As the cold and darkness of winter gradually retreats and the unprecedented disruptions of recent years fade into the past, somehow a sense of dread still hangs over us. Our news reports feature one furious and insoluble cultural conflict after another, quoting politicians and pundits more focused on vilifying the other side than proposing solutions.

Leaders of our national institutions strain our trust when they routinely make pronouncements which fundamentally contradict what we know, casually branding those who object as immoral or conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, whether we stay silent in mixed company, or withdraw for fruitless commiseration with those we know agree, most of us cede the public square to the fringe and the reactionaries, while incendiary talk of “national divorce” increasingly peppers the headlines.

Another time when the hotheads dominated American politics, it took a devastating Civil War to shock enough of us into finally heeding a weary president’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” And although our nation has remained intact throughout many eras of violent disagreement since, we must never underestimate how trillions of fever-pitch public and private arguments can increase general resentment and distrust to levels that drive entire civilizations over a cliff.

Starting with civil discussion

The citizen-led organization, originally named Better Angels, but now known as Braver Angels, echoes Abraham Lincoln’s wise message to a nation as it barely survived this harshest of lessons. Braver Angels volunteers believe that our democracy stays strongest when we all adhere to the standards of civil discourse. 

The Braver Angels Way started out as the brainchild of Bill Doherty, an accomplished family and marriage therapist, working with friends from across the political spectrum to build a new way for everyday Americans of all political stripes to gather and practice together the art of listening to understand rather than listening to respond.

Braver Angels moderators employ techniques proven to help couples on the verge of divorce, combined with the proudest traditions of American civic engagement, to coax “Reds” and “Blues” (our shorthand for Democrats and Republicans) to discard stereotypes and pejoratives, drop our knee-jerk habits of strawmanning and defensiveness, and just talk with our neighbors on a human level.

Through patriotic-empathy, we can show love for our country by refusing to dismiss our fellow citizens as “woke” or “deplorable,” even if they vote in ways we may think are crazy. In eight years this remarkable movement to revitalize respectful civic engagement has expanded to nearly every state, including North Carolina. 

Building momentum in NC

Judging by the growing demand for Braver Angels events since North Carolina’s first Red/Blue Workshop in Durham in 2018, North Carolinians have grown weary of the acrimony that threatens to balkanize our country and hamper cooperation within our communities — even within our families.

Braver Angels of North Carolina has partnered with our churches, libraries, Rotary clubs, and many other N.C. organizations to host a multitude of local events and trainings across our state. Attendees cultivated curiosity about what really motivates those with whom they passionately disagree, and were often surprised to discover how often they see eye to eye on underlying values. And even when full agreement was not possible, people from opposing political camps reported a growing mutual respect for and trust in each other as they learned the Braver Angels ethos together. You can read about this ongoing progress in the Braver Angels of North Carolina newsletter.

Although I was born elsewhere, I did most of my growing up in a small town in North Carolina. So I know from personal experience the people here are this state’s greatest asset. Despite my distinct lack of athletic prowess, one of my favorite Middle School teachers was my P.E. teacher, Mr. Bigelow. I remember him with gratitude. He’d often remind anyone jeering at a teammate over a missed ball, “A great catch is the responsibility of BOTH he who catches AND he who throws.”

His point applies generally too: In any human venture, both participants should strive for accuracy and share responsibility for the outcome. Braver Angels events regularly demonstrate how well-executed conversations, like a great pass, can bridge the partisan divide and unify us as a people. Although N.C. is generally considered a “Red” state, Braver Angels membership here still skews “Blue,” and so we need more conservatives to join the team.   

The Braver Angels Way epitomizes what the country’s founding fathers understood about how to preserve a fragile peace when worldviews collide. Across time and geography, human civilizations tend to prosper and endure to the extent they settle a conflict of visions with dialogue rather than drawn swords. Learning how to talk with people “as a Braver Angel would” takes practice, and sometimes feels a little scary. Indeed, the lessons are difficult to teach at scale. But that is a challenge that Braver Angels volunteers have met with clever solutions and cheerful zeal.

We resist the emotional high of righteous convictions, to instead risk feeling dumb and defenseless, to humbly imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, because it is vital for Americans to better understand and value their fellows in this free and pluralistic “nation of immigrants.” Why not visit Braver Angels North Carolina and join the conversation? After all, we citizens — every one of us — are this representative democracy’s best hope.

Better to go do, than just sit and stew.