Open focus: ‘Reds,’ ‘blues’ work on issues that divide them


Published: 6/3/2019 10:41:45 PM

Alternating “red,” “blue,” “red,” blue” in their seating, 16 participants at a recent Better Angels workshop spent seven hours working toward bridging their political differences.

For several of them, it was an eye-opening, perhaps a heart-opening beginning toward realizing common concerns, even as rhetoric in the 2020 presidential campaigns begins ramping up.

The eight conservative and eight liberal participants, donning respective “red” and “blue” labels as they met at Four Rivers Charter School, followed a strict format laid out by the national nonpartisan Better Angels organization.

The day began with each group identifying stereotypes that members felt the “opposite” team held about them, then analyzed myths about each stereotype, as well as kernels of truth in each. Together, the groups shared what they’d discussed and learned from the exercise.

“Reds,” for example, discussed why they don’t see themselves as “science deniers,” “racists” or “fascists,” while the “blues” considered why “big government,” “soft on crime” or “will let anybody (immigrate)” labels are mistaken.

In a pair of exercises with each group seated in a circle surrounded by the other, they discussed why they feel their values and policies are good for the country – along with their reservations. “Reds” like John Blasziak of Greenfield said conservatism promotes personal responsibility.

Conservative values and policies “encourage individualism, self-awareness and self actualization,” said Jerry Scott of Northfield. “Do as you want, as long as it doesn’t deny somebody else the right to do what they want. That’s the best right now that humanity can do.”

Yet a concern, he said, is “The same individuality that capitalist democracy creates carries with it the risk of the lunatic fringe. That’s true of both sides. That’s where the polarization we’re looking at today predominantly is coming from.”

Jonathan Wilber, a “red” who’d described himself as a “free-market capitalist” from Plymouth, lamented that the purer the system, the greater the disparity of wealth in society.

“You’re going to end up with wealth and you end up with dire poverty. We need some liberals in there to keep the (people with) pitchforks from showing up. We’ve seen it time and time again. You’ve got a problem if there’s enormous disparity in the allocation of wealth.”

The final exercise with each “color” developing four “questions of curiosity” rather than “gotcha questions,” for the other group, and then coming together for answers, gave each group an opportunity to learn. But it was also a chance to discover its own openness about discovering where to begin understanding.

Vincent Gillespie of Athol, who’d described himself as “a fluorescent red,” led his group to ask, “What is this vision that they’re pushing us towards? I don’t know what’s their goal. I don’t know where they’re pushing us.”

Yet “blue” Laura Pepper of Orange responded, “I don’t have a vision. I have a fear: I fear that if we don’t get this climate crisis under control, we have no future. To me, that is the bottom line.”

Blasziak posed another “red” question: “Would the progressive ideal world permit conservatives to continue to live their conservative lives? Or would we be legislated out of existence?”

“Somebody loses on either side,” said “blue” Linda Terry of Amherst, illustrating how it would feel if Republicans got their way on gun ownership, for example. “There are compromises. We don’t all get to live by our values in all situations. Yes, there is a line sometimes at which people are compromised. There are times we each don’t get to live the way we want.”

Becca King of Greenfield added, “I don’t see it any different from living in a family. You have a conversation and come down to some kind of agreement in which both people can have at least some of their needs met. Teenagers need different things than what they needed five years ago. It’s all part of an evolution, where we’re all trying to learn to grow up together. But it’s going to be painful, and it’s going to require some conciliation and some degree of sacrifice.

“Blue” members asked, “What are the causes of economic inequality and how do we fix it?” Responses from conservatives ranged from doing “nothing at all” to agreement with liberals that businesses need to “pay their share” of the country’s tax burden.

“Reds” were also asked to find common ground between the economy and the environment, and how to balance those, and about the ways the Trump presidency has left them pleased and concerned.

Conservative Bill Richardson of Greenfield, said, “We may not like his procedure or methods, but (Trump is) doing a lot of good things as far as negotiations. Sometimes, in the real world you’ve got to play hardball, in trade deals with China and getting NATO to pay their fair share…. My concern is his disrespect for people in general.”

The eight participants, lumped together under sweepingly broad labels that left them stumbling to find common language to express their “team’s” views, at times came together in empathy.

“Both sides, it seems, have a lot of good heartedness and wanting things to be good for everyone, really,” said liberal Peter Schein of Leverett. “Both sides also have the limitation of looking at everything through the lens of our perceived or inherited worldview or framework without questioning it enough. That’s where I think this process is a good step towards ... really questioning one’s own assumptions.”

Wilber said, “I’m struck by the sincerity and the genuine compassion that blues have, that’s not put-on, that’s not morally higher ground, that’s just genuinely caring about making things better. There’s just a certain sincerity I’m struck with. You’re good, caring people. ‘Reds’ feel the same way, but ‘reds’ have a different approach in how to solve things.”

“The bottom line,”said Sherrill Hogen of Charlemont, who had described herself as being ‘a very left Democrat,’ “is we’re all human beings.”

Conservative Jen Brennan of Northfield summarized at the end of the session that she’d come to see a need for more of a balance between self-responsibility and responsibility to society – “a good thing to learn.”

On the day’s interactions, she added, “This is much more interesting than watching the news.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is

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