Monday, August 20, 2012

Beyond the Impasse of Polarizing Conversation

Beyond the Impasse of Polarizing Conversation
A sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tahlequah
August 19, 2012

Reading: “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Who is tired of political ads and public wrangling among candidates? Already? We still have just two months to go before the election. We are bombarded with interviews, debates, ads, articles, all pointing to the great divide in our country between the Democrats and the Republicans. We hope relief will come after the election, assuming that at least the ads will stop and we can return to our TVs, radios, and the internet safely. But will it end there? Is our fatigue and disenchantment only with the process by which we elect our public officials? Or is there a wider problem that comes into full focus when election time rolls around?

Somehow we’ve come to a place in our civil discourse when issues of great importance to us become issues of either-or. Either you are pro-life or pro-choice. Either you are Democrat or Republican. Either you are for marriage equality or you are for the “traditional” family. And where we stand on these issues becomes the litmus test for whether or not we belong in certain groups or whether or not we can be in relationship with certain people. After a while, under the influence of a steady stream of narratives that demonstrate this either-or thinking, we begin to think the divide can’t be overcome. We throw our hands up in frustration, unable to find a way beyond the impasse of polarizing conversation. Many of us say with the poet, “I know there’s somewhere better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe.” We’re looking for solutions, aren’t we?

People sometimes throw out suggestions when conversations reach the point of heated intransigence. “Can’t we all just agree to disagree?” A nice thought, perhaps, but in most cases, even if we think it’s a good way to end, it leaves us feeling less than satisfied with the outcome. It’s an attempt to bridge the divide, but that bridge comes up short. It ends the conversation, but those on either side of the issue return to their respective camps unmoved and unchanged, assured of their rightness and the other’s wrongness and without much hope for any movement forward.

The problem, at least in part, I think, is that we believe the only way forward is for one group to win and the other to acquiesce. Imagining a world in which our viewpoint is no longer the dominant one seems less than satisfying, so we feel compelled to fight for the cause. Sometimes we’re even spurred on by a sense of righteous indignation. The other side represents injustice. We have to fight for justice! We are convinced of the rightness of our opinion. To move to any common ground with the other is to surrender ethical high ground, to let go of things we value highly.But as long as winning is the motivation for engaging others in conversations about things that matter, we will surrender any real possibility of solving problems, of achieving true justice, all for a chance to be right.

Frances Kissling, long time president of Catholics for Choice, has been engaged in the abortion debate for over thirty years. Much of that thirty years has been spent as an activist, advocating a pro-choice position. However, in recent years, she’s shifted away from the role of activist to one of seeking relationship with those on the other side of the issue. This new pursuit has changed her. In an interview with Krista Tippett, host of the NPR program On Being, Kissling was asked, “[W]hat goes wrong in our culture as we try to navigate this issue of abortion? Where would you start to talk about that?”

Kissling replied,
I think … I always had an approach to abortion that was somewhat different from that of the mainstream choice movement in that politics never interested me very much. You know, the idea that abortion was about getting the right people elected, that there were extremists on the side of those opposed to abortion and rational people on the side of choice never quite fit for me completely. I think that, since I did this work as a Catholic, even though many Catholic venues were closed, I probably talked to more people over the years who were opposed to abortion than most folks in the choice movement. And while I certainly think there is a twin absolutism between those who think there is only one value at stake, the value of women's identity and rights, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, the value of the fetus, that for most people, including me, both of those values exist and the abortion issue is one in which one mediates those values and others.[1]
This assessment demonstrates how most of these issues aren’t as black and white as we’re led to believe. A person who is pro-choice isn’t for killing babies, as the opposing side likes to portray. Likewise a pro-life person isn’t necessarily anti-women, as they are often portrayed. Kissling believes more people hold both values: the value of women’s rights and the value of the fetus. In the process of mediating those values through the issue of abortion, they often get pulled to one side or the other.

Psychologist Ken Gergen describes a relational process he calls “bonding.” He believes as social creatures we are pulled toward “the co-creation of shared realities, and the comfort, reliability, and trust that accompany them.[2]” He posits that the loss of security from the erosion of shared realities in our contemporary world may be what intensifies our need to bond with others who share our view of reality. The drive is enhanced, perhaps sped up, by the ease of access to likeminded people through the internet and social media.

In the process of bonding, the “I” slowly gives way to the “we.” In other words, the narrative that I tell about my own life and how I see the world gives way to the narrative of the group, which holds up those things on which we agree. Slowly, as we take on the narrative of the “we,” what we hold individually becomes less and less important, particularly if it isn’t the same as that which the group holds in common. We lose sight of the values we share with those whose narrative of “we” is different from our own. It’s the “enchantment of ‘we’” that pulls us in that direction.[3] The sense of belonging takes on a transcendent importance to us. We express our satisfaction with it by saying things like, “These are MY people. We really click.” Or, “Our connections run deep.”

Bonding is important. But when it’s done at the exclusion of recognizing what we hold in common with others, it can become dangerous. If we allow the transcendent importance of the “we” to take on a certain absolutism, we run the risk of creating a fundamentalism, a sort of rigid outlook on life, one which can never be touched by the other, which never shifts or changes.[4]

This, I believe, is the danger we face in our culture today. It’s the danger of allowing our sense of belonging to one group to become so important to us that we can never find any value in the other. And while we fight for the values of the group to be upheld, ironically, we surrender values that are important to us as individuals.

After thirty years of engagement with one of our culture’s most polarizing issues, Kissling says,

And the polarization that exists on the abortion issue in which people have called each other names and demonized each other for the past 30 years speaks against — it definitely speaks against any level of trust that enables people to come to some commonality, and so that you really have to start with this first idea that there are some people — not all — who see some benefit in learning why the other thinks the way that they do. And, you know, some of it's the simplistic stuff of humanization that the person becomes a real person, not an extremist, not evilly motivated, you know, that perhaps for some people you can overcome the epithets that we have charged each other with. And that, I'm a very strong believer in.[5]
Do you see a value in understanding how people who differ from you think? What motivates them? How were their values formed and shaped? What are the stories they tell about how they arrived at the positions they hold so dear?

There’s a lot of risk involved in asking such questions. But, I wonder, what we would discover about our own positions if we took the time to ask them of someone who thinks differently than we do. Kissling encourages people to risk in two ways: one, to find what is good in the other’s position, and two, to acknowledge what is troubling about our own position. In doing so herself, Kissling and others found themselves engaged in a dialogue in which the issue of abortion shifted from whether or not it should be legal to a scenario in which is legal, but efforts are made together, people on both sides of the issue, to make it less necessary for women to seek abortions. In a sense, then, people on both sides of the issue let go of the either-or and arrived at a place of both-and. No one changed her or his position necessarily, but they were able to find a perspective in which both views were valued.

The Sufi poet Rumi says,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn’t make any sense.
Do we dare imagine such a place? That field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. Who will we meet there? And what will we create together? Is it a place where both-and solutions might exist? I’ve seen this movement. I’ve seen it with theological students moving to work together, regardless of theological position, to ensure their community is hospitable toward all people. I’ve seen it in communities where Democrats and Republicans who differ greatly on issues related to welfare and how much government should be involved in meeting the needs of people who struggle financially, work together to build community gardens and make access to healthy, safe food possible for everyone. The world needs more both-and solutions.

What are you willing to do this week to hear what’s good in someone else’s view? Where are you willing to risk acknowledging your own uncertainty about your position? I believe if we will take this challenge, we take one step closer toward dwelling in that place of both-and solutions. Let us dare to be people who let love beyond all that bonds only with those with whom we agree cast a widening pool of light that leads us to a way forward.

May it be so.

[1] Frances Kissling, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice: Interview with Krista Tippett,” On Being, 2011. (Accessed on August 18, 2012)
[2] Kenneth Gergen, Relational Being (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 175.
[3] Gergen, 179-190.
[4] Gergen, 175.
[5] Kissling.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

May it be so indeed.
Thank you Linda