The other day, I read a parenting feud online, pitting an article by Allison Barrett Carter, a mom who wants to keep guns out of her home, against Jenn Jacques, a mom with a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
This year, The Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project’s annual forum examines gun policy. While I have my own perspectives on the issue, my work developing and chairing The Project for the past four years has taught me to focus my energy on how we engage on the topic, whether it be this often incendiary one, the others we have tackled—health policy, fracking and political funding—or the many more with which we grapple as a society and will, over time, explore as part of The Project’s work.
Our experts this year, Chelsea Parsons of Center for American Progress and Adam Bates of The CATO Institute, tell me that their dialogue on April 27 in front of our audience of hundreds may be the first time true civil discourse will occur across the contemporary divide separating positions about guns in the US.
That frightens me.
It frightens me because we can’t get to a solution when we’re yelling at each other, tearing each other down, shooting invectives at each other, and using the power of language to provoke and demean.
Yet we all want a solution. Even Jacques and Carter agree about that, though they never admit to agreement in their articles.
Jacques: “I am a mother and I do everything in my power to keep life-threatening risks to my kids down….” Carter: “I am supposed to do everything in my power to keep life-threatening risks to my kids down….”
Can we even tell which nearly identical line arises from which perspective on guns? No. But does either concerned mother say: we share common ground, so let’s start there and find a way to build a solution? No. Does either choose to remove the invective from her tone, or to acknowledge that it is acceptable and normative to have differing points of view about how to reach the same goal? No.
We’ve built The Project upon the conviction that, when parties across the divide of an issue engage in discourse rather than debate, they can stop tearing each other down and disproving their opponents’ statements, and instead spend their time and energy explaining their perspectives, facts and reasoning. While they do not and should not avoid the verity that they disagree, the process leads to discovering common ground on which to build and provides our audience with more information at greater depth, for a richer learning experience. That in turn fosters a more knowledgeable public on both positions, and models an approach to civil engagement that we hope will find its way into the audience’s ongoing interactions. More informed people engaging more productively just may lead to meaningful action that helps solve what seem to be our most intractable problems.
I’ve always gravitated toward discussion across disagreement. I learned so much from such dialogue at the dinner table when I was a child. I moved on to passionate discussions in my high school’s seniors’ lounge (a generous term for a small room with shabby seats where twelfth graders gathered between classes, and where the topic often was gun regulation back in the 1978-79 school year, driving home my concern that the public policy process as it stands hasn’t gotten us very far). From a college civil liberties seminar, I emerged with a close friend with whom I agreed on almost nothing because our delight in sharing and learning from our differing views followed us out of the classroom. A few weeks ago, I discussed an emotionally-charged policy issue with another woman who has been my close friend for more than 27 years and with whom I’ve often disagreed about such matters.
Walking away from such friendships will not solve our problems. It will silo us into like-minded cohorts and prevent us from building knowledge and understanding, helping others to do the same, and finding the common ground from which to move forward.
I told my adult daughter—also a member of the recent conversation and rattled by the realization that my friend holds the opinion she expressed—that it is enough for me to know that my friend ultimately cares about the world at large, harbors her views within that context, and is open to engaging in dialogue about it.
Which brings me to the barrier that threatens to undo my resolve: those with a vision so centered on the self that the world at large falls out of view. Is this not what provokes political rhetoric that gains popularity for inciting crowds to physically or verbally pummel those who disagree?
Before The Project’s first forum, in 2013, I read Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind. Subtitled Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, it became for me the requisite reading for work in civil discourse. Haight writes, “[E]ach individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth…or to produce good public policy….”
Can our society mature to the point of deliberately bringing groups together across ideologies, rather than hunkering down among the perceived safety of those who simply make us feel good about ourselves by reflecting our beliefs back on us?
Maybe we can. As I read Jacques’s and Carter’s feud de plume, I was reminded of moms during my parenting era of the 80s and 90s—the viciousness with which some of us defended our own decisions around working outside the home and attacked those who chose differently. There was such fear that accepting a different type of mothering as valid meant being a bad mother one’s self. As I observe a new generation of parents—I became a grandmother just over a year ago—mutual acceptance and support seems to carry the day. Tell me your labor story, they say to each other—with true interest and caring, and without judging or feeling threatened by the differing choices about pain medication, home or hospital deliveries, midwives or physicians, and the many other personal decisions. They are equally excited for the one who reaches her goal of staying home with their children as they are for the other who finally lands that great job and finds excellent child care, and they want to help each make it work. Maybe it’s just what I want to be seeing, but that’s how it appears to me as I look in on my daughter’s life.
This offers me hope that we can achieve problem-solving through cross-ideological community-building. And that The Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project can be one player in helping us to get there.
Please join us at the forum on April 27th. Admission is free and pre-registration is required at www.civildiscourseproject.org.
By Dina Wolfman Baker
Dina Wolfman Baker, a marketing and communication executive, serves as chair of the board of trustees of The Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project. She founded The Project at Beth Sholom Congregation in memory of her father, Bernard Wolfman, a renowned scholar of legal ethics and tax law and a champion of both civility and civil rights.