Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Are We In a Transformational Moment?
Featuring John Wood Jr.
Life has gotten a lot better for a lot of people. But the story of upward movement, while true overall, is not felt equally across society. We see the consequences of that playing out in the United States, where tension over our immediate failures, not celebration over our big-picture successes, carries the day. In this episode, we speak with public intellectual John Wood Jr, a national leader at Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to depolarizing politics, about the power of inner transformation to fuel societal change and how a multiplicity of American identities and stories can be unproblematic if we develop a new national sensibility of goodwill.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? A question that we do not ask nearly as much as we think at The Progress Network that we should ask, which is why we are having a series of conversations in this podcast with people who are asking that question, if not in those explicit words, then in the nature of their work, the nature of their ideas, the nature of their ambition and the nature of their striving. The whole idea behind The Progress Network is to bring together people with a shared sensibility that the future can be the collective sum of our hopes and not the collective product of our fears. And there is a whole plethora of peeps out there whose work and ideas point in that direction, but we’re not nearly as aware of it because they simply don’t have the critical mass in the world that we’re living in. So in that spirit, Emma and I decided today—Emma Varvaloucas, and I’m Zachary Karabell—decided today to have a conversation with John Wood, who is both a member of The Progress Network and is himself a thinker, but also a doer, a doer in trying to bring together people to help point in a direction of collective action and not collective discord.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Well, yeah, a little bit more information about him. He’s a national ambassador for Braver Angels, which is a depolarization organization. We can’t seem to agree on a lot of things in American politics, but I think we can certainly agree that we need to agree more and disagree less. So that’s what Braver Angels is trying to do is trying to bridge divides. John’s also the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. And he writes a lot in particular about racial and political reconciliation. And I should give his podcast a shout-out as well, Braver Angel’s Podcast, where John interviews a milieu of extremely interesting thinkers. It’s one of my favorites. But yeah, that’s a long way of saying I’m excited to talk to John.
ZK: And first, before we go to his podcast, we’re going to go to our podcast.
EV: Here we go.
ZK: So it’s a great pleasure to be here today, talking with you, John. You’ve had an extraordinary career in a brief amount of time, and I’m sure that will augur an extraordinary career in a much longer amount of time, but that will be a longer amount of time than our currently designated podcast time. And I think one of the things that’s particularly attractive about the work that you’ve been doing uh, and therefore in sync with the work that we’re trying to promote and engender and support and promulgate via The Progress Network is, you know, taking a step back and thinking about the context of the moment that we’re in and where it’s going to lead and the power that we have, all of us, to construct that future that we’re trying to design and not the future that we fear, right?
The future of our hopes, not the future of our fears. And I think for me, that constantly raises the question—and Emma and I talk about this a lot—of everybody wants to think they’re in the most important moment in human history. Human beings are constantly saying, “oh, this is a moment of great change,” or, “oh, this is the most important election ever,” or “this is the most important dot dot dot ever.” mostly because only in our present is the future unknown. Everything is the past. So I don’t know, we talked about this conversation going in the direction of transformation, right? Are we in one of those times, or do we just think we’re in one of those times because human beings always think they’re in one of those times?
EV: What do you think, John? Are we in a transformational moment?
John Wood, Jr. (JW): Yeah, so I think that we are in a transformational moment. Of course it’s not to say that every moment doesn’t carry within it, the the reality of some budding transformation. But there is I think a reason to look at this moment very specifically as needing necessarily to lead to some essential realignments, I think in the ways in which we interact with society, the structures of society, the mechanisms by which we know things, communicate with each other, and ultimately the ways in which we consider ourselves as perhaps sort of functionally invested agents in a civilization wherein I think we have gone from being something of consumers of liberal progress to now finding ourselves in a moment to where we are all in one way or the other conscripted into the culture wars that will deliver us, you know, presumably to one version of victory or the other, even if it be a Pyrrhic victory in which everybody loses.
And the stand that I choose to take in that context is to say that ultimately progress is dependent upon our harnessing what is best in the spectrum of perspectives that are on offer across American society and across, you know, I mean, you can broaden it further than that, but to keep it rooted in this country for a moment to say that a democracy that develops into the sort of inclusive into the sort of inclusive culture that is able to give everybody the sense that they are genuinely invested and represented, invested in its success and represented. In its system is one that really has to make space for the full articulation of our varying different moral perspectives. But figuring out how to accomplish that particularly in our technological and our complicated sort of demographic climate is not something for which there is easy precedence, I think, to identify even in our country’s history. And so it has to be a period of transformation because nothing short of that is going to deliver us, I think, to the next to the next phase of human progress.
ZK: And so, Emma, if you talk to a lot of people you know, do they believe in progress? Do they think the world’s getting better, as a general statement?
EV: No. But I think that they really want to believe in progress. I think they just, when they look around, they don’t see the evidence for that. So you’re going to go with no
ZK: It’s interesting listening to John, you know, you talk about this as, yes, it’s a transformational moment. Transformational of course could mean we’re transforming into something grim, right? Transformation is a neutral statement, the outcome of which could be plus, minus, or the same, some version thereof. You know, a lot of, a lot of history, a lot of Western history has kind of gone from this arc of late 19th century into the 20th century, where progress and transformation was assumed to be the inevitable future of the product of human beings unleashing technology, perfecting society. And then there’s, you know, there was a 20th-century narrative in the United States of, we confront the economic crisis of the depression, we confront the great tectonic challenge of World War II and fascism. Then we confront the challenge of communism. Then we confront the challenge of our own imperfections in the sixties and seventies and make a more inclusive democracy in the form of voting rights for African-Americans and those left out more equality for, for, for women and gender equality. And that was a lot of the story, right? And I think the story today has become, if not the obverse of that, or the inverse of that, a much less positive view, right? That we haven’t come… We haven’t changed anything at all. That relations haven’t changed between sexes, between races, between countries that the only thing that changed was our self-delusion. And I think a lot of people buy into that. I mean, what does one say to that sensibility? Because it is a sensibility. It may also be true.
JW: Right. Well, you know, I think that it depends a little bit on who one is talking to. It’s easy for us to sort of step back into a macro-level analysis of the sort of trajectories of material progress and political progress in American society and think to ourselves that this gives a sufficient portrait of the state of human affairs, the state of American democracy. But of course from the vantage point of people whose lived experience, let’s say is one that may exist within the context of broader social progress but still allows them to experience what you might think of as some relative deprivation, vis-a-vis other groups of people, for reasons that may indeed be unjust, whether as a consequence of historic realities, contemporary realities, or both, then I think that, you know, we become obligated to sort of look at this picture in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, all of the progress that you identified, I think is true and correct, you know, and I do think that it is a problem that in modern society, we have a difficult time appreciating just how far we have come in the development of both our political and economic society because we are so hung up on the culture wars, modern disparities and inequities, and things that have gone wrong.
If you can’t appreciate what has allowed progress to come to be, you won’t be able to preserve, to conserve the conditions that allow for it to generate. On the other hand for people who find themselves, even in today’s climate, feeling ostracized, feeling alienated, and feeling underserved—and there are many such people in our society, I would argue—that larger headline about the progress of human civilization isn’t going to be persuasive in getting them to ignore what is lacking in their own experience in the now. So, you know, we have to be able to paint a picture of human progress that is sensitive to the ways in which certain groups of people may not be enjoying the full fruits of that progress, both economically as well as socially, and those in turn become related but distinct conversations in and of themselves.
Because on the one hand, we might find ourselves in a place in time wherein we’ve achieved some, let’s say fairly equitable distribution of resources, and everybody has the opportunity for material security. On the other hand, if people feel as if their values, their culture, their traditions things that they hold near and dear to them as a matter of identity are not respected or attributed human dignity in the social and political marketplace, you have the recipe for civil unraveling there as well. So we need to be mindful of all the dynamics, I think, related to the topic of progress, even as we survey it in broad strokes. You know, from the top down.
EV: Maybe another way to phrase that is, you know, inherent in any transformation is volatility, right? And there are certain people who are going to feel that volatility in their personal lives more than others, right? Depending on their economic status, depending on their gender, depending on their race, depending on a lot of different things. And it’s a lot easier to say, “Hey, we’re going through a transformational moment. We’re heading into something good,” when you don’t personally feel that volatility on a day-to-day.
JW: Hmm. Right. Yeah. I think that that is, I think that that’s right. You know, one of the things that we just need to be appreciative of is precisely what you’ve said, Emma, which is that volatility is a part of progress. Instability is going to be a part of change, and necessarily so. And so, you know, any expectation that anybody might’ve ever had, that we were going to sort of reach the end of history and coast on a wave of, you know, of enlightenment is something that’s always disturbed by the fact that, even as gains accrue in society, they tend to accrue unevenly, even as institutions evolve, so as to accommodate a wider way range of, of cultural input, let’s say that integration, that bringing together of different groups of people, has to necessarily be characterized by friction and misunderstanding.
This is all, you know, if you zoom out enough, this is all positive, ultimately. I mean, you know, it’s very hard to build anything without having to break or reshape some things in the process. Now, you know, having said that, I do think of myself as having a fundamentally sort of conservative disposition insofar as I tend to think that people who have a certain vision of progress rush towards the idea of embracing radical transformation of structures and institutions and cultures as a means of getting there. And I’m a person who tends to think that there is usually a greater risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water than there is of not doing so when one, again, isn’t mindful of the essential circumstances, historically and traditionally, that have allowed for the progress that we have achieved in society to come to bear in the first place. But you know, part of a healthy perspective, I think, on the evolution of societies, understanding that disruptionvolatilityeven a certain degree of chaos is just a part of the historical cycles that we move through. So it’s the challenge, you know, there are challenges in our time, but you know, a person can be at peace with those challenges when one keeps that in mind.
ZK: It seems like one of the real issues today, certainly in American society—and this is not, I think, true everywhere to the same degree—is this question of who gets to tell the story of who we are and who we have been and who we’re going to be. And if you take a step out from Republican versus Democrat or, you know, south versus north or different regions of the country, having different perspectives or different individuals within it there is a kind of a roiling contest at every juncture of who gets to say who we are, right? What’s our story? And then part of the problem is there’s a lot of different “our stories,” depending on which ones of us are telling it, and then those tend to fight, right? So there’s a story of we have actually gone backwards since the seventies, since a moment of opening and awareness to reform, to progressive reforms voting rights, poverty, housing, all the kind of products of the great society.
There’s another one that says that things have gotten way better in lots of ways. And there’s a reactionary unwillingness to look at it. And then there’s the, you know, the regional parts, and then there’s even the pandemic confusion, right? As to what story are we going to tell about what we did or didn’t do or should have done? Is there a way through that? I mean, it is certainly true that nations, particularly, you know, this guy Benedict Anderson, a philosopher and writer of the 20th century talked about imagined communities. You know, that one of the things that holds people together is a shared story. And we certainly are losing that shared story. That doesn’t mean that that’s a bad thing if we can coalesce into something else, but like, what’s the way through that in more even practical terms, or is there one?
JW: Hmm. Right. You know, it’s, it’s possible that we are beginning to sort of max out on our capacity to tell a broad story that is able to carry you with deep resonance across all of the various not just demographic constituencies of American life, but across all of the different sort of I guess sort of technological silos that exist in our society, in as much as part of the problem that today isn’t just the fact that we have different ideologies, we have different cultural and sub-cultural experiences, but we are literally consuming information in different formats. I mean, some people, you know, only consume, you know, primarily consume cable news and they get their information in brief, 10-minute, 15-minute segments, littered with soundbites, and other folks are listening to three-and-a-half-hour, you know, podcasts, of Joe Rogan and you know, taking in audio books and so on and so forth.
And other folks just doomscroll on Twitter, and that’s how they stay abreast of what’s going on. Now, a big part of what I talk about is the need for us, I think, to ultimately introduce a narrative understanding of who we are as a country that makes room for the broad diversity of experiences and perspectives in our nation in a way that is deeply relevantdeeply resonant, and that may provide some pathway towards reconciliation. But part of what that paradoxically may need to accommodate is some sort of appreciation of the inevitability of subjective interpretation among groups of various aspects of our history and our present social and political reality, such that we may be able to tell a story that successfully unifies us on the level of our aspirations as a nation and the higher values and principles that for all of its initial complications and moral contradictions we may be able to re-arrive at the place of believing was the essential, philosophical starting point of our country.
This commitment to the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a society where all individuals are created equal and entitled to equality of opportunity and equality before the law. We may be able to tell sort of a core unifying story that links those principles to their equivalent aspirations for our society while allowing for the fact that there is a dialectic that is simply in motion between more particular historical and cultural interpretations of the history that intervenes between those two points. And I think that, I think that that arriving at a point of manageable and constructive tension between varied narratives and perspectives that are bookended or grounded by ultimately shared aspirations in terms of the, the ultimate ideals that we are pursuing is probably the goal. You know, what we’ve done in the past in American society is to have—and of course, look, there have always been, even before now, there have always been competing narratives between left and right, Republicans and Democrats, progressives, liberals, conservatives, et cetera in American history.
But what we had done more in the past when American society was, particularly on the upper levels of society, more homogeneous in a way that sort of obscured the fact that you had radically different historical experienceshistorical perspectives, and lived experiences from other groups within American society, and part of what complicates American society at the present moment is that not only are we becoming more diverse through immigration, through direct routes, but the social mobility that has accrued to various groups in American society means that these different perspectives, these different understandings of our history, are entering into dialectic with each other in our institutions on higher and higher levels, and are therefore more directly impacting the points at which information and narrative become distributed across society.
ZK: I think this is an interesting… The question of, like you talked about before, is more one of a shared sensibility than a shared story, right? It’s a shared way rather than a shared thing. And I, you know, my experienceit’s very hard to get people’s either attention or focus on sensibilities, because it feels so unbelievably fuzzy to people, right? It’s not, it’s, it’s, it’s a way of engaging, I guess it’s more actionable in HR departments and companies that talk about how do you problem-solve, or how do you manage teams, right? So there’s a whole world of that kind of, the sensibility of how do you get people in the cliche to row all the oars in the same direction. But when it comes to things like politics and culture, we tend to eschew that even though, look, a lot of the romanticizing of religious tolerance in colonial America wasn’t really much tolerance at all, but it was simply a recognition that the alternative to not dealing with difference was just untenable chaos and violence, more of a sensibility of tolerance was the path of least resistance and greatest social cohesion, but it wasn’t like an ideology. It wasn’t a defined idea. It wasn’t even a value. It was just an approach. And is that… Does a sensibility work? Is it too “okay, yeah, but what do you mean, give me a specific”?
JW: I think that part of what we lose a little bit as we sort of progress forward into the liberal paradigm, if you will, is a way of sort of speaking from the inside out, if you will, with respect to the dynamics by which we achieve a society of mutual human flourishing. And what I mean by that is that—you’re right, first of all, let me just register some agreement with you—it is difficult to communicate a sensibility as an answer to the material problems of the social chaos of society, because such a thing, while it needs to be articulated, has more need of demonstration. It has to actually be lived out. It has to actually be practiced, right? And in our moral sort of, you know, philosophizing and conversations going back across Western history a bit, you know, part of what you lose, even prior to the Enlightenment, is a way of talking about morality that roots it in virtue, that roots it in, sort of, what are the internal dispositions necessary by which I become an effective father, or soldier, or husband, or wife—and even, you know, religious and Christian society itself becomes more hung up on what is the proper theological interpretation of a certain matter, right?
The teachings of a person like Erasmus, for instance, who would have been focused much more on conduct, you know: how is it that we interact with each other in a forgiving fashion and a loving fashion in a way that creates space for disagreement intention to arise? That winds up being replaced by: okay, well, you know, what is your, what is your perspective on the authority of the church and this, that, or the other, and do we have a direct line to God, and so on and so forth. I looked at the civil rights movement, and the nonviolent movement in particular, as being sort of a powerful example, though, in terms of how it is that sensibilities can be communicated as really sort of the answer to social problems if they’re not merely communicated, but also demonstrated. So King had this philosophy of nonviolence, which really was sort of a spiritual philosophy of social change, which said that love is a social value that can be applied to social and even political questions.
In so far as it motivated a type of behavior, a certain approach to activism, a certain approach to discourse, an approach which invested a great deal of value in this idea of signaling recognition for the dignity of the humanity of the opponent, and in so doing, creating the psychological and emotional space for the opposition to actually be persuaded over time. So if you just say all that, right, it sounds pie in the sky, but when actually apply it, you know, as, as King and the nonviolent protestors did, through marches and demonstrations, through sit-ins, and even in the way in which, you know, King and others like him conducted themselves in interviews and in academic settings et cetera, then you can sort of show that there is a way of doing politics, and an attitude that corresponds to it, which creates the space for progress, right? But we have to jump sort of from the classroom to you know onto Main Street, so to speak, in some respects,
EV: I mean, I think one thing that’s appealing about the sensibility versus a narrative is what you were saying before, John, about, I’m not really sure how you would start to tell the story of the new American narrative. I’m not really sure—given what you said about the increasing diversity of the American population—I don’t really know what the common themes are between lives at a micro level that you’d be able to carry up so that enough people felt like, “oh, yes, that’s my story too,” right? At least with a sensibility, it does seem like it’s easier to get people on board, and while it might be more difficult to communicate, it seems like there’s a broader avenue for agreement. So I’m wondering if you agree with that, but also, you know, if we’re going to move in the sensibility direction, what are the American sensibilities of the, you know, short-term future, medium-term future, long-term future? What are we aiming for?
JW: Yeah, indeed. Well, I let me see if I can tie all those things together a bit. I do agree with you that I think one is more difficult than the other, certainly, you know, when you’re talking to certain folks. And so you’re going to have people in American life who have different identities, different perspectives, who say that, “look, I’m not going to look at this country as being the land of the free and the home of the brave when my ancestors weren’t free because of the moral cowardice of a bunch of hypocrites. Nevertheless, I’ll accept the idea that I need to try and be a good person and engage people with some empathy and understanding.” I think that’s what you’re pointing to, that that sensibility component can be an easier starting point. But I do think that there’s a way in which sensibility, moral sensibility, virtue, can work its way into the narrative itself in a way that can be profoundly unifying.
For one, it’s important to look at the American experiment as itself being a humanistic project, a humanist project, in as much as this was an experiment in designing a society that would be more conducive to human flourishing. And again, even in spite of all of the contradictions at the outset of it, people from every walk of life have come to this country in search of precisely that, in search of greater human flourishing. But I would suggest that the founding sort of ideals that are easy for us to take off that stem from the American founding—this idea that liberty and equality and justice are bedrock values of our heritage and ideals to which we aspire—that there’s a way in which these ideals are themselves not really animated, not really activated in a manageable and durable sort of way, without the essential quality of goodwill being in the mix, really.
And one thing I think we all know is that, you know, liberty and equality, to just take those as examples, are, you know, vital goods in our sort of, you know, moral and philosophical tapestry, but you can’t maximize one without it coming at the expense of the other. You can’t have unlimited freedom while also having unlimited equality and vice versa. It just doesn’t really work. And so we’re put in an untenable position to begin with, but the way these things wind up reconciling themselves effectively, I think, is when you have sort of a predisposition towards good faith and goodwill to begin with. And by the way, Dr. King spoke in terms of “agape love,” which he defined as goodwill, so I sort of mean the same thing by this term. There’s a way in which, if I have goodwill, then I may prize and cherish my freedom.
But if the point at which my freedom infringes upon my communal recognition of my moral and interpersonal obligation to you, to Zachary and to Emma, then as a matter of goodwill, I, in the spirit of self-governance should be willing to regulate or support some regulations on my own behavior or the behavior of the community in order to allow for us to mutually empower one another, right, in a spirit of shared human dignity and communal connection. And so part of what we can weave into the American story is this idea that, again, for all of the atrocities that litter our history, that in addition to being committed to equality and liberty and justice, that there is also a communal tradition in American society wherein we fight for the rights of one another, and we support one another, as neighbors, as countrymen as brothers and sisters, et cetera. Then we have a story to tell that can ride the arc of the better angels of our nature, and the higher sort of, you know, and those parts of our history where you can clearly see that aspiring towards the society of mutual progress.
ZK: But you do get into this challenge in what you’ve articulated, right? You said it really poetically of where my own self-expression or individualism comes into negative contact with my surrounding community. I’ve definitely, I’m paraphrasing what you said that there is an obligation to take that greater community into serious consideration in shaping your actions, right? That’s a fair articulation. But of course, a lot of the changes that we have had have been people not accepting those communal reactions because those communal reactions are either stifling or potentially immoral and unjust. So if you wanted to be openly gay 50 years ago, in many communities you ran up against a communal sensibility that said that’s wrong and you can’t be, or you certainly can’t be openly, and you probably can’t be morally, period. And a lot of people saying, “okay, no, that’s not an acceptable communal sensibility; that communal sensibility has to change, not my individual one.”
Same thing about relations between races. The pandemic was a huge problem in a country like the United States, which does not have a deeply communitarian instinct, right? In Korea and other societies, the idea that my individual behavior could at all imperil the health of the people around me is a nonstarter, right? The communitarian impulse is a non-negotiable, that the health literally in the pandemic time of my community is primary and absolutely overrides any individual expression. But I guess the question is, how do you know, right? How do you know when that individual sensibility is something that needs to give way versus when, back to that transformative moment question, when does that sensibility, that minority individual sensibility, you should force it, you should try to force the community around you to change?
JW: Right. Yeah, well, first of all, I wouldn’t want to look at the, the idea of… I wouldn’t want to equate the idea of community with the quality of majoritarian too directly, really. I think that you never know on the basis of where the majority falls on an issue and where the minority falls who is right or who is wrong, you know. That has to get worked out in the actual interaction itself. And along with that, I wouldn’t want to be too binary in terms of understanding how it is that dialectic unfolds. Because yes, as we get to the rub on a given issue, and, you know, we may be talking about some very conspicuous sort of, you know, decision point: Does this bill get passed or not? Does the Supreme court uphold marriage equality or not?
Then of course, you know, the temperature turns up. We have the argument, we have the debate, we have our protests. We put our dollars behind the politicians and the messages that we believe in and we see where the chips fall. But the conversations that happen over particular issues still happen within the context of the larger relationships that we hold with each other as a society. And these are multifaceted and dynamic. I mean, just take the gay marriage issue as an example, hypothetically. I may be a father with a son who is gay, and I may be a conservative Christian or religious believer of some kind, and I might have a visceral disagreement with my son, and I may have some obligation to my own conscience to speak my mind and make my position on his lifestyle plain.
At the same time, he’s still my son. And presumably, one would recognize moral obligations to listen, to be understanding, to reason together without judgment and contempt, and to offer a recognition of the dignity of somebody who you hold dear, or somebody who you don’t know well at all but who is a part of your community. You know, even if they be a stranger from the other side of town whom you happen to encounter at a city council meeting, right? In the sort of cultural status quo that I would strive towards, these varying other levels of interpersonal moral obligation would themselves mitigate somewhat against the tendency for us to arrive at wholesale evaluations of the worthiness or non-worthiness of one person’s characteron the basis of where they stand on a single political issue. And I think that that’s precisely this sort of precarious point to which we’ve arrived at in our politics, wherein on the basis of who you voted for—simply who you voted for—or where you come down on one issue or the other—whether it be affirmative action or electoral reform or et cetera—that that single opinion is all any of us need to know about you in order to arrive at an adequate understanding of your worth, essentially speaking, as a human being in the context of democratic society.
I think we need to allow for a complicating of the moral narrative in a way that makes the space for all of these other sort of interpersonal moral obligations to surface, even as that does not dissuade us from being fervent in our advocacy for the things that we believe. That’s how you accommodate both advocacy in the short term, and I think progress for all of society in the long term.
EV: Yeah. I would agree with you, John. I think there’s a kind of terrible flattening of identities that has gone on, where it seems to be the case that you look at somebody and, let’s say they’re a white male, it seems to be totally okay to say in sort of casual conversation that you know what their point of view is going to be about gender, and power relations. You know what their point of view is going to be about economics. And there’s a whole lot of assumptions and flattening of identities that doesn’t serve us. And I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where even just saying, you know, “this person might have a multi-faceted character that we should consider, that we should talk to this person about,” seems to be a violation against your tribe. And it goes back to what you were saying about goodwill, right? That if we could somehow convince people to first approach one another with goodwill, maybe we could turn these things around. The problem is that I don’t think people trust each other that they are trying to get the American project to a place of good transformation. Right? I feel like everyone’s looking at one another and saying, “you’re trying to lead us into a bad place.” And I don’t know how we start to, you know, walk that path back.
ZK: Conflict negotiators have had to deal with this for years, where two parties enter into something with the opposite of good faith, with the conviction that those on the other side actively and relentlessly wish them ill. And which can never really be the starting point of anything resembling consensus or compromise. And you see this a lot in Washington today. Whenever this appears—we’re having this conversation during this multi-month period of negotiations in Washington over whether or not there’s going to be an infrastructure bill, and at various points, different parties within the Senate have basically said about each other that they are convinced that those on the other side bear them no goodwill, that there is no good faith negotiation. Full stop. And then that’s actually their starting point. Their starting point is there’s no good faith negotiation, which is very similar to what’s gone on between various Arab and Israeli, or Palestinian and Israeli negotiations for 50 years.
I don’t know, you know, those gaps are hard to bridge, right? Basically because somebody has to cry “uncle,” or somebody has to take the first step of, “I feel relatively convinced that the other person wishes me harm, but if I’m actually going to attempt to come to some sort of meeting ground, I have to suspend that belief, or I have to act as I wish the other would act and have a certain amount of faith.” Is that part of it? I mean, is there a leap of faith involved in this?
JW: Well, look, yeah. You’ve put your finger on it. That is precisely what makes it difficult. And yet I think that is precisely how this is affected, really. So in Braver Angels workshops the work that my organization does bringing together individuals from the left and the right to be able to arrive at a deeper understanding of each other’s experiences and potentially collaborate on meaningful issues we don’t bring people into the room unless we can reasonably assume that they come in good faith, right? Because if that feeling isn’t mutual, it’s just a bad starting point to begin with and difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, part of the work that we do is to try and equip people with the tools, both psychologically and rhetorically, to be able to go into conversations with people who may not be in good faith at the outset of an interaction.
And yeah to be able to equip people to be able to bring that good faith themselves, even if they don’t necessarily have a reason to expect it to be reciprocated initially. And part of what’s worth keeping in mind is that a lot of this mutual bad faith has to do with the assumption of bad faith. If Emma—of course, naturally this is what I thought when I first spoke to Emma—naturally I would assume that Emma just means just total bad towards me and is just looking for any opportunities she might be able to find to pull the rug out from under my feet, one way or the other.
EV: Oh, I am, John. I am.
JW: That’s the vibe I get. Well, if that’s my assumption going into a conversation, then that justifies my, you know, my bringing bad faith to bear myself, because I am fearful or suspicious. And so in that way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I expect you to be a jerk, and therefore you are far more likely to be, because I myself am more ready to be, preemptively, right, or to interpret anything you do in a bad way. And so, taking it upon oneself axiomatically to embrace goodwill and signal goodwill towards the opposition is an effort to break that cycle, in essence. You may have negative suspicions about me in a conversation, but if I can authentically signal to you that I do not mean you any ill will in the context of a disagreement then that fire of suspicion has less fuel to burn upon. And what happens with time—and you know, this certainly varies on the context of the interaction and the scope of time that we’re talking about—but in the context of time, what tends to happen is that a person realizes that, “Hey, this disagreement that I had with this individual, or even with this group of people may be a mere disagreement.
It may not be a disagreement that is masking some deeper interpersonal or intertribal animus that has to be there. And if that animus does not have to be there, maybe I have psychological or emotional permission now to listen to what’s being said on the other side of this conversation, because it doesn’t seem to be intended against me. If we can bring new norms to bear and take the responsibility for basically going first in offering up that goodwill, the context of our social interactions, it creates the space for others to reciprocate, in time. But it is a demanding, it is quite a thing to demand of people, you know, and yet I think it’s ultimately necessary for many of us to do.
EV: I’m glad Zachary used the term “leap of faith,” because of what you just said, John, and also what you were talking about before with goodwill. It appears to me as a spiritual or religious project you know, and lots of people have talked about how politics has sort of become the new religion, but it seems like we’ve taken all of the bad parts of religion into politics and none of the good parts. And something that religion does well is that it unites people and does give a moral foundation to look out at the world? And I’m just curious if you see it as well, as like, as a kind of a spiritual project.
JW: I do. Now, I think that, you know, if it’s a spiritual project, it’s not a spiritual project that needs to be anchored in religious identification, at least, certainly not for everybody. The nonviolent movement was sort of rooted in the African-American Christian Church, but it boasted the participation of people from multiple faiths and from no faith who nevertheless believed in the social power of agape love, of goodwill when applied through various methodologies to these living questions. Not just with respect to the quality of goodwill in particular, but concepts like honor, concepts like integrity concepts like empathy, to be sure nobility, even. We need a far richer internal vocabulary of virtue and sensibility and disposition than we are currently able to call upon now in our mainstream social discourse, because those are the only things I think that can reliably begin to transcend some of the deeply rooted, ideological, and experiential differences that exist between us at the moment.
We may disagree radically, in terms of our cognitive, empirical assessment of the world, and yet human flourishing isn’t just a matter of charting, you know, the growth trends of, you know, GDP and educational outcomes in a given society. Human flourishing is something that we experience internally that will correlate to our material conditions. But the internal reality of human flourishing has to itself, I think, be deeply connected to the internal attitudes and dispositions that we carry around with us through life, certainly in regards to the attitudes and dispositions we hold towards one another. And so if we can anchor our perception of one another into an internal discipline that is not content to simply play host to an ongoing dialogue of contempt in our minds, then I think we can begin to develop something of a moral culture in American society, which is less about dogma and ideology and more about the practice of good faith and goodwill in society, and that that will ripple out to progress across every other domain.
EV: I like that we started at this big question of social transformation, and we end up in this individual personal transformation. I feel like that’s something for people to grab onto.
JW: That’s right.
ZK: I wonder, John on that—and this is like softball question 101—but does it work, right? Do people really—I mean, there may be a selection bias in that, by the time you are able to spin your magic formula spell in Braver Angels, people are primed ready and open to it, but there is that question of does it work, right? Do they have to kind of be there before they get there, or have you experienced people making more leaps toward one another and across gaps, divides, chasms than one might think?
JW: Well, the short answer is that it works. And in the context of our own particular methods and practices at Braver Angels, for most people—I wouldn’t say universally—for most people, not only does it seem to work in the moment; in other words, you know, not only do people tend to come to a more nuanced and empathetic and understanding way of interacting with each other within the space of a given workshop or event, but it seems to be the case that that psychological effect is ongoing, that it lasts beyond the space of a given event. But I think that more broadly speaking, in society and in history, I think that the transformation of the individual in a more moral and altruistic way does accrue to the larger flourishing of society. I think that the important thing to keep in mind, though, with respect to that, as we think about the moment that we’re in, is that, on the one hand, we want to broadcast and cultivate the norms of goodwill as far and wide as we can possibly manage it.
On the other hand, it was a definite minority of people who were willing to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in that spirit, during the civil rights movement. It has always been, I think, a minority of people who have been able, by holding themselves to a certain standard, to sort of bring the standard up for the rest of society in a way that stabilizes the broad functioning of institutions. And so you can think about it in the context of a single family. Many of us probably have the memory of a grandfather or a grandmother who was the anchor of the whole family, the patriarch or the matriarch of the family who had the credibility to, you know, to ask everybody to sit up straight at the dinner table, keep their elbows off the table, but to also respect one another, to be there for one another, to speak in a certain way.
And then sometimes what happens is that individual passes away, and there’s disarray until somebody fills that space. It’s just one person, but it’s one person who may be able to hold the bar up for a family of dozens. I think that that in fact is the nature of societies and kind of something of a nature of social hierarchies as they persist within societies on this particular question. I think that those who have the heart to commit to this way of being need to do so in order for others to begin to follow that example. And so, on the one hand, that may seem like a lot of pressure, but on the other hand, it suggests that each of us is so much more powerful than we may realize that we are, in terms of our ability to begin to affect this sort of change in society, because we have the power to do so, to begin to do so, within our own circles and our own networks to start with. And so the critical mass that we would need to reach in terms of an understanding of this way of being is probably not so high as you might think in order for it to be consequential.
EV: Do you feel empowered, Zachary? I feel empowered. I’m ready to go.
ZK: That’s a much more optimistic way of ending an optimistic conversation, that the critical mass is not so… There’s not so much mass that requires it to be critical mass, which in this case is a really good thing. In other cases it’s probably not such a good thing. So we really appreciate the conversation, as well as the work that Braver Angels is doing, and the work that you’re doing, and being part of The Progress Network for the work that we are boosting and magnifying and hoping to bring together in a community, because that’s part of it as well. Creating a shared sensibility requires a lot of people to share the sensibilities. So that’s a really good thing. So thank you, John.
EV: Yeah. Thanks, John for coming on and out-“optimisting” us.
JW: Well, thank you, Zachary, and thank you, Emma. It’s been a pleasure.
ZK: So, I’m always curious at the end of these conversations: as compelling as they are, and as convincing as they are if you’re already in the camp, I’m still working out how convincing they are if you’re someone who started out unconvinced. I mean, if you really do think that the world right now is in a highly contentious place and that the stakes are existential, like, that there is no compromise with the other side, that the other side represents The End—capital T, capital E—is this kind of dialogue simply noise, or can it penetrate that sort of belief? And I do think a lot of people have that belief.
EV: Maybe we’ll hear from somebody who can write in to us and tell us, “You were utterly unconvincing. And in fact, I think your whole project is a disaster.” We welcome that kind of email, by the way: firstname.lastname@example.org. But I will say this, just coming from a bit of a spiritual background, is that I totally agree with John about the power of personal transformation, because if you enact that kind of behavior in your own life, it does ripple out to your little personal network. And then that little personal network has the wider ripple effect, and so on and so forth. And I don’t know if you can really make the argument that there is an existential threat to approaching someone you don’t know with goodwill, or someone who might be on a different political side than you with goodwill. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to fight against their politics if you think their politics is wrong.
ZK: Yeah, no, I mean, I’m not obviously the one who needs convincing here, but I ask these questions from the spirit of “it’s so easy to preach to the choir.” I know a choir I’m singing to. You know a choir you’re singing to. We know a choir we are a part of, and it is the easiest thing in the world to have conversations with like-minded souls and get to the end of it and go, “Oh my God. That was great. That was just wonderful. I loved that. Thank you so much. We need more of that.” And yes, I believe that, and we believe that. But it is, I think, important to always step back and really ask, “Okay, have we moved a needle here? Does that actually lead to it?” I take incredible hope and succor from the fact that people like John Wood are doing the work that he’s doing and is actually in the trenches of doing. He’s not just having these conversations, right? He’s, through Braver Angels, helping convene groups of people who are at loggerheads and trying to help them find a way through, in a very particular way, just like we’ve had with a bunch of people at The Progress Network. That sort of idea in action is absolutely essential.
EV: You can find out all about John and his work at Braver Angels on our website, which is theprogressnetwork.org. And if you’re interested in learning more about Braver Angels, they are braverangels.org.
ZK: All right, Emma. We will continue having these conversations. Thank you once again.
EV: Thank you.
ZK: And thank all of you for listening to What Could Go Right?, a conversation that we have had, conversations that we’ll keep having, and a question that we will keep trying to answer.
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