Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Choosing Civility at the Talbot County Free Library
The Talbot County Free Library has joined a statewide, public library-driven effort to encourage civility in our lives—in our homes, in the workplace, on our roads, and in our political discourse. Toward that end, we recently hosted an all-day workshop put on by the Better Angels Alliance. The Better Angels Alliance is a nationwide, non-profit organization dedicated to bringing both sides of America's red/blue divide together ... in the hopes of producing “a more perfect union.” For the workshop, Better Angels recruited seven participants who self-identified as conservative/Republican, and seven participants who self-identified as progressive/Democrat. Several observers were also recruited. As they would not be permitted to speak, observers weren't required to identify their voting preferences.
The rules for the day were simple and gave everyone a real sense of what we were trying to accomplish. Quoting from the sheet that was handed out at the beginning of the workshop, these were: (1) “We are here to understand others and explain our views, not to convince anyone to change their mind.” (2) “Otherwise, it's standard stuff we all know: taking turns, not interrupting others, listening to everyone and opening up space for quieter group members, being respectful (as in no eye rolling or loud sighs when someone is speaking), etc. In other words, bringing our best selves to a difficult conversation.”
The day's first exercise set the tone for what was to come. All the reds went into one room, all the blues into another. Separated, and in private, each side then listed—in the first of three columns on a sheet of newsprint—the stereotypes they felt the other side held about them. Next to each stereotype, in the middle column, the group listed the reasons they felt the stereotype to be unfair, and the legitimate values the group did hold that had given rise to the stereotype. Finally, in the right-hand column, the group listed what they admitted to be the kernel of truth, or “wince factor,” inherent in each stereotype.
As an employee of the library, I thought it important that I be seen as neutral, so I had agreed to attend only as an observer. And I was glad I had, as being an observer meant I was permitted to move back and forth between the two groups' rooms. Later, when we all reconvened in the library's main meeting room, and each group reported their findings to their opposite number, I was struck by the change that came over people. Alone with members of their "tribe," some individuals had spoken almost contemptuously of the other side's views, but in the larger group, for the most part, even the most partisan group members modified their language so as to be more agreeable. Sometimes the fact that we are social animals works to humanity's advantage: if at all possible, we want to get along.
As the day wore on, this tendency to identify not with an abstract political label but with the living, breathing human beings we happened to find ourselves among increased. There were still moments of tension, moments when I'm sure people on both sides felt their stomachs tighten, but again and again the knots were loosened by a light comment made by another participant or one of the two excellent moderators trained and dispatched by the Better Angels Alliance to help us through the days' minefields. I hope I never forget something one of the moderators told the group. “Each of us,” she said, “carries two buckets around with us at all times. One of the buckets is full of gasoline and the other is full of water. When someone makes an inflammatory remark around us, we have a choice. Sometimes we throw water on the fiery words, and sometimes we throw gasoline.”
By the end of the day, people on both sides were talking about how much common ground had been discovered, that both sides, in fact—and to our general surprise—agreed upon many things. I'm sure we all went home feeling pretty good about the day. I know I did. To a large degree it restored my faith in, and hope for, democracy ... the great American experiment.
The Better Angels Alliance takes its name from a simple passage in Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” We forget this admonition of Lincoln's at our peril. Forty-two days after he made it, Confederate forces under General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter.
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