Photographs above and throughout are of attendees at a Better Angels “Red/Blue” workshop held in San Francisco this fall.
Back in the 1970s, Kingsley Amis—the grumpy British novelist now remembered mostly as the father of the slightly less grumpy novelist Martin—made a remark that even today holds a high place in the anthologies of human grumpiness: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” Amis died in 1995, so he had the misfortune of living to see the workshop triumph as the primary means of socialization and instruction in American commercial and cultural life. He might have even lived long enough to hear the noun turned into a verb: “We really need to workshop this …” It might have been what finally killed him.
Grumpy myself, I share Amis’s dim view of the workshop as a sly instrument of regimentation, a technique of smiley-faced uniformity, a venue for mandatory “sharing” and ostentatious empathy. For a grump, the workshop’s ties to group therapy make it immediately suspect. Its implementation in aid to the trendy causes of human-resources departments confirms the worst suspicions. The sight of easels and flip charts and fat Sharpies has the power, for some of us, to induce feelings of deep trauma.
Yet there I was one bright summer Sunday, wreathed in skepticism, gathered with a dozen others in the community room of a suburban public library in Northern Virginia to test whether this nation, or any nation so fragmented and so polarized, can be united and saved by a workshop.
This was not just any workshop, of course. I was at a “skills workshop” put on by a grassroots citizens’ group called Better Angels. The group got its start in the shell-shocked weeks right after the 2016 election, and it takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s famous plea, in his first inaugural address, that his divided countrymen heed the “better angels of our nature.” (They didn’t.)
Paid-up membership in Better Angels stands at a little over 8,000, but the group creates a commotion bigger than that of organizations many times its size. On any given day somebody somewhere in the United States is hosting an event like the one I attended. There are an average of eight to 10 such events a week. The mission everywhere is the same, explained by the inspirational mottoes on the posters the organizers had hung in the library. “Let’s depolarize America!” “Start a conversation, not a fight.”