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Ours is a country that thrives on passion. However, recently, the U.S. has become divided by individuals and political parties with such extremely diverse passions that they appear, at first glance, completely incompatible. Braver Angels, braverangels.org, is a national organization that works to turn this passionate energy and these differences to the good.

Compassion is a necessary tool to salvage this good from the anger of conflicting, often entrenched, belief. Braver Angels has developed, and continues to develop, a large variety of highly creative approaches to introduce such compassion in ways that accomplish a union of equals across divides. One of these approaches, using the workshop format, was created by a Braver Angel founder who had directed the “Couples on the Brink” Project in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.

His strategy is to focus on common interests and goals to develop rapport among the participants before addressing their differences. This has now been applied successfully throughout the country in an effort to mitigate the embroiling hatred that has been accelerating across many polarizing beliefs.

And indeed, Braver Angels has found that people do share a good number of passions — most being common to our culture, government and even our species. Bringing those shared passions together creates the necessary compassion that allows respect across the divide of strongly held differences.

The term “dog whistle” has been applied to certain phrases, phrases that elicit an immediate gut reaction. The extent of our divides today has created “dog whistle” issues: gun control, the 1619 project, communism, capitalism, the seemingly neutral “exploration of forms of government,” Black lives matter, comprehensive sex education, climate change. Even certain dates trigger immediate core intolerance: January 6, 9/11.

The complexity of the powers that divide us, and the sometimes elusive factors that come into play were recently brought to life in a presentation at a recent library conference about misinformation, information possibly well-intended but factually incorrect. The example used involved a woman dating a person who made her unhappy: text messages from that person put her down, their time together was horrible. Her friends noticed the change in her and pointed out how miserable she had become. They insisted, “This is the wrong partner for you!”

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Here the facts were understood, but the behavior, the dating, did not stop. What were those powers that blocked the appropriate reaction to an acknowledged fact: find a different partner! Belief alone, clearly, was not enough. So what other factors made change so difficult — and what approach might have led to a healthy change in behavior?

High on the list of inhibiting factors appears to be the simple fact that admitting one has been wrong is hard! Taking on the inherent risk of change is hard: Will I lose the new set of friends that came into my life through this partner? Won’t I feel ashamed of my weaknesses now so clearly revealed? Will I be alone?

Studies suggest that, contrary to common belief, presenting alternate “facts” do not necessarily backfire, do not necessarily entrench false ideas. Nevertheless, even when the truth does change belief in the original “fact,” such change in belief is often insufficient to engender change in behavior.

The Braver Angels approach often involves some combination of four factors conveyed through another person. That other person must be clearly perceived as sympathetic, as benevolent, as competent and as open. Braver Angels emphasizes, particularly, the last of these: people need people who will hear them out, who are willing to carefully consider the nature of their current behavior and belief, and who are open to changing their own belief after the conversation.

Braver Angels has sought out many ways to create such active listening situations: there is a film club and a book club; one-on-one conversations are set up between people with opposing views from different parts of the country; training sessions are provided to help open dialogue in different situations: within the family, at work, in political discussions, within education and within scientific discussion. Debates are staged between experts with opportunity for small-group participation after the event; and forums are held in which to consider opposing ideas in a neutral, respectful setting. New approaches continue to evolve as the organization grows.

See braverangels.org to learn about these efforts in compassion and to find the Vermont Chapter and the New England Alliances.

With Brattleboro voting overwhelmingly to become part of the international Charter for Compassion, the Reformer and The Commons have agreed to publish a “Compassion Story of the Month.” This is the 61st. Submissions, from Brattleboro area residents, for future publication, not to exceed 650 words, should be emailed to: compassionstory@gmail.com or mailed to: Compassion Story of the Month, PO Box 50, Marlboro, VT 05344.

Compassionate Brattleboro is an active supporter of Braver Angels, and has initiated multiple workshops and conversations on challenging topics within our own community. If you would like to pursue an issue on which present polarized opinion appears problematic, please email us at compassionstory@gmail.com.