A week dedicated to the better angels
In this era of polarization, one is uncomfortably reminded of what Abraham Lincoln warned against back in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Just a few years later, it took a bloody war to keep America united.
So now, in our time, let’s hope that the divisions in our national house can be repaired — peacefully.
Happily, Americans of good will are doing more than hoping; they are taking action. Action that is, to heal divisions. Some 300 groups have come together to organize a National Week of Conversation, from June 14 to 20, “to listen, extend grace, and discover common interests.” The guiding idea is that if Americans are actually listening to each other, as opposed to shouting at each other in the cyber-badlands, then better feelings will emerge.
One of the key figures in this effort is John Gable, founder and CEO of AllSides, a news-aggregation site that presents all sides — left, center and right. In an interview with me, Gable recalled starting the site a decade ago to help transcend the “filter bubbles” imposed by the news media and social media.
The result of such filtering, Gable continues, has been a sorting process, in which, too often, people are exposed only to “news” that deepens social divides. And yet, for the most part, people wish, simply, to get along. “I don’t think the media is necessarily reflecting America,” Gable says. “They’re reflecting the Twittersphere’s angry attacks, but that’s not most of America.”
Gable is not naive about the differences among people and their opinions, but he believes that folks have “common aspirations, even if we use different language.”
So with that key idea in mind — there’s more that unites us than divides us — Gable has joined with others, including the Bridge Alliance, an aptly named charity that strives to “educate the public about nonpartisan civic engagement and the healthy self-governance movement.” And another group that’s part of the movement, A Million Conversations, founded by a former White House fellow, Samar Ali, begins with this endearing offer of a joint commitment, “I pledge to listen to you. Will you listen to me?”
It’s worth recalling that there have been other such idealistic efforts in the past. For instance, back in the 1920s, the National Conference of Christians and Jews came together to advance Brotherhood Day; in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hailed, “Brotherhood Day [as] an experiment in understanding; a venture in neighborliness,” adding that Americans should “pool our spiritual resources to find common ground.” And in fact, in the middle of the 20th century, Americans did come together to accomplish great things: We pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression, we saved the world from Nazism, and we enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
During those years, Brotherhood Day became Brotherhood Week, and yet by the late 1960s, the idea of getting along seemed “square”; indeed, National Brotherhood Week was laughed off the American stage by singer-comedian Tom Lehrer.
Yet now, half a century later, we can say that we, as a nation, lost a lot with the demise of such organized encouragement of harmony.
So today, it’s time to bring the idea back, for the sake of brotherly — and sisterly — togetherness. The alternative to unity, we are starting to realize, is drift toward the abyss.
Yet of course, in our time, a key question is the modality of communication. That is, should people of good will seek to communicate in person, physically or online, virtually? That was a friendly debate among unifiers — until COVID-19, when it became clear that digital communications would have to be, at least for 2021, the main mechanism.
And so the National Week of Conversation will be a coordinated galaxy of online sharing and discussing.
Gable and his allies are under no illusions that their movement is going to suddenly sweep away the polarization. Yet they believe that if just 3.5 percent of the population can be constructively engaged, that fraction of mobilized citizens will be enough to build a constructive vital center.
To be sure, some will look around at our blasted political landscape and say that the odds are stacked against the depolarizers. Yet still, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln abides with us, summoning the better angels of our nature. And so long as we have those better feelings in our hearts, there’s hope for reconciliation.
After all, we’ve done it before.
Elizabeth Dial Pinkerton served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from 2017 to 2021.
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