3 Groups Tackle the Art of Disagreement Without Being Disagreeable

Photo by Lee Rennick

Constructive dialogue between two opposing parties has become a thing of the past, however there are three organizations in Williamson County, and beyond, that are working to change that. Civility Tennessee, Brave Angels and The Great Reset all spoke at the January FrankTalk event about how their organization is approaching conversations with dissenting points of view in a positive manner.

Whether you are interested in the inner workings of the royal family or not, what is going on in the media with Prince Harry of the United Kingdom and his relations is a significant occurrence. It reflects both the massive cultural changes that the world is currently going through and our inability as people to have hard conversations about these changes between people with opposing points of view without being disrespectful. We have somehow forgotten how to “agree to disagree.” Instead, opposing voices are “canceled.” Or, as on a number of news discussion shows, one person talks above other voices to make sure their opinion lands on top.

There is an often-quoted phrase, “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” It comes from a biography written about 18th century philosopher Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It is a sentiment that has been very much forgotten, instead, the trend is towards “My way or the highway.” But the three organizations above are ready to promote change.

Changing current dialogue is what Civility Tennessee began to address in 2017. It is a program created by “The Tennessean” to “encourage, promote and practice respectful dialogue on tough issues that face our community,” according to their Facebook page.

David Plazas, Opinion and Engagement Director for the USA Today Network and The Tennessean, stated that through Civility Tennessee, his organization is trying to help people have “meaningful disagreements” where diverse voices “are elevated without dismissing humanity.”

With the societal changes we are going through, Plazas said that it is important to hear diverse opinions. But how in the current climate do we challenge people to communicate better; become the role models we want to emulate; make the changes we say we want to make to get away from the vitriol, the echo chambers, the insults and the tribalism; and make this a statewide movement? These were questions asked by The Tennessean’s Editorial Board, and out of those questions they developed Civility Tennessee. The goal of the program is to defend freedom of speech and freedom of information, amplify underrepresented voices, welcome diversity of opinion and stand for civility.

They began with both in person and virtual discussions in coordination with multiple universities and the Nashville Public Library to have conversations with Tennessee’s citizens and forums with politicians. They have since launched Tennessee Voices, Black Tennessee Voices and Latino Tennessee Voices to create safe spaces to discuss important topics like racism, gun violence, voter turnout and the #MeToo movement.

“Democracy is messy,” said Plazas, but he added that lack of civility and inability to contemplate opposing opinions is a threat to our democracy.

Ron Heady said that his organization, Braver Angels, is also all about strengthening democracy by “bridging the partisan divide.”

Demeaning people who think differently than you do became intense after the 2016 election, Heady explained. After that election, a group of people in New Lebanon, Ohio representing both Democrats and Republicans got together to see if they could find a way to depolarize America. They spent a day speaking in a non-combative way on “hot topics” and discovered that they could not only find middle ground, but that they actually liked each other.

From that initial table talk, an organization was born that has since 2018 been teaching people from opposing viewpoints to have meaningful conversations. The organization has grown from there. There are currently alliances in East Tennessee, Memphis and Middle Tennessee. Heady is co-chair of the Middle Tennessee Alliance.

“We always have Red and Blue Co-Chairs,” stated Heady. “There has to be a starting point…Red or Blue.”

Expansion of discussion is created through the development of effective listening skills, the ability to challenge your own beliefs, and learning the way to ask questions so as to elicit a full response. These skills are taught by the organization through workshops. The skills are then applied through political, as well as book and film, discussions and debates.

What people involved in these discussions find, according to Heady, is that “we are not so far apart as we have been led to believe.”

Kalinda Fisher, the founder of The Great Reset, wanted to find a way to connect through conversation, to build commonalities, and to promote the importance of social connection.

“I began by inviting a group of people to my dining room in 2018,” said Fisher. She started with the concept that “strangers are only friends that we have not met yet.”

She thought that it would only be one conversation, but by 2019 the group felt that it needed to be more. That there were many other conversations to be had. And since then, The Great Divide has sponsored many more conversations, reaching people in about half the states in the United States and ten foreign countries through the internet.

“It gives me a phenomenal amount of hope,” said Fisher.

As with Braver Angels, Fisher’s organization teaches how to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

“We talk one at a time,” explained Fisher. “We let people talk, we listen, and we give and get respect.”

She does not know where the organization is headed, but currently they have one discussion a month. They take “deep dives” into many complex issues, because as Fisher explains, “It is not just our country having these issues.”

What all of these groups have in common is the creation of a “safe space” to share ideas in a world filled with acrimony. People do not feel safe speaking their opinions so they choose to let their frustration of unfulfilling conversations grow. In some cases, people have been physically attacked for having dessenting views, so the fear is not without reason.

“I call them ‘gray spaces’ not ‘safe spaces,’” explained Fisher. “because there is not always a black and white in many of our discussions.”

All of these groups are wanting to add more voices to the conversations and to continue to build on the civil dialogues they are already having.

“At the end of the day,” said Fisher, “we are a community…It is time to pause and reset.”


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