The Art of Blending

How a practice in aikido, a Japanese martial art with a philosophy of non-violence, led to Crossing Party Lines.

Having difficult conversations requires a willingness to disagree. It works best when you don’t try to force the other person to agree with you, but you also have a firm sense of what matters to you and you can explain why in a way the other person might find relatable. Perhaps most importantly of all, it requires a willingness to listen to the other person’s perspective, even if you know that perspective will never be your own. When I found Crossing Party Lines, these were things I didn’t fully recognize – but I was pleasantly surprised that an aspect of my background had already given me the basis of this approach, if not the details.

Long before I was a member of Crossing Party Lines, I was a martial artist – and I still am today. The foundation of my practice is aikido, a Japanese martial art with a philosophy of non-violence. To many American ears, this may sound like a contradiction, but when it comes to physical altercations, you have more options than you might think. In aikido, techniques that might be used to break limbs in other martial arts disciplines have been transformed into joint locks or throws aimed to neutralize an attack without harming the attacker. Our philosophy in aikido is to take whatever energy is directed at us and redirect it to bring both parties to a safe place.

Aikido works along a multitude of possible arcs. To affect our attacker’s balance, we first need to meet with the arc they’re directing at us – we need to blend with them. By blending with our attacker, we can then build a tangent off the existing arc to redirect the attack. Much of our practice in aikido is physical, but there’s a metaphor to this approach that applies more broadly than just to someone trying to hit you. I fondly remember Ismael Rangel, a senior instructor at Aikido of Austin, illustrating this point while demonstrating a technique sometimes referred to as ko-kyu-ho. As his demonstration partner attempted to hit him over the head, he moved behind them and turned to face the same direction they were facing. “I see what you’re saying,” he said, before wrapping his partner’s attack arc back around themselves and turning to knock them backwards off their feet, “but I think we should go this way instead.”

In America today, most of us are fortunate to spend the majority of our lives without the threat of physical confrontation. While physical threats can and do happen, we are much more often faced with psychological or emotional threats – arguments or disagreement. Sometimes, these are intended to hurt the person they’re directed at – but more often than not, the person we’re in a disagreement with just wants to be understood. As a young aikido practitioner, I heard stories of people using words to diffuse tension that otherwise could have resulted in violence, including a story witnessed by aikido practitioner Terry Dobson in which an old Japanese man tamed a belligerent drunk on a train by offering to listen to his troubles. I tried for a long time to figure out how to apply the principles of aikido to these kinds of threats myself, but after 13 years of practice, I felt like I had achieved very little. And that’s when I found Crossing Party Lines.

Crossing Party Lines applies the same principles I use in my aikido practice to the realm of conversation. For a successful conversation, we first need to blend with our conversation partner – to listen to them with the goal of understanding what’s most important to them. Once we’ve made this connection, it’s much easier to take the conversation to a different place. When people feel heard, they’re more likely to listen to us in return, and we can begin to build a relationship with them. After participating in and learning from this kind of interaction, neither of us may end up facing the same way we started, but we might be able to head in a different direction together. Being willing to listen and speaking in a way that helps others hear us results in a much better outcome than breaking someone’s arm – either literally or figuratively.

It often feels like we’re obligated to battle people who hold opposing viewpoints to our own, but doing so actually deepens the threats we face by acting in agreement with the idea that we’re enemies. If we take the time to blend with our opponent – to recognize our common humanity – we have the potential to reverse the divisiveness that our country faces. This isn’t easy to do. As any decent martial artist will tell you, it takes regular practice to build and maintain your skills, and you never reach the point of perfection. Just like the skills of aikido, the skills we practice at Crossing Party Lines are a life-long endeavor. But with the potential to reduce political polarization, and with a well-functioning democracy with a diversity of opinions heard and respected on the horizon, I think this is a path worth walking, even if our goal is a moving target.

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    The Two Types of Depolarization

    Depolarization — the work of reducing toxic polarization — is best understood in terms of the two types of polarization that shape our interactions and perceptions in today’s politically charged climate:

    1. Affective Polarization

    Affective polarization revolves around emotions and feelings. It refers to the emotional divide between individuals or groups with differing political views. It’s about how people feel about others who hold opposing ideologies.

    • Us vs. Them: In affective polarization, people tend to see those on the other side of the political spectrum as part of an “us vs. them” mentality. Emotions like anger, fear, and distrust often come into play.
    • Emotional Reactions: When encountering someone with opposing views, affectively polarized individuals may experience heightened emotions. They might feel threatened, defensive, or even hostile.
    • Echo Chambers: Social media and personalized news feeds can exacerbate affective polarization by reinforcing existing beliefs and isolating individuals from diverse perspectives.

    2. Cognitive Polarization

    Cognitive polarization focuses on thought processes and cognitive biases. It pertains to how people think about the views of others.

    • Discounting Opposing Views: Cognitive polarization leads to a tendency to discount opposing viewpoints without critically evaluating them. People may jump to conclusions, assuming that differing opinions lack validity or logical soundness.
    • Us vs. Them (Again): Just as in affective polarization, cognitive polarization reinforces the “us vs. them” mindset. It hinders open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
    • Intellectual Echo Chambers: Cognitive polarization occurs when people surround themselves with like-minded sources, reinforcing their preconceptions and avoiding exposure to alternative perspectives.

    The Interplay Between Affective and Cognitive Polarization

    Affective and cognitive polarization often feed into each other. Emotional reactions (affective) influence how we process information (cognitive), and vice versa.

    Breaking the Cycle: CPL recognizes that depolarization  requires us to address both affective and cognitive aspects. Encouraging empathy and  active listening is not enough.  We must also teach critical thinking and intellectual humility if we are to truly bridge the gap.

    About Bridging

    Bridging refers to the intentional effort to reduce toxic polarization by fostering understanding, empathy, and communication between individuals or groups with differing political views. It aims to build connections and discover our shared humanity, ultimately bridging the gaps that divides people along ideological lines.