MINNEAPOLIS — Dr. William Doherty wears many hats. He’s a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. He’s a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a licensed psychologist.
He is also the co-founder of Better Angels, a non-profit that teaches people how to talk to each other.
As someone who wears all those hats, he says he sees a lot of similarities between marriage counseling and the principles of Better Angels.
“Reds and blues share a country together,” Doherty said. “That’s why they come to Better Angels workshops. They’re worried about the country and the polarization. One of the reasons couples come to marriage counseling is they’re worried about their marriage.”
In 2019 the numbers look bleak. The Pew Research Center says of the people surveyed, 85 percent of people say the tone and nature of political debate in this country has become more negative over the last several years. 12 percent say it hasn’t changed and three percent say it’s become more positive. Just by looking at this, this “marriage” between the two parties looks to be in jeopardy.
“We’re in a sad time, a lot of historians think that we are more polarized in the nation since the Civil War,” Doherty said.
The dialogue on social media is also reflective of this. It’s difficult to talk about almost anything online. It’s hard to talk about the Star Spangled Banner, the United States Flag, the Pledge of Allegiance – even the debate surrounding whether an African American woman should play Ariel as the Little Mermaid in the live-action film is heating up. This, all over a mermaid. A fictional character.
“We are living in a very contentious time where there are so many symbols of our divisions,” Doherty said. “The statues, the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag, the Star Spangled Banner. Images, symbols, some fiction have become flash points for us.”
And Doherty says the reason we assign so much emotion to these things is that we have fundamentally mistaken the other side’s policy for its character.
“We confuse the policy with the values and the goals,” Doherty said. “What people learn in Better Angels workshops is we share a common humanity and a set of aspirations for the country even though we differ for how we get there.”
He further explains that Better Angels isn’t a program that’s designed to make best friends of our strangers and enemies.
“Our goal is not to have anyone change their minds,” Doherty said. “That’s the key thing. The first ground rule is we’re here to explain ourselves to listen and to learn about one another. Not to get anybody to change their mind.”
Interested in participating in a Better Angels workshop near you? You can find the scheduled events here. Better Angels hosts workshops in 36 states.