Have you been noticing lately that your conversations about politics have been almost exclusively with people who agree with you? Or, in the alternative, have you completely stopped talking about politics with others and have settled for just muttering comments to yourself as you watch Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow pontificate?
Ciaran O'Connor understands. He also understands that these are trends that aren't particularly healthy — not for you. Not for democracy, either. So he's on a crusade to see if he and his colleagues can help restore respectful disagreement to American political conversation.
O'Connor is the chief marketing officer for a bipartisan nonprofit organization called Better Angels. The group is a national citizens' movement that aims to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes. The group also works to teach practical skills for communicating across political differences.
Members of the group aim to practice what they preach — and, to that end, O'Connor, a liberal who has worked on Democratic political campaigns, will appear Tuesday, May 21 at Linn-Benton Community College with another Better Angels staff member: John Wood Jr., the organization's director of media development, and a social conservative.
The free talk by O'Connor and Wood, dubbed "Respect + Rebellion," begins at 11 a.m. in the Russell Tripp Performance Center at LBCC, 6500 Pacific Blvd. SW in Albany. The presentation is sponsored by the LBCC Free Expression Team, its Civil Discourse Club and Village Square, another nonprofit organization that has some of the same goals as Better Angels.
The idea behind the presentation — really, the whole idea behind Better Angels — is to help teach skills to help people learn how to disagree with each other in a respectful manner. Those are skills that are in short supply these days. The presentation is a logical outgrowth of the work about civil discourse and free speech that has been going on over the last couple of years at LBCC.
In an interview last week, O'Connor talked about the origins of Better Angels and how he got involved with the organization. He had worked in Democratic political campaigns before becoming disillusioned and doing some traveling. But rather than return to the political trenches, "I really wanted to do something that had the potential to be more transformational. ... If we don't know how to talk to each other, we're going to disintegrate as a nation."
Better Angels has been working to try to build bridges since December 2016 — right after the presidential election — with a workshop in South Lebanon, Ohio. Organizers invited 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters to the session to see if the participants could find any common ground. The framework for the workshop was developed by a noted family therapist, and O'Connor said some of the precepts of family therapy still are used in Better Angels sessions.
Since that initial session, the idea has gained traction throughout the nation, and the "Respect + Rebellion" talk is one of the offshoots.
There's no doubt that O'Connor and Wood disagree on important issues: O'Connor describes himself as a liberal who believes in an active government and supports progressive social causes and Democratic campaigns. Wood is a social conservative who views capitalism as the antidote to poverty and is the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. (O'Connor said the organization works hard to maintain an even balance between liberals and conservatives; it's a matter of practicing what you preach.)
And O'Connor said the goal of the presentation (or any Better Angels events) isn't about changing anyone's political beliefs but rather to find respectful ways to talk with each other about those beliefs.
That, he said, requires some other skills that sometimes can be in short supply these days, with our overheated political dialogue: listening, for example. Being able to set aside stereotypes and assumptions about people who may not hold the same political views as you. A little bit of empathy helps as well.
O'Connor said he and Wood will offer exercises and training that can help participants take their first steps toward holding respectful conversations with people who hold different political views.
But he understands how easy it is to stay ensconced in their own political camps, never bothering to reach out to the other side. So one other quality may be required as well, he said.
"It's about whether you want to summon your own better angels. It takes courage."