Politics, social issues, and a global health crisis are keeping polarization and division at an all-time high in the United States. And while it may be tempting to avoid engaging in discussions—or arguments—with those who think or feel differently about some of the issues, that doesn’t solve anything.
The Better Arguments Project, a national civic initiative spearheaded by Allstate, the Aspen Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves, believes the United States can live up to its promise, not by having fewer arguments, but by having better ones.
The Better Arguments Project is rooted in five principles:
- Take winning off the table
- Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
- Pay attention to context
- Embrace vulnerability
- Make room to transform
Throughout the country, the Better Arguments Project has seen what can happen when communities come together to tackle issues that have divided them. Good arguments are grounded in history, emotionally intelligent, and honest about power dynamics. Arguments don’t have to drive us apart; rather, having better arguments can help us understand one another more fully and forge new solutions together.
The Better Arguments Project has visited communities in Alaska, New York, Colorado, Michigan, and Arkansas, emphasizing these principles and giving people the tools to engage in passionate and productive discussions. The project hosts regular trainings, free and open to the public, that teach people its framework for constructive and empathetic disagreement, and it produces resources that apply its approach in various contexts, notably including a middle and high school curriculum.
Training leaders to bring the concepts to life
And Better Arguments is expanding its reach. It recently announced the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive educational experience to train leaders in the Better Arguments Project’s framework for constructive and empathetic disagreement.
The inaugural group of 15 ambassadors includes individuals with a range of backgrounds from across the country. They will complete nine training modules virtually for two hours each week to build leadership skills for simulating meaningful dialogue. Each ambassador will ultimately design a project to bring Better Arguments concepts to their respective communities and receive seed funding to assist with implementation.
One of the ambassadors is Helga Penner. After 37 years as a claim service leader at Allstate, she’s retiring soon and is eager to engage more with her community in the Baltimore area. In her application for the program, Penner noted that she has grown discouraged in the past year and a half as various issues have continued to polarize the country.
Penner said the Better Arguments principle of not arguing less but arguing better especially resonated with her. She hopes to use it in her church in downtown Baltimore, where she’s confident it could help build “understanding, compassion, and a promising future.”
“The issues that divide us are numerous, and forums to discuss these divides in a productive and enlightening way are difficult to find,” she says.
Penner has grown disheartened as she’s observed contentious discourse in person and particularly on social media.
“Ideals are reduced to memes that are often mean-spirited, factually inaccurate, and/or promote an ‘us vs. them’ attitude,” she says. “This applies to both those I agree with and those I disagree with. Social media has contributed to the breakdown of civility in expression and attempting to understand other viewpoints.”
It’s why Penner, who characterizes herself as someone who dislikes conflict and has adopted a strategy that involves avoiding sensitive topics, decided to apply for the Better Arguments Project’s Ambassador Program.
“I believe that becoming a Better Arguments Ambassador would be one way for me to help build and strengthen local communities,” she says. “At this moment, I personally feel that call with the goal of creating deeper relationships and a more nuanced understanding among the members of communities in which I participate.”
Penner and her fellow ambassadors are blazing a trail for people across the U.S. to follow. They’re demonstrating how individuals of all stripes can harness the principles of Better Arguments to help their communities rise above intractable debates to bridge divides.
Their answer is not to avoid but to engage.