Discover more from Civic Renaissance with Alexandra Hudson
The Irreplaceable Magic of Accompaniment in a Technological Age
Reflections on the Braver Angels Convention in Gettysburg, and the power of presence to re-humanize our divided era—plus, a pre order gift for The Soul of Civility!
It was wonderful to see and meet so many of you in person at the Braver Angels convention last week in Gettysburg, PA!
Thank you to all of you who stopped me to introduce yourself and say hello. How wonderful to put faces to the names I had previously just known behind the computer screen. While I adore this virtual intellectual community that we’ve build over the last three years, what a difference a face to face visit makes!
I started Civic Renaissance shortly before the world shut down during the COVID 19 pandemic. Last week, being with so many wonderful others that I haven’t seen in years—or have only known virtually—reminded me of the undeniable and irreplaceable gift of inhabiting the same space as others.
The convention was an extraordinary gathering of nearly 700 people from across the political spectrum, nation, and world—there is a Braver Angels Europe contingent, too!—who care about healing and overcoming our differences by focusing on what we have in common as human beings with inherent dignity and worth and worthy of respect.
I was thankful to record live an episode of the Braver Angels podcast with my longtime friend, John Wood Jr., about my book The Soul of Civility, so stay tuned for the release of that dialogue in the coming weeks (and thanks to those who joined live!).
The question of how to do life together across difference is THE most important question of our day. I lived firsthand through our divided moment while working in politics in Washington D.C. I saw and experienced the frequency with which we essentialize others based on their political associations or leanings.
I left the toxicity in our national politics, and decided to at least try to be more a part of the solution to our divided times—so left Washington, moved to Indianapolis, and began writing about the stuff of personhood and human dignity.
I discovered Braver Angels (then Better Angels) in an Economist article about their efforts to re-humanize our politics despite our differences—which is what I knew we direly needed. I decided to see their work for myself, so drove to a BA work shop inBloomington indiana. so impressed with what I saw, I began writing abut their work—and never really stopped. (They’re even featured extensively in the chapter on tolerance in my book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.)
It was encouraging to be with hundreds of others who are equally as passionate about dehumanizing our public life as I am.
For those unfamiliar with BA’s work, they are the largest depolarization organization in the nation, founded after the divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election.
We’re now looking at multiple indictments, a divided country, and a generally sour and cynical national mood. Amidst all of this, I and many others have decided that now is the moment to stand against the rising tide of division.
In 1969, being countercultural meant Woodstock.
In 2023, maybe a movement such as this—citizens self-consciously staging a rebellion against our divided status quo—is what counterculture means.
In sum, Braver Angels is leading a social movement—and forging an alternative mode of engaging with others respectfully and with civility across difference—that is worth paying attention to.
The Power of Presence
More than anything, it was wonderful to have so many people—from artists, intellectuals, musicians, politicians, religious leaders, alongside regular American citizens—in a room together in Gettsyburg.
After our one millionth Zoom call—which became the default and ubiquitous mode of communication amid the pandemic—and for many of us, well before then, we learned that virtual interactions are an imperfect substitute for in-person interactions.
We direly need presence with others—we need accompaniment—in order to become fully human, and attain the life well lived.
The pandemic didn’t cause as many issues as it revealed and exacerbated, including our profound personal loneliness at the individual level, and our divisions at the national level.
Reclaiming accompaniment—a life lived alongside others as part of this joint partnership of living well together—is the answer.
I decided to counter our moment of loneliness and division— and to pursue accompaniment—by joining the BA convention in person.
There is a profundity to presence with others—one that is missed and diminished with our digitally mediated interactions.
There is an irreplaceable magic—and an inarticulable delight—to inhabiting shared spaces together.
Co-inhabiting a moment in time through a meal or a conversation creates unseen bonds—bonds that sustain our free and flourishing institutions, and help us realize the promise of the good life.
Rejecting efficiency, reviving humanity
Some of you might be reading this and be thinking, “I would have love to join this, but I can’t afford the time off work to travel and be there for three days. Couldn't I just watch the recording of the event or participate virtually?”
This sort of efficiency-oriented thinking— insisting everything we do must be streamlined, and done as economically as possible and must have a tangible output— is a malady particularly salient to our technological age.
Of course, sometimes efficiency-thinking is good. As a mother of two young children, I love life hacks that help me squeeze more out of time.
And yet, I've come to appreciate that this way of thinking—having a “goal” and end for every activity, and marching through our to do lists as quickly as possible— is the enemy of friendship and trust, and joy. As a mother, I know I can’t just snap your fingers and have intimacy, relationship, and quality time with my children.
I need ample of quantity of unstructured of time in order to have quality time.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to forging and fortifying relationships and love. Trying to manufacture quality time or a memory just doesn’t work.
It diminishes the joys of just being together, of enjoying a game, a meal, or a conversation without some sort of expected “return on investment” for our time and efforts.
Contra “total efficiency”
While in France earlier this month, I had the honor of visiting the estate and family of Jacques Ellul, the twentieth century French philosopher who was an ethicist of technology, and one of the most important thinkers of the last hundred years.
Ellul is an essential thinker for our moment.
He warned of the cult of “total efficiency, ” and gives us a helpful perspective on this problem. Ellul was a perceptive observer of the perils that come with modern society's obsession with technique—a term Ellul used to refer to the way in which all aspects of our lives and social systems are ordered around efficiency, eradicating the whimsical and non-ulititarian.
He wrote in his work, The Technological Society:
Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.
Ellul also observed, “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”
Technique, Ellul pointed out, can undermine our humanity and can prevent us from meeting our non-utilitarian need for time and friendship with others.
Accompaniment rebels against technique because it requires sacrificing efficiency for the unquantifiable joy and magic of time with others.
Unity out of division?
Importantly, accompaniment does not aim to diminish our deep differences, but to thrive amidst them.
The Braver Angels Convention gave me and many others the chance to be part of the movement toward civility, tolerance, and pluralism—the topic of my forthcoming book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.
The convention was also an important buttress against the greatest destabilizing forces of our day: heightened polarization and the atomization produced by novel technological forces, such as social media platforms.
It’s easier than ever to find excuses not to be with others. But life with others—especially those with whom we differ—is the stuff of the life well lived, and the secret to remedying the division that threatens our democracy.
To those of you who joined us in Gettysburg, thank you for being part of this social movement to re-humanize our politics and reclaim friendship in divided times.
For those of you who didn’t: see you there next year?
A Gift of Thanks RE The Soul of Civility
In just three months, my book—The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves—is will be released.
Thanks for those of you who have already ordered it, thank you!
I get it.
Pre-ordering books is hard for many people.
Many of you are thinking: Why would I order something now that I won’t for three more months?
That’s why I created over $700 worth of FREE GIFTS to enjoy right now—and to thank you for your early pre-order.
The pre-order gifts include:
Four Civility Books that Will Change Your Life course (a $350 value)
How to Talk to Anyone about Anything toolkit (a $47 value)
Cultivating Curiosity: A Beginners Guide to the Life Well Lived ebook (a $12 value)
Monthly calls with Alexandra Hudson and some of the most interesting and curious people of our day (a $250 value) — July’s will be with Yascha Mounk, founder of Persuasion, and author of the The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time forthcoming this fall from Random House.
A free year of Civic Renaissance (a $70 value)
I worked many days over the last several months to create these resources for you to enjoy between now and October 10, when The Soul of Civility is released. I hope you have as much fun consuming them as I did creating them!
I can’t wait to share them, and my book, with you!
Thank you for your partnership in rehumanzing our politics, and in reclaiming respect friendship across difference.