Can a documentary restore America’s civility?

Tue, 2019-04-16

It’s every reality TV show contestant’s mantra — like a sacred psalm for “Survivor”: “I’m not here to make friends.”

But Jeff Avery and Donna Lawson were on a different kind of reality show.

Avery, a 51-year-old liberal from Sandwich, and Lawson, a 49-year-old conservative from Taunton, were among 12 Massachusetts residents — six Trump voters and six, uh, extremely not Trump voters — who spent a weekend last September filming the first three episodes of “Divided We Fall,” a documentary series currently in production and sponsored by the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse.

I’ve written before about the folks at the civility institute. They’ve spent years crisscrossing the country, undertaking various efforts — meetings, pledges, websites — to tone down the toxic rhetoric that has overtaken our public square. And just when I begin to wonder whether the civility people are broken and huddled politely behind a fern in some hotel conference room somewhere, they reemerge with a new plot to get us to be more respectful toward each other, online and IRL.

This time it involves forcing a dozen strangers with strong and conflicting opinions to discuss politics with each other on camera.

This is the scenario I expect to encounter on my first day in hell. But polls show that Americans across the political spectrum are eager to be able to talk with and understand one another, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the institute’s executive director emerita. That’s not the same as the vague, centrist, feel-good notion of Americans “coming together” and “setting aside our differences.”

It’s sort of the opposite: It’s about actually exploring those differences.