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Civil Discourse: The Means or the End?

Two months before the 2018 midterm elections, I walked into a co-working space in Manhattan to engage in the sort of conversation most people try to avoid, especially with a group of strangers over dinner. I was there to facilitate a conversation between eight people of different political stripes. We were gathering together thanks to Make America Dinner Again (MADA), a volunteer-run organization created after the 2016 election to host dinners that “consist of respectful conversation, guided activities, and delicious food shared among 6-10 guests who have differing political viewpoints, and our country’s best interests at heart.”

“Respectful conversation,” while far from guaranteed, was actually the minimum I hoped we would achieve. Though many lament the lack of civil discourse in American politics today, civil discourse alone may be a problematic goal. As one of our guests, who self-identified as black, non-binary and poor, expressed, “People are asking me to be civil when I engage…I’m here to ask what that means at a time when communities are being traumatized…”

In my view, this question represents the most important responsibility of a dialogue facilitator. I didn’t want to pressure participants to  silence themselves or sugarcoat their experience for the sake of civility. We are passionate about politics because the issues at stake touch on our most basic needs and values. Passion is not the problem. Simply “agreeing to disagree” does not satisfy our basic needs for safety, nourishment, love, freedom, dignity or meaning. Beyond civility then, what was our goal? Or as another guest asked, “What does it mean to have a conversation with someone when you know you won’t convince them of your views?”

Mediator Ken Cloke wisely suggests, “Rather than ask how to make discourse more civil, let’s ask how we can transform political passions and turn them into problem solving.” I believe this is a vital strategy, but I knew we couldn’t start with problem solving because it was too prone to degenerate into the tired and toxic debates that permeate cable news and our social media feeds. To start, I hoped our guests would come away with a sense of shared humanity across our increasingly siloed political camps. I hoped they would gain better understanding of why a (seemingly nice) person might hold a certain (seemingly abhorrent) view. I hoped they would hear something unexpected from someone unexpected. My first priority was to focus on the way the group communicated rather than the substance of what was exchanged. It was the process that had the most transformative power.

So how to achieve this transformation? MADA decided to try a new approach this time. We launched a three-part series in which the same group of participants would return each time in order to allow them to build relationships and explore issues in more depth. We collaborated with a new partner, Narrative 4, an organization that uses story telling to “build empathy, shatter stereotypes, break down barriers, and – ultimately – make the world a better place.”

 In a Narrative 4 story exchange, a group divides into pairs to share meaningful stories about their lives and the pairs return to the larger group to share their partner’s story. But instead of telling the story second-hand, each participant tells their partner’s story in the first person, taking on the identity of their partner. In my experience, the act of telling another person’s story without judgment, evaluation or commentary fosters an atmosphere of kindness and genuine curiosity. Some felt the experience generated a sense of unity while others felt aware of the differences between them, but overall, a spirit of respect and empathy stayed with the group in our subsequent conversations. In addition to the foundation laid by the story exchange, the presence of neutral facilitators and the establishment of conversation guidelines likely encouraged respectful dialogue. Gathering around a table over a potluck meal certainly helped to create a warm and welcoming environment, and of course credit is due to the selection of individuals who volunteered to participate.

One sentiment that was frequently expressed on both the left and right was gratitude for the freedom to express opinions without fear of judgment. While many of the views expressed were subject to inquiry and rebuttal, responses were rarely accompanied by personal criticism. The conservatives in the room expressed how they often kept their views to themselves in New York City for fear of losing friends or alienating coworkers. This was not surprising given the predominance of the Democratic party in the city, but a related sentiment was also expressed by the liberals and progressives in the room. One participant mentioned that he was sometimes hesitant to question particular policy positions for fear of being accused of betraying the progressive cause writ large. To have the freedom to do so was “like $#@%ing science fiction!” he exclaimed.

The respectful atmosphere in the room surprised me at times, as well. After the story exchange, I began our first conversation by asking the question, “What political or social issue are you most passionate about and how did you come to care about it?” As we went around the circle, one guest said she was pro-choice and another said she was passionate about the same issue, but from the other side. No facilitator in their right mind would have placed abortion at the top of any agenda, and my heart leapt into my throat when the topic was raised. But as I was about to bring the group back to the original question, I observed such a respectful and substantive exchange unfolding that I decided to let it go on. This was, after all, what we were here for. As I had hoped, the guests asked each other why they believed what they did and went into some detail about the life experiences that had led them to their views. No one tried to change anyone’s mind, which allowed everyone to share honestly and put their guard down a bit. In the end, all sides expressed an appreciation for the opportunity to speak honestly about a topic that tends to evoke such strong feelings.

Other topics discussed included welfare reform, the budget deficit, the Judge Kavanaugh hearings and sexual assault. At times, opinions were clearly divided over partisan lines, but on several occasions they were not, which felt like a breath of fresh air in our highly partisan climate. But while the group didn’t shy away from difficult topics like abortion, there was one elephant in the room that wasn’t addressed until the last 45 minutes of our final meeting: Donald Trump’s presidency. Was this in fact what the guests had wanted to talk about all along, but were too afraid?  When I commented that it was interesting that the subject hadn’t come up earlier, one guest turned to me and whispered “That’s because I can’t have a polite conversation about Donald Trump!”

Then followed something of a confessional, with those who voted for or supported Trump admitting so and noting that they usually kept their opinions a secret in liberal New York City. A somewhat abstract conversation emerged about whether Trump was or wasn’t significantly worse than other politicians. Unlike several topics discussed earlier, opinions divided exactly across partisan lines, though politely so. In retrospect I wish I had intervened in our precious last minutes to encourage the group to access what was most important to them around this issue. For instance, I might have asked, “Why do some of you feel you can’t have a polite conversation about Donald Trump when you managed a very respectful conversation about abortion?” What are the underlying values, hopes and fears that are raised for you in this conversation? 

Can the power of human connection and a commitment to civil discourse enable us to talk substantive politics across the aisle without it degenerating into an all-out brawl? Yes.

But where to from here?


Jessica Baen

Jessica Baen is a conflict resolution professional with expertise in peacebuilding, facilitation and cross-cultural communication. She is a Senior Facilitator and Trainer at Soliya and served previously as Staff Research Associate at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Her published writing covers topics… MORE >

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