(CNN)America is ideologically split, and if the animosity over the 2020 election results is any indication, we may be fast losing the ability to bridge the divide.
Is there any way to reconnect?
Could we learn how to discuss our beliefs with opposing friends, family and acquaintances -- perhaps over Zoom or socially distanced get-togethers -- and have a dialogue in which we disagree, yet emerge on the other side feeling understood?
That's the premise behind The Better Arguments Project, a civic initiative by the Aspen Institute, Facing History and Ourselves, and Allstate, that wants to teach us how to have more productive arguments. These conversations don't have to drive us apart, the group says. In fact, by learning to argue 'better," we can come together.
CNN discussed the group's work with Caroline Hopper, managing director of the Citizenship & American Identity Program at The Aspen Institute, which sponsors The Better Arguments Project. The chat has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: What is a "better" argument?
Caroline Hopper: A "better" argument is a way of engaging across differences, not by setting those differences aside, but by engaging them directly. A better argument is rooted in history, emotionally intelligent, and honest about power imbalances, and it follows key principles of constructive communication.
The goal of a better argument is not necessarily to change anyone's mind, but rather to change how we engage with one another on any given issue.
A better argument allows participants to care about one another, not just one another's opinion about the issue. We ask participants to "be human first." What we mean by that is you shouldn't only engage with each other about your opinions; share more about yourself and seek to learn more about the person with whom you are engaging. Otherwise, you will only see one another only as opponents, rather than as people representing very full lives and experiences that are shaping those opinions.
The priority is to walk away from that interaction caring more about that other person than about whether or not you won that argument -- be human first.
CNN: Why would we want to argue at a time when we are so bitter and frustrated?
Hopper: I can see that saying we need arguments of any kind, even if they are "better," may feel backward in a moment like this when we feel so divided. It may be more natural to promote efforts to find common ground, to call for civility.
I think that's something a lot of families are saying to each other: "Can we just keep this civil?"
Too often, civility is misconstrued as the mere absence of argument. When we politely decline to share our true opinions or ignore our true experiences, what we are really doing is giving up our public discourse to the most polarized voices.
We know that these voices are going to be heard, they're on TV, and they already have enough of a platform, enough power.
The more we step away from each other -- the more we rely on the polarized narratives that we have access to because that's all we have access to -- the more we disagree and dislike one another. It's a dangerous self-perpetuating cycle.
We can break that cycle by hearing from more Americans. By inviting argument, in one sense we are saying to all Americans that your voice, your perspective, your experience matters -- even if it is not represented in the dominant discourse. We are simply not getting the information that we need to make informed decisions if we are only engaging with people who agree with us.
By sharing different ideas and points of view, we often emerge with deeper insights and stronger solutions to the problems that affect us all.
When we are able to have those conversations, we are saying to everyone: "Your voice matters, your perspective matters, your experience matters."
However, the arguments in American politics today are inadequate. We need to find better ways to engage across difference. That's where we believe better arguments can come in.
CNN: What are the building blocks of a better argument?
Hopper: There are three dimensions to a better argument. Think of it as the conditions that must be met before you can actually engage in a discussion.
The first dimension is history. We know that today's civic arguments are rooted in history -- a sort of recapitulation of arguments that have been had in the past.
A great example of this is the tension between liberty and equality, such as today's debate over whether or not people should have to wear masks. Fundamentally that is a debate between the American principles of liberty and equality. And so history matters, and it needs to be reflected in a better argument.
The second dimension is emotion. We know that emotion can steer discourse just as much as any facts. Hope and fear, in particular, are really driving forces.
A better argument is one in which we seek to understand wh