Lang Waters: When passion rules |

Lang Waters: When passion rules

Other Voices
Lang Waters

We need look no further than the opinion pages to see how tribalism is dividing us.

Few things seem to slow the steady rise in the heat of our group decision making process, our experiment in democracy.

At the national level discourse is toxic, and the loss of civility in the marketplace of ideas is the new normal. Conservative commentator David Brooks referred to the sociological concepts of conflict theory and mistake theory earlier this year when trying to make sense of what’s happening to cause our crisis in polarization.

Mistake theory holds that the world is complicated, and most of our problems arise from mistakes, not evil intent. We can use the analogy of our body politic as a physical body that’s afflicted with an ailment. We’re all doctors standing around the body discussing how to cure the patient. We’re researching, testing, reducing passion, increasing patience, and engaged in dialogue in order to come to a decision. There is a fundamental assumption of good faith of all involved, that we are all seeking to find the cure, and that together we can arrive at the best decision.

As David says in his article, “This remains my basic understanding of how citizenship is supposed to work.”

Conflict theory conceives of politics as war. Conflict theory does not assume good faith in actors, and it does not assume the equal right of multiple perspectives because one side of the conflict is Right and the other side is Wrong. Issues aren’t resolved based on sound reasoning but rather who has the most power. This is true whether the debate is with North Korea about nukes, within Congress over tax cuts, with your boss for a raise, or with your kids about curfew. Passion is valued over debate because debate simply sows confusion or serves to dilute energy needed to win.

It’s not difficult to see where a conflict theorist is headed — straight into conflict. The barricades must be stormed in order to overthrow the oppressors.

When passion rules there’s a fundamental mistrust of the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. The real crisis right now is not the rise or decline of either party, it’s the loss of trust among us.

And that of course is precisely where we must start if we’re going to make things better — we need to establish trust with each other again, and to do that we must listen.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1861

Better Angels ( is one of many organizations working to depolarize America. Better Angels brings reds and blues together in equal numbers to listen to each other and to learn how to communicate with one another face to face. The focus is never on agreement. The focus is on removing stereotypes about each other, learning about and understanding each other. Positive testimonials from participants on both sides abound. Better Angels pledge that:

As individuals, we try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it.

In our communities, we engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.

In politics, we support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.

In early June of this year 150 delegates — half red and half blue — representing more than 3,100 dues-paying members of Better Angels, gathered at the Better Angels Founding Convention in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Delegates unanimously adopted a declaration ( that is inspiring and hopeful to anyone who believes we can all behave better towards one another, that there are more interesting and productive ways to engage.

In my America, civility is not weakness. In my America, those who disagree with me are not evil. In my America, reason giving is preferable to name calling. In my America, rancor and vitriol are not needed for political success.

People on both sides of the fence believe this, but it takes courage to do something real about it, to meet face to face and talk.

Our problems will not be solved with comments on social media. Our problems will only be solved with the hard work of rebuilding our trust and relationships, one at a time, face to face.

Lang Waters lives in Nevada City.

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