Could Marriage Counseling Heal America’s Political Divide?

Illustration courtesy of HelpsGood

Back in the 1970s, Kingsley Amis—the grumpy British novelist now remembered mostly as the father of the slightly less grumpy novelist Martin—made a remark that even today holds a high place in the anthologies of human grumpiness: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” Amis died in 1995, so he had the misfortune of living to see the workshop triumph as the primary means of socialization and instruction in American commercial and cultural life. He might have even lived long enough to hear the noun turned into a verb: “We really need to workshop this …” It might have been what finally killed him.

Grumpy myself, I share Amis’s dim view of the workshop as a sly instrument of regimentation, a technique of smiley-faced uniformity, a venue for mandatory “sharing” and ostentatious empathy. For a grump, the workshop’s ties to group therapy make it immediately suspect. Its implementation in aid to the trendy causes of human-resources departments confirms the worst suspicions. The sight of easels and flip charts and fat Sharpies has the power, for some of us, to induce feelings of deep trauma.

Yet there I was one bright summer Sunday, wreathed in skepticism, gathered with a dozen others in the community room of a suburban public library in Northern Virginia to test whether this nation, or any nation so fragmented and so polarized, can be united and saved by a workshop.

This was not just any workshop, of course. I was at a “skills workshop” put on by a grassroots citizens’ group called Better Angels. The group got its start in the shell-shocked weeks right after the 2016 election, and it takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s famous plea, in his first inaugural address, that his divided countrymen heed the “better angels of our nature.” (They didn’t.)

Paid-up membership in Better Angels stands at a little over 8,000, but the group creates a commotion bigger than that of organizations many times its size. On any given day somebody somewhere in the United States is hosting an event like the one I attended. There are an average of eight to 10 such events a week. The mission everywhere is the same, explained by the inspirational mottoes on the posters the organizers had hung in the library. “Let’s depolarize America!” “Start a conversation, not a fight.”

The skills workshop teaches workshoppers how to do this with specially designed techniques for listening and speaking to people whose political views differ from their own. It is just one item on the Angels’ menu of workshops, which also include highly stylized public debates between liberals and conservatives (called “blues” and “reds”), and a relatively new session, “Depolarizing Within,” during which one is taught to turn inward and depolarize oneself, in preparation for depolarizing the rest of us. BA’s work has been featured on PBS and NPR, both of which strongly approve.

Lots of organizations are in the civility business these days, as irenic activists recoil in horror at the rhetorical violence and deep division that have come to characterize American political disputation. Living Room Conversations, Bridge the Divide, Make America Dinner Again—all have the same goal of calming our heated debate by bringing well-meaning people out of their cultural bubbles, those insular Facebook feeds and message boards and book clubs where people talk only with people who think the way they do and express growing alarm at people who don’t.

The success of the civility movement over the past several years is hard to gauge, though the level of public rancor suggests that it is not really catching on. From one perspective, these organizations seem to have succeeded mostly in forming a new bubble—what activists call “the civil-dialogue space.” Americans are beginning countless dialogues about how important it is to begin a dialogue.

Better Angels is different from its counterparts, and more worthy of attention, for at least two reasons. First is the rigorous and ingenious design of the workshops, nearly all of it bearing the imprint of Bill Doherty, a prominent family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and a co-founder of Better Angels. Doherty is what you might call a therapy entrepreneur, creating different counseling programs and marketing them to willing customers—“educating couples in all stages of stuckness,” as the Doherty Relationship Institute website puts it. Beyond his private practice with families and couples, Doherty specializes in public programs of the kind BA now offers. One of his recent initiatives was the Police and Black Men Project, which brings together cops and African American men “to develop relationships of honesty and trust.” (Not sure this one’s catching on either.) “Bill’s the one who realized that most of the techniques of family therapy, the tools to resolve intrafamily conflicts, could be used to resolve intrasocial conflicts too,” says David Blankenhorn, the president of Better Angels and another of its co-founders.

Doherty’s workshops are an artful mashup of techniques shared not only by psychotherapy but also by America’s vast facilitation industry of life coaches, diversity instructors, and leadership counselors. As a business sector, facilitation is too ubiquitous to be a mere “space.” Better Angels deploys role-playing, fishbowl discussions, scripted Q&A sessions, and other exercises that will be familiar to every workshopping citizen. They all have an impeccable American pedigree. In Better Angels, one sees traces of Carl Rogers and Richard Farson’s Active Listening and Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, from the 1960s. Several sessions contain elements that resemble Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—a big hit in the ’90s—particularly habits 4, 5, and 6 (“Think Win/Win,” “Seek First to Understand,” and “Synergize”). There are also echoes of John Dewey’s “reflective thinking” and his six steps to group problem-solving. Dewey came up with his program in 1910. We have been trying to teach one another to be civil for a long time.

BA’s second distinction is what the Angels sometimes call the 50-50 rule: At all organizational levels—from the leaders of the local chapters to the paid and volunteer staff members who keep the enterprise going—Better Angels insists on precise parity between reds and blues. Achieving this is not easy. The great weakness of the civil-dialogue space is that it tends to bring liberals into dialogue with other liberals, while conservatives, if they even notice, look on in horror or puzzlement. This is nobody’s fault, just a matter of taste and self-selection. “That whole ‘workshopology’ industry,” as Blankenhorn calls it, “skews blue.” If you don’t insist on the presence of reds, he says, “it just turns into blue BS very quickly.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson