So many days I wake up without hope for this country.
As I watched the results of our presidential election, the mere fact that nearly half of Americans saw, heard, and knew everything I did about our current president and voted for him anyway affirmed my worst perceptions of this nation.
These months since the pandemic have been a rolling exhibition of American agony. Amid affirmations of Black life ringing from sea to sea, Black people were still terrorized. Our barbarism toward each other continued, as drivers purposely crashed their cars into crowds of peaceful protesters. Lifesaving science remained politicized rather than adopted, and radical extremism — including white supremacist terrorism — festered.
Little is new, but it still terrifies me.
We have monumental problems that must be addressed if we are to function, let alone survive as a society. And yet, it seems no “we” exists to combat our challenges.
Fearful of each other, Americans from all persuasions are stockpiling guns. In our state, September saw an 88% increase in gun sales versus the same time last year, according to The Trace, a nonprofit media outlet chronicling gun issues.
With our nation’s history of terrorizing its marginalized, it’s hard to fault the logic of personal armament.
But it’s also hard to see how increased hostility ends any other way but terribly for our country.
To be clear, I’ve always rejected the well-trodden trope rolled out after the 2016 election proselytizing that we “simply need to listen to people” who voted differently than us. That suggests a lopsided relationship, not one where I am heard back, respected, or have my humanity recognized. Marginalized communities have had little choice but to listen throughout American history.
But I also reject the notion that our options are exclusively either absolutist violence or grudging subordination to another’s viewpoint.
Seeking an alternative brought me to the Braver Angels Alliance of Seattle-Everett (BAASE), established last November. I’d vaguely remembered the national organization, then known as Better Angels, from a 2018 New York Times column. Its website claimed the organization was at the “head of the movement not just to depolarize politics, but to re-imagine what it means to be an American.”
I was skeptical.
Initially so was Will Clemmer.
“I was sure it was going to be a shouting match, and an attack on each other’s ideas,” said Clemmer, now the organization’s Washington state coordinator. “When I saw people being able to speak in an environment where people were listening, examining stereotypes, it was like all the pressure went out of the teakettle.”
Formed with an equal ratio of those who identified as Red or Blue, the group has hosted workshops, debates, film talks and book clubs providing civil discourse and a neutral ground for folks of different political persuasions to listen, be heard, be challenged and reflect. Hopefully over the duration of years, not as one-offs.
“What Braver Angels is doing is helping me [ask] not ‘How do I get myself understood better?’ but ‘How do I understand others better?’” said Mark Church, who identifies as a Blue.
Curiosity from those with opposing viewpoints is what makes Jared Oren, a Red and recent Washington, D.C., transplant, see Braver Angels as a safe haven from being stereotyped.
“No one questions your sincerity here. Whereas, I think in other circles your views automatically are illegitimate, or not worthy of consideration,” he said.
Though civil, Braver Angels is not a place where difference is disregarded.
“We actually [get] into that vigorous debate as well, learning from each other and respecting each other’s backgrounds,” said Christine Cook, a Blue. “And whenever I learn about someone else, actually, I’m learning about myself.”
Influenced by family and marriage counseling, Braver Angel debates — including a recent one on the presidential election — don’t attempt to change people’s minds, or forge more centrists, or vie for ideological supremacy. The goal is to confront difficult issues without unilaterally dismissing those with alternative viewpoints. It recognizes our political decisions have consequences for all of us.
“We say it’s being curious instead of furious,” said Mary Beth Stibbins, a local chapter founder.
She and other Braver Angels participated in a cross-party prayer vigil (secular and religious) on election night and have adopted the With Malice Toward None pledge, rejecting violence and embracing shared values regardless of the presidential victor.
There is so much praise for a willingness to fight and die for this country, I’m wondering what of the harder things?
How many will practice social humility? How many will recognize that humans are products of our life experiences? How many will pause long enough to recognize the human across our divides, even if we don’t relate, agree with, or bear similar pains, even when we’ve done each other harm? And that unity is not assimilation, but solitary reflection?
I don’t know if any of it will work but I’m willing to try.
So, I called a conservative friend I’d stopped speaking with after the 2016 election. He’d been there when I was heartbroken, depressed and broke.
Our politics will never align. But the phone conversation proves our regard for each other always will.
We talked about our families, navigating the pandemic, and our mutual love of the super hero film genre — something I’d forgotten we shared.
Before we hung up, I told him I loved him.
It’d been a long time since we’d heard that from each other.