would argue that this is a major element of what happened around the 2016 election, when the mainstream media was supremely confident that Hillary Clinton would capture the presidency, until they weren’t.
This skew even extended itself to polling. The media narrative was built around the idea that Donald Trump was too incompetent to be president, or even to win the presidency. Trump voters were ridiculed so often and so deeply that many simply stopped talking about who they would vote for, even to pollsters.
When it turned out that many of them had in fact voted for Trump, the left felt blindsided. How could they have missed it? Well, the truth is that’s not the narrative they were looking for.
Recently Better Angels itself was covered by the New York Times, and we were all excited to see the result of a reporter’s experiences with our workshops. What made it to print was disheartening for many of our volunteers, and it confirmed that this filter had been in effect.
In fact, when Paul discussed an event the reporter had attended with another member who’d been there, he was left with the distinct impression that the Times’ editors had cut interviews with highly compelling subjects in favor of those who would fit their narrative of skepticism. The story’s wrap-up leaned heavily on the few attendees who seemed to come away from the event dissatisfied, odd given that in our extensive experience as moderators—and according to data collected at workshops—both of us have seen the vast majority of attendees leave feeling inspired.
This particular skew isn’t necessarily liberal in nature (though there’s plenty of resistance from the left to the idea of looking past someone’s politics.) But it does demonstrate a willingness of a newsroom to include the material that bolsters their point of view while neglecting, nefariously or not, that which seems extraneous to the story they’re trying to tell.
Randy recently wrote about his experience trying to expand his own narrative beyond what he previously would have contemplated, through conversations on Facebook. He found himself open to at least considering that ways of framing a story that were very different from his own were at least possible to construct without the cynicism he had previously assumed.
The final portion of our 1:1 conversation focused us on our hopes for the country. Each of us was buoyed by our encounter with someone who, though they see the world quite differently, still commands our deep respect and friendship.
At Better Angels we often emphasize that our workshop participants should avoid the expectation that anyone there will change their minds. We find it a much more productive goal to seek to understand one another, and to search for those areas where we agree, to reaffirm our relationships at every level.
Being humans, though, we naturally believe in our own rightness, and it makes sense that we would prefer others to see the world as we do. We cannot reasonably ask anyone to give up these hopes, even as we ask participants to put them aside during these highly charged conversations. So it’s encouraging to understand that, over the long term, given the work that it takes to establish genuine trust between people who have been given many reasons to distrust one another, it is truly possible to have an impact on how someone else thinks.
Both sides feel strongly that their ideas would win out in an open intellectual market. But in order for us to even find out which ideas are strongest, they must flow freely from one mind to another, and that can only happen when strong relationships open those pathways.
While there’s still a long way to go, we feel that if Better Angels is able to get anywhere near our goal of touching one percent of the voting population, there is truly hope of reestablishing a culture of intellectual humility, respect for differences and friendships across the divide.