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Columnist Jay Fleitman: Helping bring ‘reds’ and ‘blues’ together

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Monday, March 12, 2018

The readers of this column should be forewarned that this is a recruitment effort.

This past weekend, my wife and I were observers at the “red/blue” workshop held in Easthampton sponsored by the Better Angels, the first of these in New England. The Better Angels is an organization founded in 2016 as a “bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation.” Its website carries the headline “Let’s Depolarize America.”

Here is how the organization describes itself on its website: “Better Angels is a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization … Bringing red and blue together into a working alliance … By building new ways to talk to each other, participate in public life, and influence the direction of the nation.”

This organization does its groundwork through “red/blue” community workshops that are structured with seven conservatives and seven liberals working through prestructured exercises that are supervised by two moderators. There may be up to 15 observers who do not participate at all.

The goal of the sessions is not to get either political side to agree with the other or to change the other’s politics, but is to establish communication and understanding with the hope that they can work together in the future, particularly to solve local political problems.

I have been contacted by the New England regional director of Better Angels to serve as the conservative organizer for one of these workshops in Northampton, and I’ve agreed to do so. There is also a “blue” organizer for Northampton who also attended the inaugural Easthampton session this weekend as an observer.

There were two primary exercises (and then several minor exercises) for the group during the course of the day which were potentially quite interesting. The first of these exercises involved having the “reds” and “blues” go off on their own and identify what stereotypes they think the other side holds for them, why they think those stereotypes are wrong and why might there be a kernel of truth within those stereotypes. As observers, my wife and I watched the conservative group deliberate. Then the groups got together and presented their findings to each other.

It was my feeling that both groups were right on in identifying the stereotypes we hold of each other that each side finds most offensive. Without being able to go into great detail, the groups were not as good at articulating why they thought the stereotypes were wrong nor were they so good at admitting to the kernels of truth that might be found in those stereotypes.

The second of the major exercises involved the separate groups going off again by themselves to generate a few questions they would ask the other group in order for the questioning group to better understand things about the other side’s positions. They were directed against creating “gotcha” questions that might only offend the other group or make them defensive. Then the two groups were put together to ask each other their questions. For this, my wife and I observed the liberals work through the exercise.

This was an interesting opportunity that unfortunately fell short. Because the moderators were so concerned about offending, questions that might have really allowed for the fleshing out of deeper political beliefs were excluded from consideration. For example, one of the “blues” wanted to ask the simple question of why people on the other side could vote for Donald Trump as he could not conceive of why someone would do that. That question was not allowed because it was deemed as potentially offensive, but was a primary question for which a good answer might have allowed him some understanding of the true perspective of the conservative side.

I accepted the role of trying to organize a session like this for Northampton with a great deal of skepticism. I believe that the body politic has evolved into separate species that, though they share a common language, live in fundamentally different realities with few points of reference in common. After being an observer at this workshop, I remain skeptical because unless the groups can truly probe the belief systems of each other, they will never be able to understand the perspectives of the other side.

The Easthampton session was the  first in New England and the first for these moderators, and, hopefully, as experience accumulates, there will be less fear of a more intensive interaction.

One of my jobs is to recruit seven conservatives from Northampton as well as observers. So far, I have met with little success. Most of the “reds” I have talked to from Northampton, Florence, and Leeds are so put off by the perceived extremism of Northampton politics they want no part of sitting down with liberal representatives of the community. There are others who are hesitant to be identified as conservatives in Northampton out of fear of personal harassment or damage to their businesses.

I am recruiting Northampton conservatives who are willing to sit in an all-day session to go through exercises like those described above with liberal counterparts. This will likely be scheduled in July. I need people who can articulate why they believe what they believe, and how those beliefs reflect their life and work experiences. Volunteers must be absolutely open to listen and consider the perspectives coming from the other side.

Please contact me through the email address below if this sounds like something you might find constructive.

If you are a Northampton “blue” and this interests you as well, send me an email through the Gazettenet address and I will forward it to Wendy Robinson, my liberal partner in this effort.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.