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Agree to Disagree

Finding a way to talk to each other without animosity and actually listen to each other as well


If Americans are to succeed in lowering the societal temperature in this polarized era and find a way to ward off the specter of irreversible national schism — which we Jews, as a small, vulnerable minority should fervently hope for — one of the first things they need to do it to find a way to talk to each other without animosity and begin to actually listen to each other as well.

In the journal Comment, April Lawson, director of debates and public discourse at Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to political depolarization, has an insightful article arguing for a way of going about that. A self-described Burkean conservative, Lawson explains the surprising premise of the program, noting alternately how

a variety of organizations have sprung up in more recent years to forge a kind of depolarization field, most of them sincere and well intentioned. But there is a bias in the soil: a Blue bias. (Blue = leans liberal; Red = leans conservative.) The vast majority of leaders, funders, and participants in the bridging field are Blue, and this imbalance dictates the approach taken to depolarization.

People interested in bridging often believe that the primary aim of bridging work is to get people on both sides to see each other’s humanity. Blues usually approach this through exercises designed to build the empathy of one group for the lived experiences and emotions of the other. For example, one group of people will be asked, “What life experiences led you to this view?” Or “What does it feel like to live as a [insert category] person in America?”

The goal is for people to listen to others’ experiences and feelings and to walk out saying, “That person isn’t so different from me,” or, “If I’d gone through that experience, I might feel exactly the same way.” If a substantive conflict arises, the facilitator is likely to redirect the group back to sharing….

The Blue-inflected traditional empathy-building forms of bridge-building have a great deal to recommend them. But there is a flaw: The implicit belief underlying this style of bridging is that we can learn to love each other by seeing that we are all deeply the same.

As an aside, Ms. Lawson’s explanation for why the Blue model of depolarization leaves Reds cold, or even suspicious and hostile, should resonate with the experiences of Orthodox Jews in the religious context. She says that Blues want to celebrate difference only as long as everyone is tolerant, yet, “many powerful forms of religious, political, and philosophical belief make claims that are in direct conflict with the idea that all ways of being are equally valid. Blue insistence on ‘tolerance’ functions as a fence to keep those beliefs and their adherents out. In simpler terms, when Blues say they want to ‘celebrate difference,’ Reds often hear the caveat: that some are ‘approved differences’ and others, like their political persuasion, are not.”

This is precisely what Orthodox Jews face when it comes to acceptance within the broader Jewish community and its institutions (those where participation isn’t halachically problematic). Allegiance to that highest of ideals — pluralism — is duly espoused by heterodox Jews until the topic turns to Orthodoxy, which is explicitly non-pluralistic. Here the nonjudgmental, welcoming ethic of pluralism ends, because, it turns out, there is only pluralism for the pluralistic.

Yet, pluralism isn’t supposed to be a fancy way of saying “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.” Instead, it’s supposed to be grounded in an appreciation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and community, regardless of whether they repay with pluralism in kind. Orthodoxy’s non-pluralism, after all, isn’t rooted in loathing and condescension for other Jews (at least, it’s not supposed to be), but in a sincere belief in one truth rather than multiple ones.

Returning to the political landscape, Ms. Lawson writes that she has

heard many a good-hearted, intelligent Blue say, “I am interested in having a conversation to learn about each other’s differences, and so are all my Blue friends, but the Reds never show up.” They don’t realize that the language they are using suggests a paradigm that is alienating to Reds.

From the way it’s framed, “learn about each other’s differences,” Reds intuit several things. They intuit, first, that if they choose to attend this event, there will be a social climate that demands a certain posture; second, that the hosts want to hear about certain kinds of differences but not others; and third, that the event is likely to be populated primarily by people who are not remotely interested in their political insights. And to be honest, these assumptions are often correct.

But if the standard form of bridge-building doesn’t work, what will? She suggests focusing on a “fundamental insight about relationship that most of us know from experience: We have the capacity to build relationship through conflict… Rather than redirect away from conflict, we must seek to embrace it, and in fact to ennoble it.”

She says people often look at her strangely when she tells them she builds bridges through debate. “‘But debate destroys relationships,’ they say, and then they recount a recent experience ‘debating’ a family member or coworker that ended with both people more exasperated than they were when they started. And yet the best debates build relationship at least as powerfully as other kinds of bridging.”

At the outset of each debate Lawson runs the person chairing it explains to all present that it’s not a contest, with winners and losers, but a collective search for truth. To this end, there are three main rules. First, the participants must say precisely and forthrightly what they believe — but must also honestly share the doubts they may still harbor about those beliefs. “When those who disagree,” she writes, “hear the sincerity with which a speaker is struggling to find what’s right, they are disarmed.”

Second, every single person in the room is invited to speak, and each one is given the same amount of time to speak, with everyone else expected to listen to each argument in turn. The speakers can be “a janitor, the videographer, or the president of an institution; a polished orator or a shy wallflower; regardless, their voice is welcome.”

Finally, the speaker must only address the chair, not any other speaker. He can pose questions, for example, to those who have spoken previously, but only indirectly, by way of the chair. This smartly removes any sense someone may have of being aggressively confronted.

These three rules, Lawson writes, gives people “a sense of fairness and welcome. They see that if they follow them, their point of view will be heard and respected just like anyone else’s.” Thus far, two hundred Braver Angels debates have been held on campuses, in local community venues and elsewhere, in which about fifteen thousand people have participated. It is particularly popular, she notes, with Reds and with college students.


What do people emerge with from such debates? Ms. Lawson mentions several important goods that flow from them. One is that “vast swaths of common ground are revealed and [people] immediately ask for ways to follow up and act on this discovery.” And even when that isn’t the case, “the foundation is laid for genuine synthesis of the best in each side, which can generate not just awareness of shared humanity, but actual policy progress.”

People presenting at such debates also learn to reject oversimplified narratives of who the other side is and what they believe, and in the process, gain a new respect for the “deep dignity of the other side.” She recalls one woman saying after her first such debate, as tears rolled down her cheeks, “This is what I’ve been waiting for. We can talk to each other. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It’s all so counterintuitive, she concedes. After all, conflict “always feels risky, because we have all experienced destructive conflict in our lives. But… conflict is not optional. It’s just a matter of whether we suppress it or channel it into one of our most powerful tools for spiritual growth….”

Reading her words gives much cause for optimism amidst the gloom of the current national moment. But apart from its application to the political, it also provokes thought about what other contexts in our lives, personal and communal, might benefit from these tools.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 894. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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