On the morning of Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts and opened fire with a rifle. He seriously wounded three people and killed the receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she spoke on the phone. He then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street to Preterm Health Services, where he began shooting again, injuring two and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.
Several months later, a group of six leaders, three each from the pro-choice and pro-life movements, started meeting in secret with each other. At first, they were nervous about the project. One of the pro-life participants was worried that if word got out that he was in dialogue with pro-choice leaders, it could generate ”a scandal if people thought [he] was treating abortion merely as a matter of opinion on which reasonable people could differ.” One of the pro-choice leaders ”wondered if the talks would divert [her] energies from coordinating [her] organization’s response to the shootings and from assisting in the healing of [her] employees and their families.”
The two facilitators were worried that the “‘talks might do more harm than good.”
But, they stuck with it. There were many challenges in their conversations, including over basic things like terminology. Prochoice members would become inflamed when referred to as ”murderers” or when abortions were likened to the Holocaust or to ”genocide.” Prolife participants became incensed by dehumanizing phrases such as ”products of conception” and ”termination of pregnancy” that obscured their belief that abortion was killing.
Nevertheless, they grew close to one another. They learned to distinguish between the way that an opponent thought, and the person sitting across the room. They learned to have a conversation in which they were not trying to change the other person’s mind.
They were forced to dig deep to learn to define exactly what they believed and where those beliefs came from, and to admit those things about which they still experienced uncertainty.
The dialogue did not bring them closer together politically. It revealed deep differences between their respective positions.
But, the growing sensitivity to one another started to have an impact on the public statements that they were making, in which the media noticed a decrease in inflammatory rhetoric. And that resulted in reaching people whom they never would have reached before.
Five and a half years later, on January 28, 2001, after the group had spent more than 150 hours together, they co-authored an article that appeared in the Boston Globe in which they described their experiences. (“Talking with the Enemy,” published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, 28 January 2001, Focus section.) They concluded the article by explaining why they had chosen to continue to meet together for all these years. They felt that they had been stretched spiritually and intellectually, that they had become wiser and more effective leaders, having become more knowledgeable about their opponents. They learned to not be overreactive and to not disparage the other side. This is how they concluded the article:
Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a paradox. While learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, we have all become firmer in our views about abortion.
In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.
Wouldn’t that be nice? If we could have conversations about deeply polarizing issues, in which those conversations help us clarify for ourselves what we believe, while at the same time bringing us closer to those who think differently.
Which brings us to the recent election. Thank God it is over. Regardless of who you were rooting for, I think we can all agree that this election cycle has been awful, and it is a relief now that it is over.
The irony is, of course, that after all of the money that has been spent, we are basically where we were before. Barack Obama is still President. The Democrats still control the Senate, and the Republicans still control the House.
The political rhetoric in our country is so divisive, so polarizing.
Why is it like that? Why can’t people with different views about the direction our country should be moving speak to and about each other with respect? Especially when we consider that most people in America are probably closer to the center. There is something about our political system, or about the media, that seems to drive people to the extremes, and leads to disparaging, and even dehumanizing, anyone who thinks differently.
The most recent episode of the NPR radio program This American Life dealt with this issue. One segment was all about people who ended friendships because of political differences. And just to be clear, people on both the right and the left were depicted. Why do we allow ourselves to make our opinions so personal.
The truth is, the fault is not with our politics, or with the media. It is with our brains. This is simply how humans behave. That, combined with the instant communication possibilities that our technology now offers, has increased the polarization in society.
People who are like-minded tend to talk only to each other, and rarely to people with opposing viewpoints.
Why is it so hard to talk about our differences?
Our brains associate what we think with who we are. My thoughts are me. So when I hear someone say something that challenges what I think, my brain takes it as a challenge to my identity.
My brain perceives it as a threat and releases hormones that cause me to misread or misunderstand the nature of the attack. This leads us to respond in one of three ways: Flight, fight, or freeze.
I might run away from the person who is expressing a different opinion. Shelter myself from challenging ways of thinking. By avoiding exposure to other viewpoints, my identity is secure.
The second response, fight, causes me to respond to the threat by arguing back. And often, by escalating the argument. That is why political disagreements often turn into accusations and name calling.
The third response is to freeze like a deer in the headlights. To just shut down, and not engage.
Human beings are hard-wired to mirror one another’s behavior. That is why when we experience attack and defense, we tend to respond in kind. This creates a feedback loop, as feelings of danger and threat escalate. Pretty soon, we have lost the ability to have intelligent conversations.
Think for a moment about how you view those who hold different values than you, or about how others perceive you.
It does not matter what the issue is, or which side of it you are on. Take abortion, or same sex marriage, taxes, the proper role of government.
Now, in your mind, complete the following sentence: As a ____, others view me as ______.
As someone who is pro-choice, others view me as supporting murder.
Now do the opposite. As a ______, I view others as ______.
As someone who is pro-choice, I view others as ________. someone who hates women, a religious fundamentalist…
We tend to speak in generalities of the other side, leading us to characterize them as the enemy, or evil, or unintelligent, or uneducated. If the other person does not think the way I do, there must be something wrong with him or her. We recognize the crassness of the other side before we recognize it on our own. We tend to see ourselves as open-minded, and the other as closed.
So we end up dividing into camps of the like-minded. Curiosity, openness, and goodwill towards the other are discouraged. Extreme positions are enhanced.
Our political rhetoric has gone through the feedback loop and descended to name-calling. President Obama is a socialist. Republicans hate women.
As soon as an issue gets a slogan that portrays a side, real dialogue becomes very difficult. Nuanced positions cannot be expressed in binary labels like pro-choice and pro-life. It is scary to give in anything from your own position when involved in a binary political fight. We have to get away from the labels.
We need to find a way to have real dialogue with each other. Dialogue that helps us understand other positions better, and through that openness, our own positions better. Our nation needs it. I hope our newly elected leaders can do this, although I have my doubts.
But it is not just in the political arena that respectful dialogue is needed.
It is needed in the Jewish community as well. It is needed in our shul. Members have shared with me that they have felt uncomfortable expressing their views publicly because of what they perceive as negative reactions from other members of the community.
It is possible to break the feedback loop.
At the end of this morning’s Parshah, Abraham dies, as the Torah describes, “in a good old age, an old man, and full of years…” The Torah then tells us that “Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” Noticing that Isaac’s name is mentioned before his older brother’s, Rashi comments that “Ishmael repented and placed Isaac before himself. This act of reconciliation constitutes the ‘good old age’ that is attributed to Abraham.”
These half-brothers certainly had their differences. We have no record in the Torah of them interacting with each other for decades. They clearly have different personalities, and have chosen different paths in life. Yet, Ishmael found a way to set aside those differences and see the humanity in Isaac. According to Rashi, this occurred prior to Abraham’s death, for the knowledge of his sons’ reconciliation enabled him to die contented, in “good, old age.”
We can only imagine how the reunion might have gone. But for two brothers who were so different, it must have involved learning to listen to each other, and recognize the humanity in the other, despite the differences.
Having a dialogue with the other needs rules.
There are groups out there that specialize in mediating difficult, polarizing issues. Issues like abortion, same sex marriage, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And they have sophisticated models for leading groups of people with differing viewpoints through a productive dialogue. I am not going to go into a detailed analysis. Instead, I would like to suggest an approach that we might take, as individuals, the next time we are in a conversation about a polarizing topic, perhaps during kiddush today.
The first thing we have to be clear about is the purpose of the dialogue. What do I hope to accomplish when I have a discussion with someone who disagrees with me about health care, for example?
My goal cannot be to win the argument, or convince the other person that my way is correct. If I go into a conversation thinking that I am going to change the other person’s mind, I will fail.
The goal, for this and any other issue, is simply to understand the other person. And that means that I have to listen, and listen closely.
And then, when it is my turn to talk, there are a couple of self-reflective questions that will be very helpful:
Why do I care so passionately about this issue? What in my own experience has led me to this passion?
And then, equally important, is to find those areas where I am uncertain. What is it in my own position that troubles me? What is it in the other’s position that I find attractive?
These are the kinds of questions that the six pro-choice and pro-life leaders in Boston asked themselves. Those are the kinds of questions we ought to ask ourselves as well.
After a Christian group had gone through a mediated dialogue over some issue that was controversial for their community, one of the participants described how he felt after it was over. His opinion was not changed. If anything, he felt even stronger about his position than he had beforehand. But his feelings about his opponents had made a 180 degree shift. This is what he said: “I love you, but I hate the way you think.”
May we find the courage to say the same.