America is ideologically split, and if the animosity over the 2020 election results is any indication, we may be fast losing the ability to bridge the divide.
But is there be a way to reconnect?
Could we learn how to discuss our beliefs with opposing friends, family and acquaintances — perhaps over Zoom or socially distanced get-togethers this holiday season — and have a dialogue in which we disagree, yet emerge on the other side feeling understood?
That’s the premise behind The Better Arguments Project, a civic initiative by the Aspen Institute, Facing History and Ourselves, and Allstate, that wants to teach us how to have more productive arguments. These conversations don’t have to drive us apart, the group says. In fact, by learning to argue ‘better,” we can come together.
CNN discussed the group’s work with Caroline Hopper, managing director of the Citizenship & American Identity Program at The Aspen Institute, which sponsors The Better Arguments Project. The chat has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: What is a “better” argument?
Caroline Hopper: A “better” argument is a way of engaging across differences, not by setting those differences aside, but by engaging them directly. A better argument is rooted in history, emotionally intelligent, and honest about power imbalances, and it follows key principles of constructive communication.
The goal of a better argument is not necessarily to change anyone’s mind, but rather to change how we engage with one another on any given issue.
A better argument allows participants to care about one another, not just one another’s opinion about the issue. We ask participants to “be human first.” What we mean by that is you shouldn’t only engage with each other about your opinions; share more about yourself and seek to learn more about the person with whom you are engaging. Otherwise, you will only see one another only as opponents, rather than as people representing very full lives and experiences that are shaping those opinions.
The priority is to walk away from that interaction caring more about that other person than about whether or not you won that argument — be human first.
CNN: Why would we want to argue at a time when we are so bitter and frustrated?
Hopper: I can see that saying we need arguments of any kind, even if they are “better,” may feel backward in a moment like this when we feel so divided. It may be more natural to promote efforts to find common ground, to call for civility.
I think that’s something a lot of families are saying to each other: “Can we just keep this civil?”
Too often, civility is misconstrued as the mere absence of argument. When we politely decline to share our true opinions or ignore our true experiences, what we are really doing is giving up our public discourse to the most polarized voices.
We know that these voices are going to be heard, they’re on TV, and they already have enough of a platform, enough power.
The more we step away from each other — the more we rely on the polarized narratives that we have access to because that’s all we have access to — the more we disagree and dislike one another. It’s a dangerous self-perpetuating cycle.
We can break that cycle by hearing from more Americans. By inviting argument, in one sense we are saying to all Americans that your voice, your perspective, your experience matters — even if it is not represented in the dominant discourse. We are simply not getting the information that we need to make informed decisions if we are only engaging with people who agree with us.
By sharing different ideas and points of view, we often emerge with deeper insights and stronger solutions to the problems that affect us all.
When we are able to have those conversations, we are saying to everyone: “Your voice matters, your perspective matters, your experience matters.”
However, the arguments in American politics today are inadequate. We need to find better ways to engage across difference. That’s where we believe better arguments can come in.
CNN: What are the building blocks of a better argument?
Hopper: There are three dimensions to a better argument. Think of it as the conditions that must be met before you can actually engage in a discussion.
The first dimension is history. We know that today’s civic arguments are rooted in history — a sort of recapitulation of arguments that have been had in the past.
A great example of this is the tension between liberty and equality, such as today’s debate over whether or not people should have to wear masks. Fundamentally that is a debate between the American principles of liberty and equality. And so history matters, and it needs to be reflected in a better argument.
The second dimension is emotion. We know that emotion can steer discourse just as much as any facts. Hope and fear, in particular, are really driving forces.
A better argument is one in which we seek to understand why the other party may be feeling a certain way, rather than just negating how that party is feeling.
The third category is power, or power imbalances. We know that in civil discourse people are reckoning with all kinds of power imbalances, and so a better argument is one in which those imbalances are acknowledged and leveled out as much as possible.
Those three things are the foundation that we are standing on if we’re going to have a better argument. With that foundation we can actually engage, and the way that we engage is laid out in the five principles of engagement.
CNN: What are the five principles of engagement?
Hopper: The first principle is to take winning off the table. This is perhaps the most essential and the most difficult principle to put into practice, as many public arguments are surfacing in contexts where there’s so much at stake, particularly in election season.
A better argument cannot be about winning or defeating the other side. It’s really about prioritizing the exchange of ideas, whatever the topic of the argument. If you can set that as a boundary, it really allows for a more open discussion.
The second principle is to pay attention to context. Opinions are not formed in a vacuum. Our opinions are informed by all kinds of context, whether it’s lived experiences, information we have access to or cultures we practice. A better argument is one in which participants seek to understand these influences.
Often, a better argument is rooted in the context of a specific place, a city or region. It needs to be local leaders who are determining what needs to be argued; who needs to be represented in that room; and how that conversation needs to be shaped in order to reflect the needs and opportunities of that location.
Number three is about prioritizing relationships and listening passionately. An argument can become a better argument when we start the conversation with that human connection — when we’re prepared to actually listen to understand the other person, instead of listening to form a rebuttal.
Number four is embrace vulnerability. A better argument requires us to step outside of our comfort zones and entertain ideas that aren’t going to just reconfirm what you already believe and what you already think.
The more we do that, the more other people will do it — it has a domino effect and has to start somewhere. Ideally, it will be led by our leaders who should be modeling this behavior. But we don’t need to wait for someone else to set a good example. We each have the power to do this.
Finally, number five is be open to transformation. We cannot even think about changing someone else’s mind if we’re not willing to have our own mind changed. We have to be open to transformation in order for a better argument to be just that.
It really is an invitation to reflect about things that may otherwise be automatic to us — things for which we simply seek confirmation when we listen to the news or when we engage with people who are like-minded.
We end our Better Arguments workshops with an invitation for that kind of reflection. We have a prompt that asks people to consider what they walked in thinking and what they’re leaving thinking, and to name one action they will take as a result of that.
These commitments to action could range from really simple things like, “I will keep in touch with the person that I argued with today.” We’ve also seen really profound commitments to action. For example, one person committed to changing his workplace policies based on nuances that he learned by arguing with someone, and he did just that.
CNN: What if you’re listening to someone and their opinion is based on misinformation. How do you get over that hurdle?
Hopper: We can challenge each other’s factual statements if they are not true, but we cannot challenge each other’s emotional reaction to a situation.
For example, a person should not challenge someone telling them: “I am upset about the outcome of this election because it makes me feel afraid.” Rather, we should seek to understand more about why that opinion is held.
But if someone said, “I am upset about the outcome of this election because 50% of the people who voted were fraudulent voters.” We should challenge that statement on the basis of fact.
So we need to be interacting within a realm of fact, but we also need to leave room for human emotion, feelings like hope and fear, which we know can absolutely steer discourse in this country just as much as facts can. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s interpretation of the facts is correct.
Importantly, there is a line that should not be crossed. A better argument is one in which the humanity and human rights of all parties are respected. Bigotry and hatred have no place in a better argument.
CNN: Does The Better Arguments Project provide fact-based, nonpartisan materials on hot-button topics?
Hopper: We offer with groups to create toolkits to have better arguments about a specific topic. To give you an example, one of our toolkits is about voter identification policies. It’s all about having confidence in our election process and feeling like our elections have integrity.
On the one side of the issue are people who believe that an election has more integrity, when everyone who can vote is able to vote. They believe in few barriers to casting a vote including voter ID policies.
On the other side, there are people who believe that an election has more integrity if it is secure from any form of fraud, and that voter ID policies are one of the best ways that we have to protect against fraud.
We always try to have at least one expert from each side of the issue reviewing all of our content, confirming it and providing sources for us to include. The discussion guide includes some facts about voter ID policies, about voter fraud and then this nonpartisan information.
CNN: All of this sounds tough and a bit overwhelming.
Hopper: Better arguments are hard work. There is inherent risk in showing up, and a successful better argument absolutely depends on participants’ willingness to be open, honest and vulnerable with each other.
If we are engaging in any situation that is not going to simply reconfirm our existing worldviews, vulnerability is necessary.
It’s really scary, especially in a culture of cancellation, where you are shunned from your own ideological circles if you step outside of them. Yes, it is difficult to do that.
That’s why we believe this behavior must also be modeled by leaders of all kinds. We believe this kind of behavior is contagious, and the more people who model this, the more people will feel free to do so themselves.
CNN: Does Better Arguments provide training — in person or online? What other groups have similar programs?
Hopper: We offer interactive trainings each month, as well as a range of resources to introduce key concepts and to practice applying those concepts to your own life and community — whether that community is a town, a classroom, a workplace or a family gathered around the dinner table. These resources are nonpartisan, created in partnership with organizations representing the range of experiences and opinions about any given issue.
There are leaders in communities around the country who have been organizing to bring people together to confront difficult issues for generations. By offering tools and resources through the Better Arguments Project, we intend to support these leaders to continue and build on their existing work.
Living Room Conversations is another organization that offers great resources. They offer conversational models that approach difficult issues in a way that helps to facilitate connection.
CNN: How did The Better Arguments Project come to be?
Hopper: Interestingly, it began in 2016, just before the election. It was a moment remarkably similar to where we are today, where a significant portion of our country felt left out, frustrated and ultimately betrayed. And so the question became, “How can we move forward together?”
There were so many, very well-intentioned calls for finding common ground. But we think that if we only focus on that, it’s really dangerous because we would be brushing things under the rug and unintentionally perpetuating divisions and injustices as we have so many times throughout our history. We know that we need to find ways to disagree with one another that are not as destructive as they are right now.
It is possible for us to work across our differences to forge solutions together. We just need to discover those opportunities together. The only way to find that out is by actually engaging with one another.
Too many Thanksgiving or Election Day disagreements? Here’s how to have a better argument The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ CNN.