Talking with the Enemy in a Secret Attempt to Understand

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 9:47 am

Talking with the Enemy in a Secret Attempt to Understand

During her introduction to last night’s discussion with Frances Kissling and David Gushee, Krista recommended the audience read an “astonishing” article from the Public Conversations Project titled “Talking with the Enemy.”
In 1994, John Salvi shot and killed Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols. Both were receptionists at Preterm Health Services and Planned Parenthood Clinic, respectively. Following this public tragedy, six leaders on both sides of the abortion debate decided to meet “in secret in an attempt to better understand each other”:

“In the evening of Dec. 30, 1995, about 700 people gathered at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline to honor the memory of Lowney and Nichols. All our prochoice participants attended the service. Fowler and Gamble officiated. In the solemn crowd were Podziba, one of our facilitators, and two of our prolife members, Hogan and Thorp, accompanied by David Thorp, her husband.

‘Seeing the other members of the group walk in was one of the most meaningful moments of the service for me,’ Fowler recalls.
In her remarks, Gamble expressed gratitude ‘for the prayers of those who agree with us and the prayers of those who disagree.’

Fowler, in her sermon, reminded us of the ‘God who calls out to all who love peace.’ She drew from the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, saying ‘and new things have sprung forth in the year since Lee Ann’s and Shannon’s deaths. Much has been transformed, and much will be.'”

The participants share their stance on the issues, their anxieties about meeting with the other, and some essential ground rules for civil conversation:

“To help us listen and speak across this divide, ground rules were critical. We would seek to use terms acceptable (or at least tolerable) to all participants. We would not interrupt, grandstand, or make personal attacks. We would speak for ourselves, not as representatives of organizations. Most important, the meetings would be completely confidential unless all of us could agree upon a way to go public.

We also made a commitment that some of us still find agonizingly difficult: to shift our focus away from arguing for our cause. This agreement was designed to prevent rancorous debates.
And indeed, we believe this ground rule has been essential to the long life of our dialogue. Knowing that our ideas would be challenged, but not attacked, we have been able to listen openly and speak candidly.

But it has not been easy.”

There was also a surprising outcome:

“Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a paradox. While learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, we all have become firmer in our views about abortion.

We hope this account of our experience will encourage people everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion and other protracted disputes. 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.”

And yet the conversation did not end:

“These conversations revealed a deep divide. We saw that our differences on abortion reflect two world views that are irreconcilable.

If this is true, then why do we continue to meet?
First, because when we face our opponent, we see her dignity and goodness. Embracing this apparent contradiction stretches us spiritually. We’ve experienced something radical and life-altering that we describe in nonpolitical terms: ‘the mystery of love,’ ‘holy ground,’ or simply, ‘mysterious.’
We continue because we are stretched intellectually, as well. This has been a rare opportunity to engage in sustained, candid conversations about serious moral disagreements. It has made our thinking sharper and our language more precise.

We hope, too, that we have become wiser and more effective leaders. We are more knowledgeable about our political opponents. We have learned to avoid being overreactive and disparaging to the other side and to focus instead on affirming our respective causes.”

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was an associate producer at On Being.

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