My name is Alexandra Hudson. I’m the founder and curator of Civic Renaissance, a publication and newsletter dedicated to healing our public discourse by reviving the wisdom of the past and the life of the mind. I’m also a supporter and friend of Braver Angels.
I first learned about Braver Angels through a May 2018 article in The Economist, which described their work and outlined their vision for remedying our divisions by re-humanizing our politics. I had recently left a government position in Washington D.C. and had lived through our deep divisions first hand. I knew I wanted to be involved in Braver Angels’ important work depolarizing America and elevating our national conversation.
I’ve learned that recognizing the humanity and inherent dignity of those around us—all our fellow persons alike—is a basic necessity to survive as a species.
To thrive, however, we need something more. We need friendship: a basic affection for and trust in others, which allows us to fulfill our deep need for community and become fully human. For decades, many thought-leaders have been concerned about the deterioration of American civic life, and the rise in loneliness, suicide, and “deaths of despair.” It’s not surprising that the lockdowns over the course of this past year have made these pre-existing problems worse.
But as the world prepares to re-open, I thought it was a timely opportunity for us to re-imagine how we could each use this fresh start to create a better world, one more firmly grounded in empathy, compassion, and affection for our neighbors and co-citizens.
So this past Wednesday evening—together with Braver Angels National Ambassador John Wood Jr., Braver Angels co-founder Bill Doherty, and myself—we explored the nature of friendship and its potential to heal our divides today.
It was a powerful conversation. I encourage you to view the dialogue in its entirety here.
In case you weren’t able to join us, I wanted to share with you four important take-aways from the conversation.
1. Remember the infinite complexity of the human person. Many of us likely have examples of friendships that have been strained due to differences of opinion. Maybe some of us have been cut off, or have been tempted to cut others off, as a result of these differences. Bill Doherty insightfully encouraged us to stay mindful of the infinity complex nature of humanity. Though we are tempted to oversimplify others, we each come to our beliefs for many reasons. Can we stay curious about the reasons and stories behind the beliefs of those we disagree with?
2. Friendship is the building block of civil society. One astute questioner asked how our country’s self-sorting into politically, geographically, and culturally distinct groups could be remedied. John Wood Jr. reminded us of the important link between friendship and civil society. Who is going to want to go bowling—or do anything together, really—with other people if everyone is a jerk? This is the mission of Braver Angels: to restore the bonds of civic friendship that have been strained and neglected for too long—bonds upon which our democracy depends. So, as you build friendships with others—and as you support the work of Braver Angels— remember you are helping to restore the civic fabric and culture of American life.
3. It’s time to start “unbundling” people. We live in a moment where we are encouraged to see everything in black and white, right or wrong, good and evil. We are constantly tempted to define—and “cancel”—people based on one thing they’ve done or said, even if it occurred years in the past. This view of the world and people is reductive, essentializing, and degrading to the diversity and beauty of the human personality. “Unbundling” people—a concept I’m exploring in my book on civil discourse—is a mental framework we can each use to help us see the part in light of the whole. We are each an amalgamation of contradictory impulses and desires. Above all, we are all imperfect. Can we challenge ourselves to hold multiple traits and characteristics of others—to see the virtues in others alongside the vices—at once?
4. People are far more receptive to our bids for friendship than we think. We’ve all been in relative isolation this past year. It’s been hard for many, and it’s shown us our abiding need for friendship and for community. But friendship, like social skills in general, is a habit—and we might all be a little rusty. We need to remember to show grace to others when they say or do things that might seem a bit odd, and we can hope that others show us grace, in return. Above all, we can each be encouraged to make the extra effort for friendship because science is on our side: a recent study found that people are far more receptive to our bids for friendship and affection than we think. So, take the risk. Make the bid. The risk of rejection is worth the high rewards of friendship.
On the question of the extent to which our individual-level friendships can heal our national divides, I’d encourage you to read a thoughtful essay, just published this past week in National Affairs, written by my husband, Kian Hudson.
You can find the essay here. In this piece, Kian explores the perils of excessive love of country. He also unpacks the tension between affection for our fellow citizens, and the rest of the human community that lies beyond our national borders. He channels Edmund Burke’s insight about how friendship with our fellow man is the “first germ”—or the “first link”—of healthy affection for our country.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”
Maybe friendship can heal our divides, after all.
It’s also difficult to address the question of modern friendship with considering the ever-evolving landscape of social media. Our digital personas never fully capture the fullness of our personhood. What does this mean for our self-identity, and our civic bonds, when our questions on important issues are digitally mediated?
Discuss this and much more at Braver Angels’ next America’s Public Form with author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World Tara Isabella Burton and John Wood Jr., with Braver Angels Luke Phillips moderating.
Self-Creation, Spirituality, and Politics in Our Social Media World (March 31st, 8pm EST)
Thanks again to those of you who joined us for the conversation on friendship this past Wednesday evening. For those of you that didn’t, what do you think of these ideas? What role do you think friendship has to heal our divides today?
I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to write to me directly at [email protected].
By the way, here is some coverage of Braver Angel’s important work from this past week that you might enjoy.
First a new episode from the Braver Angels Podcast featuring B.A. Southern California State Coordinator Randy Lioz and photographers Roben and Jim, whose work with the camera gives us a powerful metaphor for understanding the significance of perspective:
Camera Angels: Valuing Diverse Perspectives | Roben Bellomo & Jim Hamel with Randy Lioz
“I think using the camera gives you an opportunity, one to show people how you see things, and it also provides an opportunity to see how other people see things.” -Robin Bellomo
Also a piece on Braver Angels local workshops in The Epoch Times (this essay requires registration to read but is not paywalled, and is reporting on Braver Angels but not by them.)
Group Brings Together Democrats and Republicans in Talks, Promotes Unity (Epoch Times)
“‘Our mission,’ [Braver Angels National Ambassador John Wood, Jr.] told The Epoch Times in an email, “is to restore the bonds of community and to refresh the fabric of democracy through bold empathy and the good faith embrace of our conflicts. … Our doors must be open for Americans right, left and center to join us as they are.” -Epoch Times
“Try to understand men,” wrote John Steinbeck. “If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”
Here’s to more understanding—and stronger friendships—in the post-pandemic world.