Americans Must Learn to Argue Better, Serve Together

Bringing together members of Red and Blue (political) tribes for face-to-face conversations, often over a meal, is one way to repair America’s social fabric and pull people out of social media echo chambers. That’s the mission of Better Angels, a non-profit. With the rising climate of contempt in America, bridge-building and reconciliation activities seem increasingly necessary.

David Brooks, NYT columnist, has repeatedly written about this need. Well before the 2016 election, it was easy to predict that at least 40 percent of the electorate was going to feel “despondent, disgusted, betrayed” no matter who won.

Eric Lui, founder of Citizen University had a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic published before the 2016 election: “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing. A rush to reunion can entrench injustice. Instead of papering over differences, Americans need to be smarter about engaging them.” He proposes three steps: “more listening, more serving, and—perhaps counterintuitively—more arguing.”

When I say listening, I don’t mean “debater’s listening,” in which you pay only enough attention to get the gist of the other person’s point so you can prepare your rebuttal. I mean radically compassionate listening: without judgment, without response.

Imagine forming citizen “talking circles” all across the country, where people of differing world views agree simply to listen to one another. The point would not be persuasion or conversion. The point would be presence. And the method would not be to discuss ideology explicitly. It would be to address a simple universal question—something like “Who influenced you, and how do you pass it on?”

Secondly, he proposes volunteering together, serving food at food banks, “cleaning an abandoned lot, tutoring immigrants, helping disabled seniors, preventing youth suicide—whatever it is, if it brings people together across lines of race, class, and politics, it will bring to the fore our common humanity.”

Thirdly, he proposes using public libraries and other civic spaces to host teach-ins on better arguing, “how to identify and name our foundational fights over principle, how to argue all sides and not just one’s own, how to change one’s own mind as well as another’s, and how to put together solutions that draw from each pole of principle—as if we had responsibility for solutions, not just posturing.”


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