A March 23 assembly organized by Max Koehler ’22 brought representatives from the nonprofit organization Braver Angels to Concord Academy to address a pressing challenge to democracy: widening political polarization. This event in the Performing Arts Center engaged students in practical approaches individuals can use to recognize and quiet one’s “inner polarizer” in order to improve conversation, particularly about divisive political topics.
Introducing the speakers, Max said he brought this discussion to the whole school out of a desire to encourage greater expression of ideological diversity, “challenge our arguments, question our beliefs, ask curious questions, and express ourselves well when we are challenged on our thinking.” The two Braver Angels presenters, Bob Scheier and Massachusetts State Representative Lenny Mirra, took the stage, wearing, respectively, a blue and a red shirt representing their political affiliations.
Together, they gave tips on recognizing when one is stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, or expressing contempt for another person—in short, when one’s immediate reactions to a person expressing an ideological or political difference are dehumanizing. These behaviors, they said, are “poisonous for our political debate, and for ourselves.”
An antidote they outlined was to make distinctions: between positions and people, policies and values, inconsistencies and hypocrisy. As they rehearsed for their audience, quieting one’s inner polarizer—and responding more effectively—involves a repeated process of listening to another, acknowledging their concerns and emotions, pivoting to ask if they’re open to hearing another viewpoint, and then sharing one’s own perspective. At the heart of this approach that volunteers like Scheier and Mirra share through Braver Angels is a focus on respect for the other person.
“Being a depolarizer is pragmatic, not idealistic,” Scheirer said. The goal is not to change anyone’s mind but rather to “arrive at a point where the other side says, ‘Now you understand.’” This isn’t a small achievement, Mirra added, noting that in his work he has seen “families torn apart” by political differences—and becoming more aware of one’s reactions and committing to depolarizing is “one of the most pragmatic things we can do” to reverse this trend.
Scheirer addressed the personal benefits of making this commitment. After a year or so, he found himself more open-minded. “I’m not walking around as angry, frustrated, and depressed as I used to be,” he said. “I see the other side as sincere people I may not agree with.”
In a Q&A following the presentation, CA students reflected with the campus community about how inclusive CA is or isn’t of a range of political beliefs. They also asked the presenters, respectfully, some challenging questions—about facts versus opinions, the centrality of human rights when an opposing position aims to restrict them, and how to counter the influence of a polarized news media landscape.
Speaking to that final point, Mirra advised consuming news widely and keeping in mind that so many issues are “extremely complicated.” If you get information from only one outlet, he said, “it will only make you more polarized.”