Across the Chasm

Most everyone knows the frustration of discussing an issue they
feel passionately about — be it welfare reform or whether Walmart
should be banished from the face of the earth — only to have
someone with an equally impassioned counterargument shoot their
ideas down. Now, a loose coalition of movements aimed at getting
people of opposing viewpoints to find common ground through
conversation is making inroads into conflicts that were once seen
as intractable.

Take the abortion debate. In the current climate, its almost
impossible for anyone on either side to admit that they see any
shades of gray, since doing so would be taken as a point in favor
of the other side. But, as an article in In Context (No. 40)
points out, ‘though there are certain benefits to being aligned on
one side — such as clarity about where you stand, social
validation, and the support of like-minded people,’ there are also
costs, namely the silencing and marginalization of the large number
of people whose complex views don’t fit into either slot.

Honoring these gray areas is where an organization called the
Public Conversations Project comes in. Using what they call
‘dialogue sessions’ as forums for people from both sides of the
abortion rights issue, the facilitators structure the sessions for
maximum effect: chairs are arranged in a way so that participants
are seated within touching distance of somebody who thinks
differently than they do; participants’ responses are timed so that
no single person can hog the stage; questions cover both political
beliefs and personal experiences with the issue. What the
organizers found was that most people were less dogmatic about
their beliefs than they were usually willing to admit, and that the
experience of seeing their ‘opponents’ having similar doubts help
break down stereotypes.

Beyond abortion, dialogue sessions have also been used to
facilitate conversations between descendants of slaves and
descendants of slave owners, gay rights activists and their
opponents, and environmentalists and developers. An entire issue of
Northern Lights (Spring 1995) is devoted to ‘The Art of
Listening,’ with a series of articles that look at both the pros
and cons of face-to face mediation as an answer to the land-sue
issues brought on by the booming development of the West. New
Age Journal
(Jan./Feb. 1995) also reports that dinner
discussions have been helpful in mending fences between liberals
and conservative Christians in Colorado Springs.

Original to Utne Reader Online

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