A dozen or so people, diverse in age, ethnicity, and political leanings, are engaged in a year-long experiment in civil discourse. Each month, we bring you a conversation with members of the group. We’re observing how the tone and quality of the conversation changes over the course of the year – and how relationships can evolve among people with very different views.
This month we invited a guest facilitator from the national nonprofit Better Angels – a group dedicated to reducing polarization in America. The goal of Better Angels—like ours here at Beneath the Surface--is not to eliminate disagreement or change peoples’ views. Instead, weit seeks to foster understanding and alliances among people with diverse opinions.
With us today: Jim, Connette, Bruce, Kathryn, Cedric, Morgan, Lee, Carl, Darrell, and Joe.
Marcia Gelman is our Better Angels facilitator. She’s explaining the fish bowl exercise we’re about to undertake.
Marcia: So, what we’re going to do today – and I’m sure that some of you lean red and some of you lean blue…
That’s true…but not so fast. Our group also has several shades of purple. It’s a bit more complex and nuanced… but more on that in a minute.
Marcia: What we’re going to do today is called a Fish Bowl exercise. We’ll flip a coin and see who’s in the middle first – either the reds or the blues.
The idea is simple: once we’re divided into reds and blues, one group sits in the fish bowl – that’s a small circle in the middle – while the other group sits in a larger circle outside to observe. The group in the middle talks among themselves about the policies and positions of their political party that they think are good for the country.
Then they talk about the reservations they hold about their own party’s positions.
But that’s the easy part, according to Better Angels’ Marcia Gelman. The real work is on those listening – who are not allowed to comment verbally or with hairy eyeballs.
Marcia: You have the biggest responsibility because you can’t talk. You can’t roll your eyes. You can’t look at your neighbor. You can’t sigh. No non-verbals.
Marcia gets ready to flip a coin to determine whether the Reds or the Blues are up first in fishbowl.
Carl: What if you’re neither?
Carl repeats the question quietly.
Rachel: Do you lean one way, Carl?
Marcia: Just lean…
RLH: I think you do…
Cedric: I don’t lean one way, either.
Connette: I’m kind of in the middle, too. I mean, it depends.
RLH: So we’ve got a lot of open-minded moderates, here. But I still think they lean…
Darrell: They were all leaning one way or the other when you started this exercise.
There’s laughter in the room but there’s also tension among the two people who say they don’t want to be identified as either red or blue – even for this exercise. Those two people also happen to be the only two people of color in the room – Carl and Cedric.
Marcia flips the coin after asking Darrell, a Red, to call it.
Marcia: Okay, it was heads.
Darrell: I did not see it.
Everything is complicated with a group that’s now very comfortable with one another. But Marcia has bigger fish to fry and plows ahead.
Marcia: Okay, the Blues – go to the middle of the fishbowl, please.
We have ten people today – but only three are sitting in the middle now, happily identifying as Blues. Morgan, Jim, and Lee.
Marcia is troubled by the lopsidedness. She asks for volunteers – two more people to join the Blue group.
Carl reluctantly decides he’ll sit with the Blues.
Bruce, who up until now has identified as a Conservative, also steps up.
Bruce: I’ll volunteer to make it even.
Joe, who self-identifies as right of Attila the Hun, also offers – but he gets laughter from the peanut gallery…
Joe: I could have played the role…
Peanut gallery: No, you couldn’t!!
Marcia asks the Blues to explore how their policies help the country.
Morgan is up first.
Morgan: I see our policies as redistributing wealth to people who need it from the people who have gained it or inherited it in an uneven playing field. And I see our party finding ways to elevate the roles and equality of women and people who are marginalized. And I find our policies also work to end the violence in our country through restrictive gun measures.
Jim says it’s about a woman’s right to choose and control their own bodies.
Jim: I also think that the concept that a corporation is a person that has a right to free speech and to spend money unrestrained in our election process is completely wrong. Corporations are made up of people but they are not people.
And, says Jim, health care. If health care is for-profit, he argues, the focus is on making money by charging more and offering fewer services.
Jim: One of the great benefits of the liberal movement today is to raise awareness.
Bruce: The liberal movement today raises awareness of women’s rights, the inequality for women in the labor market, the distortions of income… Equality is not equality of outcomes. Equality is the equality of opportunity so everybody has the opportunity to drive to an outcome good for everybody and themselves.
Remember, Bruce identifies as a conservative.
Lee, a true Blue, says he grew up in a Conservative household and values the civil rights movement which, he says, has benefitted women, African-Americans, and people in the LGBTQ community.
Lee: 20 years ago I would not have believed that marriage between people of the same gender would be acceptable -- let alone legal and part of the law of this land. And I think that’s important.
Carl, our reluctant Blue, gamely offers something.
Carl: This is difficult for me – so I’m just going to say that the whole equality conversation… and looking for people’s rights and all of that is of importance to me… I’ll say that.
Bruce: Let me talk a little bit about something else related to this…
No one seems to notice Carl’s deep conflict… And I can’t ask about it yet because we’re still in the exercise…
Now the Blues have to explore the reservations they hold about their policies.
Jim talks about the validity of states’ rights.
Jim: The way I see this country is with a strong central government… but there’s a strong movement and there always has been to have each state control itself. And I understand there’s a difference between how Maine conducts itself and how Texas conducts itself…
He veers quickly back to the things that he says should be legislated at the Federal level – gun control, womens’ rights, health care…
Carl speaks up again.
Carl: The majority of what’s being said at this table has been said before. It’s a lot of conversation with no action. I’d like to see people follow through on anything that’s been said at this table. Anything.
It’s a small window into why he didn’t want to put his support behind Red or Blue…
Bruce: I think there is a reservation about redistribution of wealth.
Bruce is worried about how we define fairness.
Bruce: What is fair to somebody else is not fair to me.
Lee’s reservations are less policy-focused and land more in the logistical arena. It’s good, he says, to have a health care system that provides freedom from the concern of a financially catastrophic health event. But how do you do it?
Lee: I worry about people in government designing systems. A camel is a horse designed by committee.
Now it’s time for the Reds to enter the fishbowl. The Blues will observe.
Marcia: Okay, is this everybody?
Darrell: This is everybody.
Marcia: Cedric, you’re not going to join us?
Joe: It’s your loss.
Darrell: He’s an independent.
Again, the group of four is light-hearted about Cedric’s refusal to align with a party. But Cedric is serious.
We move on to the first question for the Reds: which Republican policies do you think are helping the country?
Kathryn says Republican policies in general have been good for the economy. Just look at the stock market.
Kathryn: You know, it’s up and down – it’s always up and down – but I think it’s much stronger than it’s ever been if you look back over the history of the stock market.
Darrell: One of the greatest advantages to the conservative viewpoint is decentralization. We want to bring it down to the individual making the decisions and then progressively up. We do not like centralization of decision-making – particularly in some place that is not familiar with our individual situations.
Joe: I think the effort on the part of the -- doing away with many, many of the government regulations that have put limits on productivity and what one can accomplish…
Joe: Also if you think in terms of the policy that Republicans or Conservatives espouse it’s that they do not want the judiciary to legislate from the bench – but rather interpret the law – not make new law.
Connette wants to see health care that’s not done by committee.
Now it’s time for their reservations. Kathryn kicks it off again.
Kathryn: Probably the biggest reservation I have right now is this whole Second Amendment issue. I believe that we have a Second Amendment and we have to be honest and true to it, but I don’t believe in the assault rifle, if you will… and I think we have to do something about that.
Darrell: My reservations are greed. The conservative viewpoint tends to be identified with capitalism… a lot of people are greedy and use the capitalistic system to satisfy their own greed.
Joe: Although I subscribe to the policies that we’re trying to accomplish – and this is a problem with both sides – is that there’s no compromise. There are members of my side that will not compromise.
Darrell: To quote Maya Angelou, I think we’re more alike than we are different…
Connette: There is still too much in DC being handled by committees who have no idea what they’re talking about.
…And on that note, the first part of the exercise concludes…
You’re listening to Beneath The Surface… When we come back from the break, it’s a discussion – led by our Better Angels facilitator Marcia Gelman – about what our participants learned… or at least – that was the agenda for part two of the Fish Bowl exercise…
And just a production note: we had lunch before the discussion. That may become evident from some of the sounds – and that may be evident to you from some of the sounds…
Segment 2 & 3 -- no transcript.
Better Angels Red & Blue Workshops: